“So what do you think’s going to become of that auld one, McGarvey, over in Africa? He’ll not be on his seat for much longer and that’s for sure.” My friend was calling me from Ireland and recounting her family’s Sunday lunch conversation. “And was your dad joking?” I asked her, both of us laughing. “Sure you wouldn’t know,” she said, “I think he probably was. The same man doesn’t miss a trick. He knows what I think before I do.” I’ve been to her parent’s house, and her father’s legendary wit is matched only by his family’s hospitality. Their welcome goes something like this: draw up and take a seat; the kettle’s on; have a slice of boiled cake, only made yesterday; stay on for dinner; better still – stay the night; tell us how you are; wait till you hear our news.
The reference to the rechristened ‘McGarvey’ and his imminent demise in Zimbabwe, along with my thoughts about radical hospitality, reminded me of an old story I once heard. I really wish it were true, but I suspect it’s apocryphal. Roarty’s Bar, in Glencolumbkille, South West Donegal, is the venue for one of the finest traditional Irish music sessions in the region. Home to some of the best traditional musicians in Ireland, particularly fiddle players, strangers would travel across continents for the experience of learning to play Donegal-style fiddle alongside James Byrne and other local masters. On this particular night, a new face had joined the session. An older man, he wasn’t quite playing his reels in the Donegal-style, but he cut quite a shape at the fiddle, nonetheless. He was welcomed in, and allowed to join the inner sanctum of players. He played a few of his own tunes, jazzing them up with a bit more of a flourish than would generally be heard in those parts. People in the bar were curious about him, questions were being asked. “Who’s yer man? He’s brave and handy on the fiddle.” Before long, the stranger had a name: one Hughie McMenamin. There were whispers that he was some relation to the McMenamin’s up in Fanad (70 miles north), although his accent wasn’t quite right. Long after he had left town it transpired that the mystery fiddle player was world-renowned violinist, Yehudi Menuhin – in Ireland to visit a stately home, or have a portrait painted, or to play a concert. I have unearthed different reasons why he might have been there; none of them matter. What matters is the delightful possibility that this story might be true. ‘McMenamin’ was accepted in, given a seat, included, and (I like to think it wasn’t just because of his talent) made welcome.
My father used to sing a traditional Irish song called, ‘Mick Maguire’. The song tells how Maguire is flavour-of-the-month with his future mother-in-law as long as his prospects are good. When he calls for his sweetheart, her mother looks after him well, deposing her son in favour of the future son-in-law, saying:
“Johnny get up from the fire get up and give your man a seat / Can’t you see it’s Mick Maguire and he’s courtin’ your sister Kate / You know very well he owns a farm a wee bit out of the town / Ah get up out of that ya impudent brat and let Mister Maguire sit down.”
However, the story soon takes a turn for the worse. Following his marriage to the daughter Maguire’s fortunes fail, and linked to this is an ensuing change in attitude from his mother-in-law, who now says:
“Johnny come up to the fire come up, you’re sitting in the draft / Can’t you see it’s ould Maguire and he nearly drives me daft / Sure I don’t know what gets in him and he’s always on the tear / So sit where you are and never you dare, give ould Maguire the chair.”
I’ll be glad of any seat I take today, and as I sit down I’ll think of Maguire being denied a seat, McMenamin being offered a seat, and McGarvey being forcibly removed from his seat.