There was a strike by Immigration Officers in London Heathrow where I changed planes at 7 a.m. after an eight hour flight from Dulles. We were warned before we left Washington to expect two hours wait at least for luggage and processing. Besides my clothes and gifts I packed some philosophical resignation, determined to take a missed connection in my stride. An overnight hotel room and a standby flight to Shannon might ensue. With Kindle, iPad, pills and spare undies in my carry-on bag, I was ready for anything.
I’d requested wheelchair assistance because I remembered at least half a mile walk stretched between terminals. At first I felt like a giant baby in a pushchair, tense with embarrassment, then I sent a message to my muscles to relax – even limp, I’d get there. Fifty years ago I was a sashaying ground hostess at Heathrow, and I never envisaged this.
I had not reckoned on VIP passage through Immigration and Security, bypassing all queues, even being frisked sitting down by a friendly young Irish woman who responded warmly when I replied ‘I’m visiting my son who lives in Tipperary.’ She was from nearby and asked if I knew her home town as she patted me down. The Irish readily engage in such warm exchanges.
Passing effortlessly through every barrier, pushed cheerfully by a young Pakistani who greeted his colleagues in passing in their language, I thought any minute he might call me ‘aunty’.
I arrived at the Aer Lingus waiting area relaxed and early, and ate one of my homemade sandwiches. Deprived in Dulles of my water bottle I was reluctant to buy another, a few yards past security. Airport water costs more than wine.
On the second flight, only an hour to Shannon, I fell asleep three times, woken by repeated efforts to sell me something. Asked what I’d like to drink I answered ‘Orange juice please’ and the hostess said, ‘How would you like to pay for that?’ I said ‘I haven’t got any money, it’s in the locker,’ pointing to an overhead bin three seats away, so she gave it to me. Having paid $860 for my ticket I was not overwhelmed by their generosity, but I thanked her anyway.
My son Patrick and his ten year old Harry were waiting for me with hugs at Shannon, and the day was bright. The journey had taken 17 hours. I was tired. It’s a long way to Tipperary.
On Sunday morning we were all up and dressed in our best. The Bishop had come to confirm the girls on Saturday and the boys on Sunday – about forty each day. Luke was too nervous to eat breakfast. We didn’t appreciate that he was to read part of the lesson in a large church packed with hundreds of parishioners, and he is modest. He did it well.
Parishioners all wore their best togs, sober-suited or smartly dressed in frocks, and the Dight family with parents, three other children and myself secured a pew with a view. I photographed the handsome stained glass windows. It’s a pretty church. Two young teenage girls arrived late and sat a couple of rows in front of us One who looked about twelve wore a long pink evening dress, perhaps a bridesmaid’s gown, with high heels encrusted with rhinestones, dangling earrings and a bejeweled hair comb on the back of her long hair, with makeup. The older girl, certainly not more than 14, wore a tight body-hugging pleated blue dress that barely covered her bum, with long bare legs and teetering heels, also rhinestoned. Her lips were caked with layers of scarlet lipstick and her rouge and eyeshadow were garish. She looked as if she’d come straight from the whorehouse.
OMG I thought, if her mother catches her wearing that in church she’ll be locked up on bread and water for a month. I wondered where she had obtained such outrageous clothes, and where she had changed, between home and church.
A minute later three 30-something women arrived and sat in the pew in front of them. The family resemblance was striking. The mother looked like a madam gone to seed. Her tight evening dress revealed her bulges. She and her sister had thin straps and long gowns in scarlet and yellow, and the third woman wore a bright pink top and matching hot pants, with more rhinestones. There were two young boys who managed to look raffish even without makeup. Their younger sister, about 5, wore a headband with a huge artificial rose on top and a long satin dress. I was highly entertained, now that I realized the girl was not in trouble. It seemed straight out of an Irish novel. I imagined the tut-tutting in the congregation’s minds, but there were a lot of straight faces. Those brazen faces were intimidating. Every time the mother opened her phone to snap a picture of her son in the Confirmation group, it played a little jingle. I winced, but she didn’t.
Harry (10) beside me was looking at this group with disapproval I smiled at him and whispered ‘It’s hilarious,’ and he frowned darkly, ‘They shouldn’t be chewing gum in church.’ Dazzled by their apparel I hadn’t even noticed, but sure enough the three women chewed relentlessly throughout, with open mouths.
It was a nice service. As a former Roman Catholic I found the litany pleasantly familiar. It was in English but I remembered it in Latin. The bishop told them that they are now young adults and can make their own decisions, and they should reflect and make good ones. His message was kind and affirming. There was a tangible air of decorum.
When it was time to approach the altar, each boy was accompanied by his godparent with protective arm on shoulder. The woman supporting the son of our colorful neighbors wore a skimpy top with bare tanned midriff, shorts and thigh length high heeled boots. The Bishop didn’t turn a hair.
Luke was accompanied by his elegant godmother, Kate’s friend Mary. We took pictures of them in the windy churchyard.
