The Significance Of The Fire
Some years ago, our daughter, Kelly, was on a University of Notre Dame-sponsored service project, teaching second grade in very poor Irish village just outside of Dublin.
None of the people living in any of the public housing (which was adjacent to the school) had central heat. I asked Kelly if the people burned turf, romantic that I am. She shook her head and explained that the Irish didn't do that near the cities anymore because of air-pollution rules. They burned, instead, coal, but of the smokeless variety. Some improvement.
We were with her for a few days, and on one of those days, we hired Dermot Buckley, an excellent driver and chatty tour guide, to take us up into the majesty of the Wicklow Mountains. As we worked our way up the tiny roads, Dermot pointed out heather, which is so beautiful that it hurts your eyes, and near the heather he showed us the black earth, which is the turf that the Irish once used as their primary fuel.
The turf was cut away in great deep rows, and as we drove slowly by, I thought of the generations that labored in those bogs, cutting and stacking and setting it aside to dry. And the more I travel and read and learn of this life, the more I marvel at how far we've come. And at the same time, I think about what we've lost along the way. You see some of that loss is the result of the fine work that we do.
The Irish made fires that never went out. Did you know that? The fire in the hearth was for cooking and for warmth, and it smoldered for hundreds of years in some cases. Think of it. Generations tended that endless fire.
Dermot Buckley dropped us off at a little pub in a town near ancient Glendaloch. He spoke softly to the owner, who nodded and then greeted us with a smile and a gesture toward a dark-wood table, just next to the fire. There was a beautiful aroma in the air and I asked the owner what it was. "The turf," he said, pointing to the fire, and that's when I saw it for the very first time. We ate fine stew and drank Guinness stout and we watched the turf burn.
When the famine visited Ireland and many of the people, filled with despair, decided to leave, those who remained held American funerals for them because leaving was as good as being dead to those who remained. Few returned. And as a family left, the father of that family would take a shovel to the family's fire, which had burned continuously in that hearth for perhaps hundreds of years, and he would carry a bit of that fire to a neighbor's house where he would place it among their embers. It was the departing family's way of balancing the American funeral. Keep this until we return to our beloved home. The fire was life. It was the family's past, present, and future.
During the bad times, the Irish would say to each other, "There will be many warm shovels this year," and when I think of that expression I get very quiet in my soul. And I thought of this as I sipped the good Guinness and stared into the turf fire in the little pub near Glendaloch.
From time to time in the old days the shanachie would arrive in a village. He was the professional storyteller. He roamed the land and carried with him the history of the people. A family would welcome him, and after they shared a meal, they would sit by the hearth that held the fire that never went out, and the shanachie would tell tales that would make the old remember, and the young dream. The fire strung them together, the young and the old, the living and the dead, like the beads of a rosary.
My father's father came to New York City from Kilkenny in Ireland, and he got a Tammany Hall job working in one of the public baths. He kept the fire going in their big boiler. That was his job, and it was a good one. I never knew Jim Holohan because he died when my father was still a boy. My father, also gone now, remembered him as being somewhat crazy, and I have a photo of my grandfather over my desk. I look at him each day while I'm working and I wish I could ask him about the coal in the old boilers, and about the turf in the old country, and about the warm shovels.
My mother and father grew up in tenements in Manhattan where the only heat was a stove in the kitchen. My father told me that the family would sit around that stove for warmth in the bitter New York winters, and that this is where he learned many of the stories that he told me as I grew.
I was born to steam heat, the first generation of Holohans to experience central heating. We treat it now as if it has been around for a long time, but central heating really hasn't been. It's changed the way we live, though. There was no need for me to huddle around a stove with my mother and father and my brothers when I was a boy. We were warm in all the rooms of our apartment, and later in our house on Long Island. We huddled, instead, around the television set. The TV was our new shanachie, and the family members didn't talk to each other as much anymore. We knew more of the world because of the TV, of course, but I'm not sure we're better off.
I married Marianne and we bought a house with hot water heat. We now had zones, and as the children arrived and grew, we also had an electronic shanachie in each of the bedrooms. Middle-class luxury. Central heating had us seeing less of each other, and we had to work harder to find time to be together, and to share stories of the day. The fire, which had once been life and history, is now inside a box in the basement, and we think of it only when it's not there. And when it's not, we call for service.
We lost the fire along the way, and with it, we lost a part of ourselves. It no longer draws the family together. And there are no more warm shovels when a family moves. They just move.
A bit of hope, though. The Targets and Wall-Marts of America are selling those backyard fire pits, and more and more of them these days. You know why this is? It's because we know in our hearts that, good as it is, something is missing from central heating. We long for the turf fire, for the talk that goes with it, and for the life that the fire represents. It's primal.
And I think, especially of late, that we long for its beautiful simplicity.