Gazing into the flames

Dec 1st, 2010 | By | Category: Personal Columns

The glow from the hearth as the lights are switched out at the end of the evening stirs something deep in the subconscious.

For eight years, from 1988 until 1996, we had a little cottage in Oughterard, Co Galway.  It had oil-fired central heating, but radiators have not the same atmospheric quality as a turf fire and on those evenings when the heating was not needed, the fire sufficed.  Staying by myself in the cottage, late at night I would fetch a sleeping bag and sleep on the settee in front of the fire.  There was something deeply calming in slipping into a deep slumber as the last flames cast shadows into the corners of the room; an indefinable sense of security, of timelessness, of agelessness.

Perhaps the fire conjured up childhood memories of security.  The log fire in my grandparents’ farmhouse was lit most evenings when the work of the day was complete.  Wastage was something my grandmother would never contemplate, and by the late evening it would have been profligate to have put logs onto the fire when people were heading for bed, so the fire would be down to its last embers.  Those evenings seemed quiet; perhaps people talked, perhaps the black and white television was tuned into one of the three channels that comprised the viewing options for British audiences, but the only sound that remains in the memory as I stared into the fire was the steady click of my grandmother’s knitting needles.

Perhaps the memories were even earlier.  On severe winter nights when we were young and the house had no central heating, my mother would make up beds in the living room.  The fire would be banked up with coke for the night and the glow would last until morning.  Waking in the night, there was the reassurance of soft orange light.  Perhaps it is a sense of care and protection that is evoked by the last light of the fire decades later.

Perhaps there is something far deeper stirred by the flames, some inherited memory of fire as something essential, vital, powerful.  Staring into the flames has always evoked images, always provided the imagination with a rich vein of material; perhaps it has done so for centuries.  Maybe the glow connects with something deep in the human psyche, a line stretching back to cave dwellers watching flickering sat watching shadows on a wall; an experience unchanged through the millennia, warmth on human flesh and light in the eyes.  There is something profound lost with central heating.

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