Back at the house a bouncy castle awaited the children. There are forty O’Connor cousins from my daughter- in- law Kate and her ten brothers and one sister, but some of them are now adult and only nineteen were there today. They remembered me trying to step on the bouncy castle they had four years ago for Luke’s First Communion party, because I yearned to slide. It is higher than the house and amorphous, impossible to mount once you are past your teens; I said ‘I want a photo of me queuing to go on the bouncy castle for the Dight Times’ (family newsletter) and Sam (8) said ‘Granny, you don’t have to queue, you just run at it.’
The day before Sam had asked me ‘Granny, if it’s not impolite to ask, do you play games with your American children?’ I said ‘We play with jigsaw puzzles, reading, coloring, shops… what did you have in mind? ‘Do you play football?’ he asked hopefully. I laughed. I can barely walk to the shops. Then his sister Emer (14) and brothers, Harry and Luke, all mimed a sketch they had seen on TV, in the Father Ted comedy series, of seventy year olds trying to score goals in feeble slow motion, dribbling balls that neve quite reached the net. Laughter is the best medicine.
Kate’s brother Luke is deputy head teacher at the Senior girls’ school. I mentioned the women in evening dresses and said ‘At least they go to church.’ Luke said seriously, ‘We know them well. They are travelers. We do our best to keep them in school but they always drop out early. They are devout Catholics. Not very reflective you know, but keen. They marry the children off at sixteen and have large families. They are strict with their children, keeping the boys and girls apart until then, and they’ll say to them fiercely, ‘Now say your fookin’ prayers.’
Ireland is unique and wonderful. You can’t make it up.
Kate told me later that for gypsy girls their First Communion is as important as a wedding They arrive in a horse drawn carriage, sometimes shaped like a pumpkin, wearing long elaborate white satin dresses in many tiers, symbolizing their wealth On one occasion Kate saw four girls thus attired and the competition between families was fierce. Even then they managed to turn up routinely late. One girl wore a tiara and at the moment when she received the communion host, her father operated a remote control to turn on the tiara’s flashing lights.
The thing I like best about the Catholic Church is that they are all-inclusive.
Sam made his First Communion the following Sunday. My son Peter and Angela came from England and this time ten of the twelve O’Connor siblings were there. For years Sam has been watching the others go up to the altar with envy. I asked him ‘Are you looking forward to your turn next Sunday?’ and he said ‘Oh yes, I can’t wait to taste The Bread.’
When his Mother Kate asked him later, ‘What are you looking forward to most next Sunday, Sam?’ he answered without hesitation, ‘The Banana Cream Pie.’
Kate boiled an entire ham for each party, and roasted a whole fillet of beef, or chicken, with many delicious salads and desserts. When the guests had gone home after these fabulous feasts, many pots of tea, bursts of song from this musical family and animated conversation, children draped themselves over the furniture, exhausted by the bouncy castle. My two sons Patrick (41) and Peter (49) played vigorously on the slide, tipping the children down and being pulled down in their turn. I video’d them on my iPad.
During the week Kate’s brother Luke invited me to talk to Emer’s class about writing. I told them about my recently published memoir, Plate Spinner, and how to write themes as they occurred to them, rearranging them later; how to compile newsletters, publish collections of jokes, poems, recipes or short stories, and about the mechanics of self publishing. They listened politely in silence. Afterwards Emer said the girls thought I was funny, and the teacher said ‘She must be the coolest Granny.’ Luke took us out to lunch afterwards: local smoked salmon and fresh homemade salads. Irish restaurant food is outstanding.
Another day Luke’s wife Nora drove me about a hundred miles around the Tipperary countryside, admiring the views, visiting an ancient Abbey and Cashel Castle, seat of Ancient Irish kings. We had a gourmet lunch near the Castle, the restaurant packed with animated diners and many decibels. The Castle is built on a hilltop surrounded by emerald green scenery, scattered fine and modest houses. Bluebells, primroses and even daffodils grew wild in the hedgerows. Later in the year the fuschia hedges will bloom all over Ireland.
They took me to the pub one evening where there were 12 musicians playing in the bar and an old fellow named Joe serenaded me personally with ‘I have often walked down this street before.’ Patrick bought him a pint. There was voluble conversation. Sheets of paper were taped loosely over the strip light, customers crowded around small tables full of beer bottles and glasses. Two guys worked busily behind a wooden bar with a drawer, no till, into which they tossed the money. A woman recently moved back to Nenagh after forty years abroad and the pub owner said to her, ‘You’ll see a lot of changes, then?’ and she answered, ‘Not really.’
Another time I went to the pub to watch the All Ireland Rugby Final in the bar with half a dozen of Kate’s brothers. Belfast was playing Leinster. The people in the bar were not as excited as I was by this exhilarating match. I had supposed that they would support Leinster as a southern Irish county but Kate’s brother said ‘No, Leinster are a snooty team. We don’t want them to win.’ But they did, convincingly.
On the United Airlines flight home I had money in my pocket to buy a little bottle of white wine with my dinner, but they only take credit cards. ‘Never mind,’ said the steward, giving me the wine, ‘I’ll come back later.’ But he didn’t.
I hope I’m fit to go again next year. There is nothing like an Irish welcome, and I haven’t felt this good since I holidayed with the family two years ago, on the Dingle Peninsula.