Summers Past: Rosita Boland goes undercover in Bunratty Castle, 2006
Tourists have an endless capacity for daftness. That’s what our correspondent learned while being an apple-pie-making bean an tí for a day
Our Summers Past series mines the Irish Times archive to find the best articles from previous summers. In July 2006, five Irish Times writers each took on jobs in tourism. Rosita Boland braved a day as Bean an Ti in the tearooms of Bunratty Folk Park.
The last time I wore a uniform, I was doing my Leaving Cert, and hallelujah, I managed to avoid wearing one since. That is, until I was sent to Bunratty Castle and Folk Park to be a bean an tí as part of our Be My Guest series. I blame my hair. It’s red, ergo, what better instant prop to go with a period backdrop of Irish thatched cottages?
So, on one of the hottest days of the year, I’m in a downstairs bedroom of the Golden Vale Farmhouse, contemplating my uniform for the day - long, dark blue skirt, white blouse with frilly collar, and long white apron - which is laid out on a bed that nobody sleeps in. Like all but one of the other houses in the Folk Park (the Shannon Farmhouse), this is a reconstruction: the original house was in Kinfinane in south Co Limerick.
Bunratty Castle and Folk Park, which has been open for more than 40 years, has proved a consistently popular tourist attraction. Twice a day, there are medieval banquets in the castle, accompanied by harp-music, lots of singing from lassies in velvet costumes, and the ritual temporary banishing to a dungeon of some luckless tourist. It’s as cheesy as the Eurovision and about the same age, and although neither the songs nor the frock styles have had a similar revamp, it’s still wildly popular.
The other element of the complex is the Folk Park. There are several 19th-century houses, plus a village street with shops and assorted other buildings and structures: a watermill, walled garden, church and byre house.
My job for the day is to shadow bean an tí, Kay O’Dowd, whose beat is the Golden Vale Farmhouse. Her shift, with breaks, goes from 9.30am to 6pm, and during this time, she’s making apple pie and scones, as well as white and brown bread in the farmhouse kitchen. Kay is the longest-serving bean an tí at Bunratty, with 18 years’ experience under her apron.
Everything we bake is sold in the tea room, which is behind our cottage. Everything is made to traditional recipes, and all the ingredients are lined up in front of us: flour, Bramley apples from Armagh, buttermilk, baking soda, salt, bicarbonate of soda, eggs and raisins. I set to, peeling apples, then slicing them by the score, while Kay makes pastry. Of course, as well as our Living History roles as bean an tí bakers, we must also interact with the public, no matter how odd those interactions sometimes are.
“Why do they serve the dessert in bowls in Ireland? I have never seen such a thing! Never!” declares a Croatian woman. “In my county, soup comes in a bowl. Soup and yoghurt. Not dessert! Never dessert! Why is this?”
She stares at us, frenzied. I stop peeling apples and stare back at her, flummoxed, and fascinated by the strange things that people get worked up about on holiday. I was expecting questions about the lives people lived in this house, or the most common question of the day, “what are you-making?”. But definitely not questions about the protocol for using delph.
“Well, this is Ireland,” Kay says very politely, quick as anything, “and we are not quite the same as Croatia.”
Kay, as becomes clear, is not only extremely popular with her fellow workers – herbs, strawberries and roses all arrive as gifts from them during the day – but she is a total pro with the tourists. Even though she has been in the job 18 years and must have seen and heard it all hundreds of times over, she still makes everything sound fresh and interesting when she answers questions, no matter how daft. She’s warm and funny, and radiates a kind of innate wisdom. The tourists love her. Bunratty is lucky to have Kay.
The Golden Vale was the home of prosperous farmers, and it’s decorated and furnished in a much more elaborate way than most of the other houses, with a proper stairs to the first floor, rather than the usual ladder to the loft. The kitchen where Kay and I are stationed for the day occupies the centre of the ground floor.
Our big, long table, where all the ingredients are laid out, stands in front of a dresser. There’s an open turf fire, which is just about alive, and strictly for atmosphere and smell only: any more sods on it and we’d keel over with the heat.
“I was baking bread one day and an American came in and looked at me,” Kay recalls. “Then she went over and looked at the fire and asked was it bread in the basket beside the fire. It was sods of turf!”
When Kay tells me this story, as we’re getting stuck into the morning’s batch of apple pies, I think it’s a once-off hilarious gem. How could anyone be so gullible as to think sods of turf were bread, or indeed, anything edible at all?
