The woman lived a very austere life in a little village in the North. Widowed early, she had lived on very limited means, and could have told you where each thing in the room had been bought, and how much she had paid. The little cottage was always immaculate and the tea was always in china cups.
Sometimes the conversation became repetitive, she only ventured out when necessary and the television was a source for information, not entertainment. Perhaps she was conscious that there was never much to say that had not been said before, for one day she declared, ‘I don’t ceili’.
I was taken aback at the comment. My understanding of ‘ceili’ was that it was a dance. In my mind it was associated with lively music, glasses of stout and much tobacco. This was a lady who was ‘good living’, (in the Ulster Protestant sense of that term!). I could not imagine anything more unlikely than this wee woman being in a smoke-filled room where the band were beating out a raucous version of ‘Finnegan’s Wake‘.
It seemed such an odd comment, that I went away and looked up the word. ‘Ceili’ in its original sense meant to visit someone, to gather in a house; it did not originally have all the connotations with which I had associated it.
The woman was saying that she didn’t call with her neighbours, she didn’t spend evenings in story-telling and conversation.
How many more people have become like her? Ireland was once a great country for the ‘craic’. In parts of the North your whole quality of life could be summed up in response to the question, ‘How’s the craic?’
Now what do we do? We have Facebook and Twitter and texting and email and a string of other things. What is happening to us? Facebook friends may live only a couple of hundred yards away; they may live in the same house. We have a telephone account that gives us free calls to the whole of the island of Ireland. We have a Skype phone that will connect us to anywhere in the world for a matter of cents. But whatever happened to calling and sitting at the fireside and talking?
A friend from the past called this evening. We sat on the settees and drank tea and talked and laughed. It was like a moment from a former life, a life in which people spent time together.
This electronic stuff is fine, but it’s not a real social network, no matter what the Facebook publicity says. Real social networks involve sitting with real people and drinking real tea or glasses of real stout. Perhaps the wee woman is not alone, perhaps we have become a nation that will no longer really ceili.