The Irish Céilí House: Reopening the door to conversation – By Jason Conlon

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“It used to be such a good céilí house, but no one calls anymore.”  The notion of a céilí (kay-lee) in rural Ireland denotes a special kind of social visit. You might céilí with someone, or they might even land on their céilí to you (ouch!). But put away those fiddles, leave the whiskey alone and, please, don’t dawdle; this is about the serious business of visiting, and the simple conversations between neighbours, friends and, sometimes, even total strangers.

Yet the Irish tradition of the céilí house appears to be dying.

The notion of someone calling by unannounced to your home can seem a bit unusual for some, or even rude. Despite being a rich pastime in the countryside for generations, the era of social media – and a tendency to become more insular and distrusting as time goes by – is putting paid to the idea of neighbourly catch-ups.

For years, people in remote and isolated areas got their quick fix of news and gossip by travelling a mile or three down the road to someone’s house; dropping by uninvited was the absolute norm.

What’s the point now, with everything (and everyone) just a prod from your index finger away?

Oh, for the days of talking with tae, and cake and buns, with last week’s paper being hastily produced! The poor element in the kettle was flat to the mat, and the conversation flowed forth. (Coffee was an exotic pastime – an affront to all decency to request it).

It was sometime after his wife died, that old Bill started to pop round. Billy was a great man for the céilí. It’s doubtful he ever danced a reel or played the fiddle but his smile and good-natured humour were always music to my young ears.

In the beginning, though, he had a brush with some poor céilí etiquette, as he was landing into the house every day. Flip sake, if his car pulled into the drive you’d get a touch of the old anxiety; the céilídhing was getting out of hand! But he settled into a routine, and once (maybe twice) a week soon became the norm.  

He’d always start by asking me, ‘What about Ronaldo?’  Or, ‘what about that boy Rooney?’ At other times he’d talk about his trips to Lidl, and the ‘great offers in the German shop.’

Billy was a Newcastle United man, very gentle and generous, curious and sweet. I was very sad when he died. But it was the warmth with which his visits were accepted, along with how normal it was, that was the most wonderful part of it all.

Have we now become people with a locked door and a closed mind?

Granny and Granda’s was a great céilí house in its day, too. On Sundays a whole squad of people would land, with cars flying up the lane, causing a mad dash to the window: ‘It’s the O’Kanes!’, ‘There’s the Grimeses!’, ‘…did the McCartans get a new car?!’

But if Auld Billy’s arrival had been a welcome feature of a typical week, then Tuesday night’s at Granny’s could send you flying out of the living room and under the spare bed.

That’s when The Grave Digger would arrive.

Deathly silence for an hour and a half. Once a week for at least fifty years, according to Mummy. One uncle swore that he’d seen him sit in front of Granda for four hours once, saying damn all.

He was my grandather’s first cousin, and helped the local undertaker. Poor Granda was so civil, he’d never stop the madness. I remember Granny giving off in the kitchen, as the silent movie played out in the room next door. But there Granda would still sit, doing a kind of penance under the Sacred Heart picture and the ticking clock. Eventually someone would walk Mickey to the door and the visit was over. ‘See you next Tuesday, Mickey’.

God, imagine these days deciding TO actually pop in to see your neighbour unannounced, all friendly like, only to leave and have them privately view you as weird or strange once you’ve closed their door.

That would hurt.

Probably best to send a Whatsapp beforehand, you know, just in case someone gets annoyed.

I’d an inadvertent céilí with an old man in Belfast once. He invited me in and gave me apple cake and told stories of his late wife and their walks around the reservoirs and dams of County Down. He talked of his children and their being grown up and how, with tears in his eyes, it seemed that he hardly saw them anymore.

‘Will you take more tea? Sure, are you in a rush?’

I only wish I remembered his name or where he lived, because I’d have made damn sure to call in again. Too late now.

You’ll read on the news about loneliness being a killer, and we know that it doesn’t just affect the elderly, either.

The evenings have fairly stretched by this stage. So how about, instead of giving-up on conversation, we take… a big jump this summer, and land on our céilí with someone we know. The German shop’s doing a great offer on buns, sure you might as well.

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