Making my way through customs at Dublin airport the official with the round face and kind blue eyes asked me if I had family in Ireland. “Nah mate.” He smiled, stamped my Aussie passport and looked me in the eye as he handed it back, politely shaking his head, “trust me, Liam Joseph Carroll, you do.”
It took me far too long to make my way to Ireland, almost 38 years, and, if I can, I doubt I will spend more than a year away from this magical place for the rest of my days. From the first moment I walked through a crowd of people in the airport, hearing the lyrical way English words pass Irish lips, it was like coming home. This is a population where everyone seems marked with an all-knowing sense of cheeky beauty. I found it irresistible immediately.
And I knew straightaway that I’d misinterpreted the customs official’s question. To have family in Ireland is not to have relatives alive this very day, no, it’s to have Gaelic blood coursing your veins, to have Emerald Isle soil woven tight in your DNA. And I like to think I do because a moment in The Pantry at Kilkee brought me closer to my Pop, Joseph, than I’d been since he passed away 8 years earlier.
Kilkee is a small beach town on the west coast of Ireland, in County Clare. You can’t even say “County Clare” without getting a little Irish spring in your step can you, warming up to take on Michael Flatly for Lord of the Dance honours. Kilkee itself is about the size and shape of Bondi. My girlfriend, her sister and I were driving on our way to the Cliffs of Moher and, having not had a dozen Guinness since the night before, I was getting peckish. A bit lost, we couldn’t find a café, but found a hotel/pub where three old ladies were playing cards on the corner table, maybe hittin’ the piss well before 10am, maybe having an Irish Brekky Tea, unimportant.
I asked them, where was a good spot for breakfast. “Oh bless you, a strapping young lad with these two fine lassies, you best be down to the Pantry, ask to have the Little Pantry Grill. Hmm. Lovely. The best in Ireland.” The other two women smiled and agreed with the first, “the best in Ireland, oh yes.” A bit confused, I needed clarification, “the pantry? Someone’s pantry?” They had a good giggle and the old lady leader of the trio whacked me hard in the shoulder, “Just walk down yonder laddie, you’ll soon enough understand. And remember, the Little Pantry Grill, the best in Ireland.” Rightoh then, off we trotted. The Pantry was directly where our tour guides had knowingly pointed to, invisible to my Sydney eye always associating bearded hipsters with anything breakfast (and overpriced) related.
The Pantry stands almost like a time capsule from 1985, like the spritely grandmother you remember from your childhood is still alive and kicking and running a cafeteria in the back of her house. And she rightfully couldn’t care less how she presents her restaurant. No bloody way. It’s the basics of age-old culinary delights done right, the décor done cheap and the prices low enough to make my penny-pinching heart sing to high heaven. The Little Pantry Grill is bacon, sausages, eggs, tomato and beans, grilled. And it’s sensational, cheap as chips.
Before tucking in, I thought best go to the bathroom, wash my hands. It was like Pop was there right by my shoulder, like way back when, telling me to “give your hands a tub before dinner now, Liam, come on.” And in the bathroom, there was the exact same shaped wash basin I’d only ever seen at Nan and Pop’s. The two taps at each end with hot and cold rather than one fancy one in the middle that you can swivel side to side, the awkwardly narrow basin that is close to impossible to fit your hands in to…and in an instant I was hit with the biggest wave of emotion for Pop and all my Irish ancestors. I just started bawling.
When I was five, Pop showed me with much reverence at his Rozelle home, just how important it was to wash your hands properly before dinner, to load the basin up with hot water and fully soap your hands and forearms, all the way to your elbows, “give your hands a tub.” I looked at him like he was such a goose. What the hell would you ever need to do that for? Just wash the palms, maybe give the fingers a quick scrub and let’s get rocking and rolling and eat some pork chops!
But there, in Ireland, understanding the history of poverty and starvation, and the fact that the highlight of Pop’s day, his father’s and grandfather’s and many more before him, the highlight of their days after toiling away in the bitter cold, doing some sort of manual labour drudgery, the highlight of their day would have been to finally wash your filthy hands and forearms before dinner in the smallest possible amount of water as to be incredibly thrifty yet somewhat enjoyable, most likely unable to afford to have a proper bath or shower more than once every now and then.
Finally, at 37, I finally washed my hands with the reverence my Pop had tried to instil in me all those years ago. I used that narrow, dinky basin for all it was worth, the shape the perfect size to fit both a grown man’s forearms across and enjoy the soapy warmth with not a millimetre to spare, to “give my hands a tub before dinner.”
My hands sparkled all the way to the elbows. I tried my best to hide my tears too! Keep appearances up! Pretend I’m a man and not a crying little fairy. And then went back to devour, just as the ladies had said, the best Little Pantry Grill in Ireland. The Pantry, Kilkee, what a winner.
Pop would have turned 101 today. He’s not here anymore, but he’s never far from my thoughts, his cheeky smile and beautiful soul, and I look forward to many more moments as I grow as a man where I will properly come to understand all the things he taught me but I wasn’t yet ready to understand.
*Liam Carroll is the author of Slippery, the story about capitalism on steroids in the world of oil trading. His second novel, Sweet Dreams of Fanta, is a nostalgic romp in time back to the Sydney of 1988, seen through the eyes of a freckly, moon-faced, seven year old chubber, Fanta addict and devoted Balmain Tigers lover.