Monday, 15 April 2013

Fireplaces of Ireland - how I have loved you!

I’m sitting here waiting for the chimney sweep. With all my work inside this house, I’m suitably paranoid about fire, and although everything that can be is backed up online, I’ve a huge paper archive of newspaper clippings and novels and notebooks and gordknowswot that’s irreplaceable.

Greater than my fear of fire is my love of it, and the fireplaces of the West of Ireland have been a source of comfort and joy to me ever since I moved here.

Back in England we relied on mains natural gas, with old gas fires clicking up one, two or three bars of glowing porcelain heat. They were reliable and efficient, yet nothing more than functional.

A real fire glowing in the hearth offers so much more. Yes, I know that burning fossil fuels is wrecking the environment and that it’s terribly wasteful to have all that heat disappearing up the chimney, but I love a fire. These days everyone is getting stoves and ranges that run for a month on a single organic crushed leaf mould briquette, but staring at a lump of black metal just doesn’t do it for me.

My first house in Ireland was a tiny terraced cottage just off the Prom in Salthill. With low ceilings and a cupboard for a kitchen, myself and the other two fully-grown Englishmen who lived there made the house seem even more minuscule than it was, but of an evening we’d crowd around the fireplace, seeking warmth.

Sadly, we rarely found it, because we were new to the country and were buying sodden turf in bags from a local who should’ve known better. I can see the temptation in taking money from ignorant foreigners, but we were trying to live as you do, and you wouldn’t let us.

Instead we three alpha males argued and postured like bolshy bull elephants, each insisting that they alone knew how to build a ruddy fire, dammit.

For a while after that I lived in a flat with no fireplace, and boy did I miss it. Although it was a lovely modern place with spanky bells and fancy whistles, microwave and washing machine, it felt anodyne and cold. Where was I living? Anywhere. That flat could have been in any First World country, and no matter how warm it was, it left me cold.

Then I moved out to west Connemara, where I lived alone with my thoughts and a reek of turf outside. Through a long cold winter I felt safe each time I cast a glance upon that turf, knowing that when hurricane force winds blew off the Atlantic and the power was cut off, I’d be safe as houses by my fire.

As if to repair the ill-will visited upon me by that seller of damp turf, my landlord the farmer’s son did me a great favour. After the tractor had come and dropped off a fully-loaded high-sided trailer of turf in front of my house, (£70 is cost, back in 1994!) I’d tried to stack it in the way I’d seen all over Connemara. 

How difficult could it be?

A half hour into the job, with my back aching and an unstable pile of turves wobbling in the breeze, I decided that enough was enough. Off to the pub I went, to ease that fearful dryness at the back of my throat. Evidently, peat has some kind of thirst-inducing dust, that only Guinness and whiskey can quench.

Wandering home a few hours later I was greeted by a wondrous sight. The whole messy pile had been perfectly formed into a traditional reek. With the alcohol running around my excited veins, I sang and drunkenly improvised a joyous little Atheist-Jewish-Pantheist-English jig, in honour of the Little People of the West of Ireland, who had clearly taken pity on me and performed their magic.

Then my landlord tapped me on the shoulder and said the bother and himself had stacked my turf. He hoped I didn’t mind? Mind? Having thanked him profusely for his generosity of spirit I also gave thanks that my welfare wasn’t quite as wholly dependent on the Fairies as I imagined.

Years later, when I lived in the Claddagh, my fireplaces became a source of stress. I was the manager of a charity shop in Galway at the time, so I didn’t get home ‘til nearly 7, by which time my two rooms were colder than a penguin’s privates. Exhausted, I’d go from room to room, making up fires and cooking dinner, hoping that by the time I made it to bed my home might have defrosted.

There’s a certain level of cold at which it’s impossible to tell if your bedclothes are damp or just freezing. No thanks.

But what a gentle and rare pleasure it was to fall asleep to the waving orange glow and shadows that the fire cast upon my bedroom walls.

The fireplace in my next house was a revelation. A beautiful old farmhouse in north Mayo, my landlord’s father had built a back boiler into the system, and I was in bliss. A London lad like me had never encountered such a piece of genius, and to this day I do not know how or why it is not illegal to build a fireplace into a new house without a back boiler affixed.

With a good dollop of coal ablaze, the pipes above the flames rumbled and mumbled and eventually boiled, leaving me with a cosy fire, a boiling hot tank of water and radiators pumping off the scale.

Sometimes of an evening, I love to turn off the TV, pour myself a small glass of Jameson and sit with a challenging crossword, the fire rising and falling in response to the wind outside. There is a profound peace and a primal comfort to be found in those flames. Safe and warm, watching the incandescence dance around the hearth, just as my thoughts tumble around my brain.


Paz said...

I love my little stanley enamel stove with backboiler, no wonder the Irish expression for 'theres noplace like home' is "Níl aon tinteán mar do thinteán féin" (kneel ean chinthawn mor do chinthawn feign) literally translates as 'theres no fireplace like your own fireplace'

Charlie Adley said...

Lovely - thanks Paz! Good to have your excellent photography back in the public domain too! Thanks for that!