The distinctive sound of the Buena Vista Social Club was played by John Creedon on his RTE radio programme. He recalled Compay Segundo, a leading member of the Cuban musical ensemble who was still playing with the band until shortly before his death at the age of ninety-five.
Segundo’s voice had been shaped by decades of smoking cigar Havana cigars. He had begun work rolling cigars at the age of fourteen, but had helped his grandmother with the work from an early age and had been allowed the odd puff. At the age on ninety he declared, “I began smoking cigars when I was five. I have been smoking for 80-odd years and it still has not harmed me.”
The sense of smell is that which is mostly associated with memory and, for Segundo, the whiff of cigar smoke would have been invested with a long life of memories.
I knew a man whose smoking years were even longer. Davey had his first pipe of tobacco in 1902. He was eleven at the time. He and his friend sat behind a gate, sharing a clay pipe. Startled by Davey’s mother, they were caught red-handed. Davey’s mother said nothing, but took the pipe and threw it hard against the gatepost, smashing it beyond repair.
Davey’s first experience didn’t dissuade him. The pipe became part of his life. Davey smoked a powerful concoction called Warhorse. It came in a hard lump and had to be pared off with a knife for the pipe to be filled. It never seemed to have any detrimental effect on Davey.
Davey died a month short of his ninety-ninth birthday. Three weeks previously he was holding wooden fencing posts while his son drove them into the ground with a sledge hammer. Davey shot his last rabbit at the age of ninety-four. The pipe smoke can’t have been too bad.
His life, evoked in a whiff of tobacco, encompassed the whole of modern history, from the last decade of Victoria to the collapse of Communism. He lived through it all and remained unscarred. He was a gentle, stoical man who had seen everything and was no longer frightened by anything – least of all by death.
Davey died in the early hours of a late August morning in 1990. It being the country, I drove to his farm as soon as I got the call, prayers with families at such moments were important. Farmers think nothing of being out at 3 am for lambing sheep and calving cows, why should it be any different for a clergyman, particularly at such a significant moment?
Driving back from his farm I put a cassette on to play on my car stereo. Makem and Clancy singing Dandelion Wine.
“Dandelion wine will make you remember, the first day of spring at the beginning of December”.
Dandelion wine might revive memories, but not nearly as well as pipe smoke, or, in the case of Compay Segundo, cigar smoke.