A wee woman from long ago came to mind this afternoon. Sitting in a farmhouse kitchen, with tea and scones and fruitcake, we discussed the demise of “visiting”: people calling with friends to spend an evening in conversation. Memories came of Harold and Gladys, a couple who would have called faithfully with my Somerset grandparents and sat and talked for hours. But it was the wee woman who chiefly came to mind; she was a woman who lived a very austere life in a little coastal village. 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. But 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 things like Facebook and other social media. What on earth is happening to us? I got a telephone in Portlaoise today that comes with a package giving me unlimited free calls anywhere in Britain and Ireland and up to 500 minutes a month of calls from Europe or the US or Canada; what I don’t have is anyone who is anyone who might visit just for a chat. Whatever happened to being with people, sitting at the fireside and talking? What happened to storytelling and laughter? What happened to calling uninvited at a friend’s house as an evening out?
Perhaps the wee woman is not alone, perhaps we have become a nation that has substituted the semblance of companionship for the thing itself.