GAA staples: Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh and the ham sandwich | Picnic Times
Ó Muircheartaigh remembers the GAA picnic when it was a social instrument (In conversation with Catherine Cleary). Plus: the winner of our reader competition is revealed
In conversation with Catherine Cleary:
I would say picnics came to the GAA with the coming of motor cars. On the day of a big match there was always an early start. Nothing was to be rushed. Any place you’d see a flag or people, you’d hoot. You’d pick a spot and stop the car, usually where there was a wide margin, grass preferably. And then the boot would be opened.
Men would be doing all the distributing of the sandwiches. They had to be made properly. They had to be made the night before. There had to be tea and milk for some people, in flasks. It was not a rushed meal by any means. Nice and easy. You’d notice everything that’s going by and some people would like people to notice them and to maybe shout their name.
You’d be passing the time gently: no pressure. Just expectation. There’d be a half smile on everybody. In a way I think it was a sort of therapy. You didn’t have to pay a psychologist to cheer you up, the whole event would do that, and the idea that this could be a day that we’d never forget or a match we’d never forget. All that was part of it.
It was essential to leave on time. I remember a car from Dingle coming through Listowel very early as people were coming out from Mass and some people were sort of surprised.
One guy opened the window and said, “Don’t worry. We’re going to stop several times.” One of those times would be for the picnic.
When the kids were small we used to go to Kerry very early in the morning, usually on a Monday as there’d be a match on Sunday. We might have left at 6am when they were very young. We wouldn’t stop to have a picnic until we got over the border into Kerry. It was sort of an occasion to them to have landed in Kerry, and we would often eat before 9am.
The GAA picnic was a social instrument, if you could call it that. There’d be a variety of sandwiches. Ham was the real traditional filling. Without mustard, because not everybody’s a fan. And plenty of them and well-wrapped. There’d be more sandwiches than there were people. It wasn’t a day to be short of anything.
There’d be beef sandwiches and egg. Apple tart or whatever would be local at the time. Everybody had a few apple trees. There was a great encouragement in the early 1940s to grow apple trees. It was mostly men going to matches in the height of the picnic era. It has waned, with the traffic now. It’s hard to find a place to park without being told to move on.
Another sort of picnic was when I was a child. We lived maybe 10 miles away from the nearest bogs where turf could be cut. Everybody in our village, Dún Síon, cut turf in a place called Com an Lochaigh, a lovely little valley in underneath Mount Brandon.
On a turf-cutting day there’d be a meitheal: a team of neighbours who’d help each other. They’d leave in the morning at maybe 5am because it was 10 miles away and you weren’t going there to idle. I remember myself and my brother leaving with the neighbour’s donkey.
He was owned by the Kevanes, and always available to anybody who would have any call on him. We would be bringing the food, prepared the night before: sandwiches, maybe not always made into sandwiches but a good lump of bacon and the bread and the sugar and the tea and boiled eggs. Tea in a canister.
With a donkey we’d be a little bit late arriving. You don’t rush a donkey. They don’t respond well to being driven. There’d be one break at noon and another at 4pm. A kettle would be brought. A fire would be lit and somebody would go to a very well-known spring with the freshest water on God’s earth and bring a kettle-full and put it on the fire and boil it.
Everybody sat down for maybe 45 minutes. I’ve a picture of all the men then smoking pipes. Then the man whose day it was might say something to get going again. Gach éinne ina bheirt – everybody now like two. Be satisfied at the end of a great day’s work. To me that was a picnic: food prepared and taken elsewhere to be partaken of.
Ó MUIRCHEARTAIGH’S MEAL: THE PERFECT HAM SANDWICH
- Two slices of meat from a just-boiled ham
- Crusty strong bread (white or brown)
- Softened butter
I always like well-cooked ham. It has to be just boiled, but well-boiled until the meat hardly even needs to be sliced. There was something about bread that had the crust: a bit of resistance to it with good bite in it. It wasn’t a thing that crumpled like powder. That meant it was genuine. The trick is to have plenty of everything, but I never liked too much butter. Soften your butter so you can spread it thinly. Nowadays I prefer brown bread, but the same rules apply about the good crust. Press your sandwich together well. I would never like a sandwich where bits are falling out. It needs to be a coherent sandwich. It needs to be able to stand on its own two feet.
- We received a great response to our reader competition. A selection of the best entries can be found here. Congratulations to Holly Lynott (10) from Connemara, Co Galway, for her winning story, The Best Picnic Ever. She wins a two-night break for two, plus picnic, at the Powerscourt Hotel in Wicklow