Common Scents of Rural Life

Des KEEGAN writes: “Those of us born and reared in rural Ireland in the 40’s and 50’s and 60’s were privileged because we have a memory bank of smells and aromas and scents and associated images which our urbanised children will never experience. We had an intimate relationship with nature – with the land and plants and animals and people and our home-grown
food didn’t come packaged in plastic containers. For the fields were our playground and the crops and animals our economic lifeline and our neighbours our props and support, and our Top of the Pops was the song of the thrush and the blackbird, the cuckoo, skylark and robin.

Every house in rural Ireland had its own smell, recorded in the timbered ceilings and the wainscotted walls and preserved by the smoke of thousands of open fires. If it were possible to decipher these records, what a story they would tell, what a commentary it would be on the social and cultural history of every family through the generations …. The smell of home cured
bacon and boiled cabbage, of porridge and mashed potatoes, of smoked herrings on a Friday, of burning turf and spitting ash and whitethorn in the fireplace. They would relay the sounds of children laughing, and of sobbing mothers as yet another left for London or Birmingham or Boston, until eventually the sound of young people was no more, and the grandfather clock
tick-tocked in the corner. The walls and the ceilings would have recorded the waking of one generation as it moved on, making way for the next, until it too had to go. The smell of bottled stout and poitin would be there and lemonade for the children and Mick McQuaid plug tobacco being smoked in clay pipes, and the smell of wax candles competing with that of death. Keening
women and several decades of the rosary, the sorrowful mysteries and whispered praise for the departed, for we Irish never speak ill of the dead.

There would be sounds of merriment too. All night parties for returned Yanks, brothers or sisters or sons and daughters, welcome because they were relations but also because they brought a chance to rejoice and forget, if only for a week or two, that life betimes in rural Ireland could be hard. And, of course, the American dollars subsidised the whole affair. Step
dancing on the concrete or stone-flagged floor, the Walls of Limerick and the Siege of Ennis. By one side of the fire the accordion player sitting, his eyes-half closed to keep the smoke from a John Player or Sweet Afton or Woodbine at bay. In the other corner the fiddle player, his cap sideways on his head, and a glass of stout on the floor to keep him and his fingers lubricated. Songs with forty verses, sung with eyes fully closed, telling of rejected love or heroic deeds. And the rafters would have recorded the shouts of acclamation and indeed relief as the song finally came to an end, the last line not sung but spat out. The smell of frying bacon and eggs and
boxty would have provided an aromatic backdrop, for partying all night was a tough business.

Occasionally there would be a foreign smell, the smell of America, which was as near to America as some people ever got. The neighbours knew when a clothes parcel came from New York or Boston with flamboyant shirts for the children, a hat with a feather in it for the mother, and bright trousers or multicoloured Bermuda shorts for the father, unsuitable for public display
but ideal for bog or meadow. (Francie CLYNE, the local postman, hated parcels from America).

The musty smell of old photograph albums, of aunts and uncles and cousins, serious and formal, the husband sitting on a chair and his wife behind. There was a sadness too because some of these faces would never be seen again, the only record a browned and fading picture. The best clothes were stored away and preserved with camphor balls, only taken out, aired and worn
at weddings, funerals and when the station came to the house. Occasionally the camphor balls lost their potency and granny’s lace veil, woven from pure Irish linen, which she wore at her wedding, would be found to have disintegrated. …..

As the seasons went through their annual cycle, so too did the smells of nature change …

But the most evocative smell of all, newly baked bread, – perhaps because it represents that powerful alliance between nature and man, as it had done for thousands of years. The preparing of the soil in the springtime, the sowing of the seed and the nurturing of the seedling, nature providing moisture and heat, the crop ripening under an autumn sun, harvesting and milling, and
finally, the women in the kitchen. The perfect metaphor for life.”

Excerpts, “Leitrim Guardian” annual magazine (2004)

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