Acres of space in a green and pleasant land

The boy loves the gardens of Ireland, while I risk getting my fingers burned…

At my in-laws’ house in Dublin, my son has more space than he knows what to do with. He runs with abandon through their garden, dutifully helping his grandad water the plants (by upturning a watering can over them) and clean his shoes (method the same). We never think about how hemmed in we are in London, but are reminded here, since their garden is much bigger than our own outside space back home, which is a chopping board-sized rectangle of cement in front of our house, mostly taken up by wheelie bins.

After a decade living away, I’m often struck by things which seem alien about Ireland, like massive gardens, or the fact people will talk to you at bus stops, or the maddening fact you can’t buy alcohol in shops after 10pm. Now I’m encountering that second category of things: supposedly ‘Irish’ habits or practices I don’t ever remember indulging in the first place.

I’m mainly thinking of my in-laws’ commitment to heating their empty plates in the oven before dinner, a practice I find unaccountably bewildering. This has no qualitative effect on the food since it has already been cooked by other means, and has the additional drawback that any attempt to touch said plate – useful while eating, some say – will see your fingerprints singed off in a puff of pink smoke. I think it a frankly preposterous behaviour, but I find myself more enraged by my wife’s insistence that it’s perfectly common in Ireland, and it’s me, the one with bandaged fingers, who’s weird for objecting.

Visiting the countryside, my sense that I’ve forgotten Irish ways only increases. Unlike my wife, I was born and raised in the country, but I never really thought much of it. It seemed boring at the time. I don’t believe I voluntarily looked at a tree until I was 25. When I was a child I would have poured concrete over every stream and valley in Donegal in exchange for a 24-hour McDonald’s. My son has no such instinct, as is proven when he lets out a solemn ‘Woooww!’ at the sight of tractors, cows and the wide open spaces in which he can run and jump and get stung by nettles. After so many months of social distancing, it’s nice to be somewhere so remote and spread out that distancing takes care of itself.

The boy gets a further treat when we take him on a socially-distanced visit to our friend Killian in Wexford, where his dad maintains a garden filled with wonders: Celtic monuments, a Chinese pagoda, and a goldfish-stocked pond crossed by a toddler-sized bridge. Like us, Killian spent the past decade living abroad, first in England and latterly Melbourne. Like us, he reckons he’ll be in London again before too long, but it’s nice to be home. ‘It’s not a bad place to come back to,’ he says, while fetching some plates from a cupboard. My wife shoots me a look and I watch in dismay as he places them, one by one, in the oven.

Follow Séamas on Twitter @shockproofbeats

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Séamas O’Reilly

The GuardianTramp

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