Staring into the flames

Apr 9th, 2011 | By | Category: Personal Columns

There was concern about the elderly bachelor living alone up a lane on the mountainside.  “He has a couch in the kitchen in front of the fire and there are some nights I think he sleeps on the couch instead of going to his bed”.

It didn’t seem such a strange thing to be doing.  I didn’t like to respond that perhaps it wasn’t such an odd thing to do; that perhaps I might do the same thing myself if I were living in a lonely old house at the end of a boreen.For a few years, we had a cottage in Co Galway, at Oughterard on the edge of Connemara.  A few times, I would have been there by myself.  Lighting the turf fire in the evening, I would have sat at the fireside and stared at the flames.  A couple of times, I would have brought my sleeping bag to the settee in front of the fire.  There seemed comfort and reassurance in the glowing embers; moments of timelessness.

Flames seem to transform a room in a way that electric light can never achieve; the moments of light and darkness; the different intensity of illumination.  There is a boundless supply for the imagination; depths of colour and momentary shapes that disappear as fast as they form.

Perhaps there is some deep childhood memory of watching the fire flickering on cold winter’s night, its light creating a security, a safety against the elements.

Is there something much deeper, though? Does staring into the flames somehow connect us with the countless generations who have gone before us?  Sitting at a fireside in a remote spot in Ireland in 2011, is there a connection with those who have sat at firesides down through the centuries?

Can the discreet, unassuming flicker of a 21st Century fireplace link us with those for whom fire meant survival?  If they experienced such moments of contemplation, what things did they see in the flames?  Those who sat at flaming piles of logs in the enclosures of ancient Ireland, those who sat staring at smouldering embers of turf a century and more ago, did the fireside create some deep sense of security?

Perhaps the bachelor in his lonely farmhouse senses a loss of something.  For how many more years will there be fires to burn? As the carbon fuel age ends and something else takes its place, will another link with our forebears be lost?

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