Christopher Fitz-Simon’s childhood memoir “Eleven Houses” concludes in Co Clare in the late 1940s, the Church of Ireland he encounters there is a church that was then almost extinct, where the clergy were impoverished, but where there was a joy and an eccentricity that were marks of humility and, perhaps, signs of grace. Fitz-Simon’s description is written with warmth and love:
In spite of my mother’s protestations that we had ‘no neighbours’, a friendly elderly couple lived ten miles away at Spanish Point, the Reverend and Mrs Elliott. Canon Elliott was nominally our clergyman, for he had responsibility for all the Church of Ireland parishes of north-west Clare – it was assumed that there were no Presbyterians living in the county. As it happened, we never went to any service as a matter of religious duty, but if we had some reason to be in the neighbourhood of one of Canon Elliott’s churches on a Sunday morning it was natural that we would wish to swell his congregation. He had only two parishioners in Spanish Point, Captain Fitzmaurice, who ran the Strand Hotel, and a Mrs White, who sometimes came to church and sometimes did not, depending upon the disposition of her cairn terrier, Lucy, who was blind; at Ennistymon the only Protestant was the English manager of the Falls Hotel; and Kilfenora had long ago become nothing more than a destination for archaeologists, following the discovery by a Russian immigrée of a twelfth-century high cross lying full-length in a bed of nettles. During the summer Canon Elliott could expect to find a few church-goers taking their holidays in Lahinch – for the golf – but he felt they were really only attending through a sense of loyalty . . .
. . . we called on the Elliotts, as I had been advised to do. Canon Elliott opened the front door of the lodge, which served as a rectory, and looked at us with his head on one side, his eyes going twinkle-twinkle and his nose sniffle-snuffle, quite like the hedgehog in Beatrix Potter’s story. Peggy said we were just ‘looking in, en passcmt, so to speak’ and that she hoped to see more of him when she returned on her summer holidays.
‘You must come crabbingl’ said the canon.
‘The juveniles will love that,’ said Peggy. ‘I’m sure they’ll look forward to it.’
‘Oh, but now! just wait for two minutes while I sort out my tackle!’
He scampered down the passage and was heard opening and closing cupboard doors while explaining excitedly what was
going on to an invisible other person . . .
. . . A grey-haired lady in a tweed coat and skirt made a bustling entrance with the words ‘Hello there, I must get the kettle – I have a kitchen on the rocks opposite Mutton Island. And I’d better get some brown pepper.’
Surely, we thought, she isn’t going to cook crabs in a tea-kettle and sprinkle them with pepper? But ‘pepper’ turned
out to be her way of saying ‘paper’ and she returned with sheets of it as well as several baskets, some crockery and an armful of sombre items of clothing. It was as if everything had been arranged in advance. The Elliotts stepped into the Maidenhall car as if it were a taxi thoughtfully ordered earlier, the canon directing Peggy across Stackpoles’s bridge and down a long lane on to the promontory where, he told us, no fewer than three vessels of the Spanish Armada had perished in 1588.
‘My kitchen’s over there,’ said Mrs Elliott, indicating a nook in the cliff face where indeed there were the remnants of charred twigs. In no time she had lit a fire of heather and driftwood. Deftly balancing the kettle on three large black stones, she took some striped mugs, a packet of Lipton’s tea and a medicine bottle containing milk out of a basket. Meanwhile, the canon had retired modestly into a crevice, presumably to change into his swimming togs. (‘ “Rock of ages, cleft for me”,’ said Peggy, under her breath.) When he emerged he was still clad in a clerical suit – but an older one, as he explained: ‘I keep it for crabbing.’ Barefoot, he padded over the rocks to where the water was deep and dark – not a day to go swimming at all – and we felt slightly ashamed that we were not offering to dive in with him. The canon clambered down the rockface, never wincing when lashed by arrogant waves. Suddenly he disappeared beneath the Atlantic foam.
We waited. Gulls screamed. There was not a sign. Surely he couldn’t be holding his breath this long? ‘I think your husband must be drowning!’ observed Peggy, with an exaggerated laugh, but Mrs Elliott, raking the embers of her al-fresco kitchen, smiled and drew our attention to a shiny black figure clambering up the rocks a little to the south. He was festooned with crabs, armfuls of them. Claws were reaching out of his pockets.
‘I know all the right places! They hide in the deep fissures where the tide never ebbs,’ he explained, dislodging a monster that was clutching his lapel – and with that he was gone again.
Mrs Elliott stowed the crabs in sundry bags and baskets, selecting four for dropping into the bucket that now contained several kettlefuls of boiling water. She buttered a cake of brown bread and cut wedge-shaped slices. It was two o’clock and we were hungry, so we swallowed our distaste at the (mercifully swift) death of the monster crabs and ate her delicious sandwiches.
Mrs Elliott parcelled up a selection of crabs in brown ‘pepper’: ‘For your poor parents – are they surviving? I hope they enjoy them.’ The rest would go to Captain Fitzmaurice, where they would no doubt appear on his menu as Atlantic Cocktail Supreme.As Peggy headed the car for Mount Callan she said she’d envisaged a wholesome baked-beans-on-toast kind of summer holiday and the additional gastronomic experience supplied by the kind old clergyman would surprise the Perrys no end. Eleven Houses, pp 289-291
Seven decades later, the last of the Canon Elliotts, whose gentleness and kindness so much characterized the life of the rural church, have long since gone. What has come in their place is rarely nearly so interesting (nor so resourceful).