But as the day goes on, and the tourists stream in and out – Americans, British, French, German, Croatian, Irish, Israeli, Austrians, Norwegians, Spanish, Australians and New Zealanders – I revise my opinion of the public’s capacity for daftness. They’ll say anything. Maybe it’s our period costume that makes people think we really are entities from two centuries ago.
“Hi!” chirps one teenage boy brightly. “I’m from Michigan! In the USA! Have you heard of the USA?”
I lose count of the number of apples I peel and slice. Each pie takes 12 apples. Peel and slice. Peel and slice. Peel and slice. I am baffled at the close, near-reverent attention the public give to my peeling and slicing. People shuffle to the front of the table to peer ever more closely, and murmur encouraging sounds.
You would swear I was a television chef, about to produce some arcane delicacy via a hugely complicated recipe.
“What are you doing?”
“What are you making?”
“What kind of apples are they?”
How mysterious or interesting can an honest-to-God apple be?
“At least these lot know they’re apples,” Kay tells me in a quiet moment. “Some people think they’re potatoes.”
The Golden Vale Farmhouse is particularly picturesque, and so is possibly the most visited of all the buildings in the Folk Park. The day I am at Bunratty, some 2,535 visitors come through the turnstiles. I think I saw them all: every man, woman and child. There are a few standard questions I get used to.
“Where is the bathroom?”
“Ah now, the en suite is under the bed.”
Every so often, the tourists will look at our giant apple-pie tray and then turn to look at the tiny turf fire. We know what’s coming next.
“Where are you going to bake that?”
Baking is done on the fire at a couple of other houses: small batches of spotted dog or griddle bread, which are cut up and given to the tourists. But this house is catering for the tea room, in big quantities.
Each pie takes an hour to bake, in an old American pizza oven in the 21st-century staff kitchen behind our 19th-century kitchen, and they then get cut up into 20 pieces.
Sold at €4 a slice, that’s €80 a pie, and while I’m there, we make one an hour. It’s clever economics. Kay might be employed to be Living History, but she’s also making a lot of profit for the tea room in the process.
There is the odd obnoxious tourist. An Australian man walks in and looks at us. “They didn’t have sharp knives in those days,” he says, pointedly looking at my apple-peeling. I’m sure this isn’t true, and if I may be sexist, I’m also thinking that it’s a long time since this man peeled a cooking apple so what, I find myself thinking crossly, makes him an expert in period cutlery? I smile at him and keep peeling.
“Not very authentic, is it?” he says. Of course, when he hears that the pies get cooked in a gas oven, he’s uncontrollable with mirth.
People have different reactions when they come and see us working behind the table. Some watch in silence, until either Kay or I, rattled by the silence, asks where they are from. Some people want to talk, some simply stare.
They all take pictures of us. My apron will be famous in many countries. We know the Austrians and the Germans by the two words they utter the second they walk into the kitchen.
The Americans ask us if their Irish relatives lived in houses like these. Some ask if we live here – live in the museum! They’re serious, too. The Irish tell us the house looks like their grandparents’ houses. One woman scolds us roundly because the holy water fonts in the houses are dry.
And some tourists are way more forward than others. A group of Israelis come in, and one of them bounds forward, snatches up a knife and starts a big ritual of peeling an apple (one of my apples!), applauded by his friends.
When he’s finished, he distributes pieces of apple skin to his friends, who eat it with apparent enjoyment.
Who on earth, I wonder, wants to eat the unwashed peel of cooking apples? Amazingly, lots of people. They want to have some contact with what we’re making, it seems. Lots of them go scampering off to the tea room when they hear our cooked apple pies are out there.
“Anything people see demonstrated, they’ll buy,” Kay says sagely.
There is not one minute to be bored. When the pies are done, we make bread. The tea room is screaming for more supplies of everything. We’re hot and we’ve been on our feet all day, but of course, we have to be just as polite to the people who turn up at 4pm as we were at 11am.
And all the time we’re working, we’re talking to the tourists. Kay hasn’t the slightest problem multi-tasking, but I find that I stop kneading or peeling or slicing to answer questions, which would not make me a very efficient bean an tí.
About 5pm, we start clearing up. Kay tells me to sit in the súgán chair by the fire and talk to the last stragglers. An American man comes in and asks several questions about the lifestyle of the people who lived in the Golden Vale Farmhouse.
I’ve picked up lots of information during the day, and I talk happily on for a few minutes, poking the fire as I do so, for that authentic seanchaí look.
He seems satisfied with my answers. “I guess you’ve been working here for years, right?” he asks.
If only he knew.
This article originally appeared in July 2006, as part of a series of five articles. The others in the series can be read below: