Finding solace for the weary soul

Fr Jason Murphy's enlightening column.

Babs Rudden’s house was an odious place for ceilidhers; she lived down a narrow road in the townland of Drumcor up near the county line between the villages of Redhills and Scotshouse. Entering into her home, it was as if time had stood still with her old dresser adorned with dusty cups, the odd one chipped and cracked, the table ’neath the window with a radio tuned constantly to Northern Sound to hear of the deaths and the news and Joe Finnegan’s sermon for the day.

The sticks were all gathered in the corner next to the Smith and Wellstead enamelled range, beneath the stairs that led to the loft above. Chairs lined the walls to make sure there was a place for all who called to find rest for their weary soul. Some had particular nights for calling, some called most nights but there was never a night but two or three were gathered in that kitchen.

No need to wipe the boots or take off the shoes, all were welcomed in, mucky souls and all. For the most part they were men from about the country who gathered, Seamus Brides from Treehoo and Brian Smith from Brockley, Pat Reilly from Drumcoondra and Brian McCarron from across the windy gap. Johnny Browne came all the way from Newtown for he knew it was here that he would have the craic. Paddy Donohoe from Scotshouse told all of the happenings in Connolly’s Pub and the odd row that might erupt between two young lads with a few too many on them. Benny Reilly from Mullaghlougher would land at 10 mile an hour in the lane on his Davy Browne and Big McSherry from over Lisboduff was apt to make the tea.

Babs cut the soda cake between her chest and her oxter with a bone handled carving knife and each got their slice of bread and lashings of jam and butter and a glass of something to wash it down and there she sat on a chair well used and worn from all the years in which she held court and heard of the happenings from Antiduff to Killeevan and from every house all back the road.

It was a place where men could gather in and talk on the day’s events and the ups and downs of farming life; bad weather, a cow dying, lack of fodder all were thrown into the mix and talked out fornent the light of the range. Unbeknownst to each that gathered, there was an unburdening, a lightening of the load in the company of friends all gathered in Bab’s kitchen, as she lay back on the chair and listened, only interrupting by way of clarification.

They were continuing a tradition that had been long held, night after night in this house for a hundred years and more where people gathered in and talked in the dark of the winter evenings, people going from house-to-house each night of the week, ceilidhing. It was part of the fabric of country life and indeed life in the towns; the company of each other and the storytelling helped people get through the darkest time of year.

They heard stories of hardship and how people in times past overed the challenges they faced, the economic war, cattle dying in the fields, hunger, famine and they learned by osmosis that they too would over what seemed like a crisis that came their way. Young people whose homes were visited by ceilidhers of a night learned the art of conversation, of storytelling, the art of listening attentively when people spoke.

With the demise of ceilidhing and the visiting of houses as a social ritual, part of the social structures that supported people in their communities was lost, reinforced by rigid laws, which prevented bachelors and men living alone going into town on their Massey 135 for a pint or two and a chat at the end of a day.

In a time when we never more needed the likes of Babs’ kitchen to give solace to the weary soul, we live in a society where such informal gatherings are becoming rarer and rarer, in a world where the pressures of life are increasing more and more, where we live a frenetic lifestyle of running here and there, travelling long journeys to work far from the place where we live, up in the dark, home in the dark, merely existing from Monday to Friday, wishing our lives away from one Bank holiday to the next, texting, whatsapping, looking into screens, TVs, iPads, iPhones, communication becoming less and less, the art of conversation dying.

The informal spaces to unburden, to talk and to be heard are like hens' teeth and yet the need for such welcoming spaces is increasing more and more. In a time when young people need to be heard in the ordinary and everyday of their lives, let them not be found wanting for a safe haven, a warm kitchen, a chair by the fire where they will find rest and solace for their weary souls.