Suddenly a Monaghan woman started singing
At Park Hotel Kenmare, a clatter of Americans were delighted to find a roomful of Irish peasants with full bellies singing away to their little Irish hearts’ content
I was in the Park Hotel Kenmare one night in late August. It’s a magnificent 19th-century world of elegance and creaking floorboards, fillet beef and brandy.
The dining room was full of couples from ordinary life, treating themselves to something very special, and some of them seemed a little intimidated by the waiters and the grandeur of the dining room.
Everyone was trying not to put their elbows on the white line tablecloths; “having their manners,” as my mother used to say. Conversations were conducted in the hushed whispers usually reserved for church, since hotels are a kind of weekend heaven, and it’s far from the Park Hotel that any of us was reared.
One couple were particularly nervous. When the man dropped a knife by accident, she hissed his name in a whisper. “Jonathan! Be careful.”
But then the waiter came and poured a few tears of wine into his glass and stood over him awaiting a verdict. He blushed and waved his hand, implying that he had every confidence in the wine. But the waiter remained at attention for a slight moment more, and so the man had a change of heart. He sipped the wine and closed his eyes, and got so involved in the ritual of tasting it, that I began to worry he might tell the waiter to take the bottle back. But he didn’t.
When he opened his eyes again he said, “Oh yes, that’s very good,” and his partner gushed with pleasure and pride as if she had witnessed him do something heroic.
“Well done,” she said, and they both picked up the silver cutlery and tucked into the fish.
Stirred into song
The food was magnificent, the atmosphere so formal that everyone went into the drawing room after dinner in a kind of stunned silence, as if we didn’t deserve to be there.
And then all of a sudden a woman from Monaghan started singing. It was a spontaneous instinct on her part, and it relaxed everyone; it was as if we had all crossed a portal into the 19th century, where it might be normal to entertain ourselves with singing after dinner.
When she was finished the wine taster chirped up with a song, though his wife was horrified and eventually the noble call went round the room; a curtained space of soft amber light and plush sofas. We had eaten well in quiet dignity and we seemed now to have become friends in a world where no one had yet invented television.
The emigrants return
A happy clatter of Americans arrived at the front door around midnight and some of them carried white frocks in cellophane covers because they had come for a wedding.
They were delighted to find the drawing room full of Irish peasants with full bellies singing away to their little Irish hearts’ content and they too joined in, and sang a few old ballads, like Kevin Barry and Galway Bay, which came from deep inside their ever-grieving emigrant hearts as the bride-to-be watched from the door and her father beamed with pride.
And then I went to bed and dreamt of two swans gliding on a lake.
The following morning I read a newspaper in the lounge as portraits of plain women from long ago smiled at me from the walls. I couldn’t concentrate on the newspaper because my head was full of swan feathers or the aftertaste of a dream.
On the Victorian balcony, baskets of red and white flowers hung in the breeze, and beyond that the slopes of Kerry hills were masked by an autumn mist rolling down, and at noon the bride came, strolling gracefully beside her groom.
I watched from my bedroom window, and the nostalgia for the past that a good wedding can induce almost overwhelmed me, as they photographed the beautiful woman and perfect folds of white silk clung to her body, and I wondered was that the moment that my dream had prefigured.
I met the woman from Monaghan before she left. She had her bags packed. I said, “That was a beautiful night.”
“Yes,” she said. “People like us don’t often do things like this, but it’s well worth it.”
Later in the day I drove out to the edge of the Beara peninsula and sat in the meditation garden of the Buddhist Retreat Centre. The flat lawn stretched to the edge of a cliff. I looked out on the ocean, and I kept remembering my dream of the swans, but I still couldn’t figure out what it meant.