Being part of a family and having a sense of belonging that comes with the knowledge that I am loved is something that I can take for granted. I feel very fortunate. Living in modern times where people can be scattered across the globe, I realise that as a family we are not so different to many others who find themselves split up and divided.
One of my brothers lives in the sunny soaked Island of Tenerife with his wife, while another lives here at home in Dublin. My sister lives with her close extended family of children and grandchildren in Great Britain. As a result we don’t get together as a complete family too much these days and when we do I simply love it.
When some of us gather, our meetings have particular flavours and habits that have been replicated so often over time that I don’t think we really know how to do it any other way.
I suppose we learned this from my father.
As I have already written previously, my Dad was a lovely man. He loved his nights out dancing with his “burd” (my mam) in the days before they married, and for several years afterwards too. He enjoyed socialising in pubs in the city with drinking buddies but never drank at home. When he was present he was as attentive as a Dad could be. He checked homework, disciplined when necessary, and brought us on wonderful childhood adventures all around Dublin City on Sundays after Mass. We swam in the sea, we frequented museums, and we took long train rides to far flung places like Greystones and Malahide. Dublin was a lot smaller when I was growing up than it is now.
He loved his home and surprisingly for a man of his time he also loved cooking. He experimented with flavours and recipes all through his life, and I clearly remember going into school aged ten and my friends telling me that my breath was rank! Garlic had arrived into Ireland and into our house. The year was 1970. He was a trail blazer, and although we had never seen this mysterious bulbous vegetable before, we were game to try any meal that my Dad created as he was so much better at cooking than my mother was.
My maternal Gran and Granddad were regular visitors to our house and he loved them. He had lost his own parents very early in his life and he and his only brother had been reared by an aunt, so he loved the closeness that he shared with his “in laws”. My grandmother in particular loved and cherished him and they had a great relationship that was a joy to behold.
He loved when they came to visit and he would always cook and push out all the stops for them. He experimented with all types of foods and ingredients and served them up with the expectation that they would be well received. If they bombed he would just try harder the next time. They were easily pleased but loved the attention that he gave them, and relished tasting the exotic dishes that he concocted in his efforts to please them.
After each meal with my Grandparents, he always served Irish coffees. It didn’t matter what time the meal finished at or on what day. It could have been an ordinary meal on a Tuesday evening or it could have been the Christmas feast of many dishes served over hours. The meal always ended with the beautiful mix of coffee, Irish whiskey, sugar and cream. This particular drink is very Irish and was “invented” by a lounge steward in Shannon Airport many years ago when welcoming American visitors on a chilly cold night. This creative steward added Irish whiskey to the coffee being offered to the new visitors in the arrivals lounge and the legendary drink was born.
I watched my Dad prepare the warm glasses, add the ingredients, stir the mix and expertly pour the dairy cream over the back of a spoon so that it rested on the top of this beautiful dark liquid from the time I was about seven years of age. I think he allowed me to try making them at the age of ten. He was a great “get stuck in and see what you can do” kind of man. I soon became expert and assisted him frequently in the preparation of these after dinner drinks for his guests.
Imagine inviting children to mix alcoholic drinks these days…. It would be considered to be child abuse! It’s amazing how the modern landscape of parenting has changed. My Poor Dad- He would be ridiculed and castigated. Although I helped create them, I never tasted the elixir that was the finale of so many remembered meals until I was well into adulthood and I recreated them myself in my own home.
Tonight I was in my younger brother’s house in Dublin after he had prepared and served a wonderful meal for some of our family. My Mam was there, her sister, my son & daughter, her boyfriend, my husband and my sister in law. Following on in true O’Neill tradition my brother asked me to make the Irish coffees….. I asked him why he didn’t make them himself and his reply was “sure no one can make them like you can”. Praise indeed.
Each and every time I make Irish Coffees for my family I remember my Dad and how I learned at his hand. I remember his pleasure in cooking, and how he loved to please people rounding off each meal with this special tradition. This is such a part of how we enjoy being together as a family, and my Dads custom is something that will be continued as long as I can still keep on making them.
Destiny can lie in tradition and how it shapes our continuing lives.