The fiery fo­cal point of an Ir­ish fam­ily home

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Puzzles - Fiona O’Con­nell

WHEN it comes to the best time to start light­ing a fire af­ter sum­mer, there seems to be two kinds of coun­try folk: those who say we are only half­way through Septem­ber (im­ply­ing that we are a long way yet from hug­ging the hearth), and there’s the other lot who, like closet cig­a­rette smok­ers, use any dip in tem­per­a­tures all year round as an ex­cuse to stoke things up.

I be­long to the sec­ond camp, for a real fire is surely the cosiest com­pen­sa­tion for dreary days and damp weather. The smell of turf in the air is one of the things that I al­ways loved about life be­yond the iron­i­cally named ‘Big Smoke’.

The smell of turf used to hit my nose as soon as I stepped off the bus, back when I vis­ited this coun­try town be­fore de­cid­ing to up sticks and move here al­to­gether. Maybe it re­minds me of school­day sum­mers in the Con­nemara Gaeltacht, where the air seemed per­ma­nently scented with that sweet aroma.

Of course, not ev­ery­one in the coun­try favours a real fire. Many don’t want the has­sle of lug­ging in logs or sacks of coal, not to men­tion the daily chore of clean­ing out the ashes. Mak­ing a fire is un­doubt­edly more de­mand­ing than flick­ing a switch for in­stant heat.

Yet the hearth was once the hub of the Ir­ish home. And de­spite these tech­no­log­i­cal times, a real fire still has a hyp­notic hold.

Maybe that’s be­cause the ori­gin of the word ‘fo­cus’ comes from a hearth or fire­place in the orig­i­nal Latin. So it’s no won­der that the hearth was where the fam­ily not only worked but also so­cialised, gath­er­ing there in the evenings to dis­cuss the day’s news or swap songs and sto­ries. Ev­ery­one shifted up to ac­com­mo­date neigh­bours and friends who dropped by, the cir­cle ef­fort­lessly ex­pand­ing.

So imag­ine the con­fu­sion for Ir­ish folk who trav­elled to for­eign shores, where they found the ta­bles turned — quite lit­er­ally. For while we tra­di­tion­ally viewed the ta­ble as a place of em­ploy­ment (whether to eat or for some other ac­tiv­ity) many Euro­pean coun­tries con­sid­ered the ta­ble to be the so­cial cen­tre. Pity poor 18th-cen­tury Paddy im­pris­oned in his chair, try­ing to be po­lite by not glanc­ing long­ingly at the fire go­ing to waste in the back­ground.

At least he could con­sole him­self with the knowl­edge that a fire would still be burn­ing when he got home. For a fire was never al­lowed go out, be­ing kept alive un­der the ashes to be re­vived first thing in the morn­ing. Mak­ing all the more poignant a story about an old lady who moved into a new-build. For de­spite its con­ve­niences and com­forts, she nev­er­the­less lamented that the fire, which had burned for 330 years in her old home­stead, was now ex­tin­guished for­ever.

The fas­ci­na­tion that I feel for a real fire means I’ve never fully warmed to so­phis­ti­cated heat­ing sys­tems. De­spite the fab­u­lous fakes that give the il­lu­sion with­out the ef­fort, dirt or dan­ger, these place­bos leave me cold.

For if home is where the heart is, what good is a house that lacks a hearth?

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