Dirty Bread, Thin Porridge and Tea

At Home Abroad: Dirty Bread, Thin Porridge and Tea 1
By Regina Costello

Emily Brontë’s famous Wuthering Heights was required reading when I attended secondary school.  It is a book that I still grab from the bookcase, and continue to devour. 

Snippets from the story come to mind during my first walk of these November days with my beloved wheaten terrier, Ashy.  We walk alone and uninterrupted in the damp, dark crisp mornings, with leaves crackling underfoot at the break of day.  Dawn slowly emerges, and the low-lying clouds create a gently moving mist hiding evidence of the civilization that surrounds us. 

I can barely make out the trees, never mind the homes I pass.  I imagine myself walking across a moor and enjoy the silence, the calm and the solitude of it all.  A field, called The Acre on my grandfather’s farm, is the moor of my mind that I roam. 

Many aspects of life depicted in this story remind me of the life and times of generations gone by as I walk.  The barrenness, misery and simplicity of life evidenced in the book provide a path for my imagination to conjure up aspects of daily lives of my grandparents, and to a certain point, perhaps my parents too. 

Reginas House

Co Mayo and Co Roscommon Roots
The houses of both sets of my grandparents still stand today, one outside Claremorris, County Mayo, and one in Castlerea, County Roscommon.  Both houses now abandoned, come alive in photographs and stories that my parents shared of their upbringing, and my own memories of visits.  

Evidence of a harsh life is abundant.  No central heating.  No indoor plumbing.  No material or food luxuries.  The bare necessities of life were provided without sundries.  Just about.  The daily toll of backbreaking farm work and the running of households was carried out under cold and wet conditions all year round.  A daylong dampness likely oozed through cotton and gaberdine that probably made one cold to the bone and vulnerable to all kinds of sickness. 2

Standard homes of a bustling kitchen with a massive hearth, one bedroom and a loft were not conducive to much comfort.  “Narrow windows deeply set allow for little sunlight” and “high backed primitive chairs” in Wuthering Heights could be said of Irish homes in times gone by.  “Dirty bread, thin porridge and tea” supplemented other meals of boiled vegetables and meats. 

Fierce Winds
Many Irish homes built and dotted across the landscape can be described as “wuthering” –locations surrounded by fierce winds and wild stormy weather3.  While the other main house in the novel, Thrushcross Grange, is the complete opposite of Wuthering Heights, ample evidence suggests that the Wuthering Heights abode is a closer depiction of the typical Irish homestead.  

Fast forward to modern living today, I look at my twin teens in wonderment.  I consider how vastly different their lives are to those of their grand and great-grand parents.  And along my walks, I often wonder which is better.  A social media posting in March by Emma Dalmayne referenced life today convenienced so much by technology unfortunately comes with a price: 
“With all the things that you have, the opportunities, the technology,
I’d like to think it [life] could be a world of pleasure, but I fear instead|
it is a world of pressure; pressure to be the perfect mother, the perfect wife,
the perfect friend, pressure to be successful, a boss, a leader.
If I had my time again, I wouldn’t create a to do list, I’d create a “don’t do” list.|
I’d give myself the time to indulge in the things I now understand to be the most
important…. the most important word is being.  Being lost in the moment,
being at peace with the world, being kinder to myself, being kinder to others.
If I were a young woman now, I would spend more time being.”

My walks with Ash allow me to contemplate life.  Meandering on my moor these foggy mornings, thinking of my ancestors’ harsh existence bring questions to mind about which lifestyle is better.  Having too little is miserable.  Having too much can also bring misery.  A different type of misery. 

I try and share with Neil and Fiona, snippets of the dirty bread, thin porridge and tea lifestyle of their grandparents.  I fear my words fall on deaf ears.  Their lives are filled with pressure from all sides, but I hope I can instill in them the need to find the moment, and stay in it. 

Immigrants probably dwell too much upon family and times gone by, and long for children to be interested in where and what they came from.  Perhaps it may be more beneficial to visit the moor of the past with our kids, but more important, to park in the moment and take pleasure in simply being.  The contemplative life.  At home abroad. 

Sources referenced:    Wuthering Heights, 1 **www.medicalnewstoday, 2 3
*Regina is a graduate of History and Philosophy from the National University of Ireland, Galway and a post graduate of Library and Information Studies from the National University of Ireland, Dublin.  She is the former Assistant Librarian of the Economic and Social Research Institute, Dublin; former Curator of Irish American Archives of the Cleveland History Center; former Executive Director of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument Commission and former Executive Director of the Northern Ohio Rose Centre.  She serves on the Board of Directors of the Mayo Society of Greater Cleveland.  She can be reached at [email protected].

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