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The Milk House: Tea-talk on the Irish countryside

Ryan Dennis for Progressive Dairyman Published on 18 July 2016

There’s a danger that lurks in the Irish countryside. A hazard waiting latent under the gray skies as one passes the seemingly quiet stone houses, covert with peril. Something that has victimized all those who live there. Something few are spared from.

Namely, it’s the risk of having this conversation:

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“Ah jez, John now. How ya keeping? Would you have a cup of tea?”

“Ah, I’m grand now, Mary. Cheers. I’m on the run, you know.”

“Would you not, now?”

“Ah jez, Mary, thanks a million, I got to go, you know.”

“Soft day, is it not?”

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“One for the high stools, Mary.”

“To be sure, to be sure. Would you not have a drop, John?”

“Ah, you’re a star, Mary. But I’m on the clock, you see. How’s the kids, so?”

“They’re down in Galway, probably taking mass from a guitar-playing priest, for all I know.”

“Some way we’ve gone, Mary.”

“Ah sure, come here now John. I’ll put the kettle on.”

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“Ah, go on, Mary. I’ll have a cup, sure.”

Half of the Irish have blue eyes. The other half mostly has brown eyes and, although I’ve never heard it confirmed, I suspect it’s because they’re filled to their ears with tea. In the countryside, in particular, it is difficult to pass someone without having a cup set in front of you. There’s only two main brands of Irish tea: Barry’s or Lyon’s.

Although a foreigner like myself cannot tell the difference, the Irish become adamant about it. Much like politics and religion, households tend to be a Barry’s household or a Lyon’s household and have been so for a long time. It is part of a rural culture that has stood for centuries.

Untouched by tourism and imbued in tradition, most of the Irish landscape maintains the idyllic qualities seen in movies since The Quiet Man. Old stone sheds have old tractors in them. Dogs sit on stone walls to watch people pass. Cars on the narrow roads have to slow down when they meet each other and then wave by lifting a finger off the steering wheel.

Perhaps the greatest emblem of rural Ireland is the bog. If you point out to an Irish person that there aren’t many trees on the island, they’ll quickly reply that the British took them all. Regardless, to heat their homes they usually burn turf (or peat, as it is called in North America).

The bogs, having collected plant and animal remains for thousands of years, are high in organic material, leading to dirt that burns with a distinctive and pleasant smell. Blocks are cut from the bog (now by machine) and left stacked and drying over the summer. Several times I helped Jonathan, a friend, draw turf to load into Nancy Mulligan’s shed. Nancy filled me with plenty of tea before and after the shed was full.

Once while drawing turf, I was driving Jonathan’s old Ford tractor back to Nancy Mulligan’s when a truck came from the other direction. Jonathan grabbed my elbow and pointed at the other shoulder of the road, more emphatically as the vehicle approached. Eventually, the truck pulled beside us and rolled down its window.

An old man leaned out the door, looking me over.

“He’s American,” Jonathan said.

That’s when I realized my mistake: I was driving on the wrong side of the road.

The old man nodded slowly and then eventually rolled up his window and drove away. Every once in a while, Jonathan is asked, “So what about that American fella, driving on the wrong side of the road?”

As with most things quaint, the Irish countryside is not without its faults. The younger generation, in particular, complains of its exclusionary nature. There is the often-cited trope of the family that moved in from the next town over, who are labeled “blow-ins” for several generations.

Rumors tend to be a valued currency, and some inhabitants can become preoccupied by how they are seen by other locals. I was once alone in a friend’s house when the smoke alarm went off. I went to the kitchen – to find flames leaping from the stove where the father had forgotten that he had put milk on it to warm for the lambs.

When the mother returned to the house, she put her hand over her mouth and turned to her husband. “Imagine, we had an American fella in the house and we burned him up. What would the neighbors think?”

Unfortunately, rural Ireland is disappearing. There has been a concerning exodus from the small towns into the cities. After the economic crises in 2008, employment became scarce, forcing many to seek opportunities in urban centers and abroad. Although the economy has begun to stabilize on the island, the population of the countryside has not.

As a result, many towns have lost services such as regional hospitals, police stations and banks. The increasing scale of agriculture has closed many small farms and sent those sons away for work. Corporations are fighting for bog rights to use the turf for large-scale energy production.

While the recent building of a motorway across the country has made Dublin easier to access, it has also brought with it the phenomenon of Dublin thieves coming to rural towns to steal tools and equipment in areas with now-scant police coverage. These quiet, picturesque villages are suddenly under threat.

There is much debate on what to do about rural Ireland, and it is hard to know what it will look like in the future. The younger generation is already different than their parents’, having gone from a country that burned their last witch fairly recently and only legalized divorce in 1995 to the first nation that ratified gay rights with a public referendum.

What this generation will do to protect the countryside where many of their parents still live – and that is still a repository for much of the Irish identity – is something they are working on. Regardless, whatever happens, one can be sure that it’s going to start with a cup of tea.  PD

Ryan Dennis is the son of a dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer. The Dennis family dairies and maintains a 100-plus cow herd of Holsteins and Shorthorns.

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