Sheila A. McHugh, The Key Keeper and the Tea Leaves

Tea is synonymous with the Irish; a bit like ‘the drink’, but maybe more so.

The history of Ireland’s relationship with tea goes back to the mid-eighteenth century. Smuggling was widespread and it was the smuggled, cheaper tea that Irish peasants enjoyed. Although of an inferior quality to that consumed by their aristocratic neighbours, tea soon became a staple in Irish homesteads, even amongst the poor.

In 1811, a pamphlet written by Mary Leadbeater, with “Notes and A Preface” by Maria Edgeworth, entitled Cottage Dialogues described the pastime of tea-drinking as “reckless and uncontrollable” and something that could cause “addiction, illicit longing and revolutionary sympathies”.

This criticism was aimed in particular at rural women who were seen as ‘squandering’ meagre resources. The pamphlet was distributed to households by English reformers to highlight the ‘dangers’ of drinking tea. The underlying concern of the reformers being that tea-drinking (like pipe smoking) by women was perceived as a form of ‘revolutionary feminism’ that could filter into the wider resistance movement gaining momentum at the time.

There are different kinds of tea in Ireland: strong tea, weak tea, tea you could trot an elephant on, (not that elephants are native to Ireland, more like India, a tea-producing country). There is also sweet tea and Lenten tea, without milk or sugar. The blackness of the tea was to remind you of the blackness of your soul and need for repentance.

Then, there’s ‘sceidín’, where the last gasp of any resemblance to tea has been ‘watered down’ to a pale semblance of its original golden glory. To the saying “They were as mean as dish-water; ye should have seen what went for tae in that house,” “They must have used them fancy tea-bags,” is the retort.

No true tea-drinkers would stoop to using ‘them fancy tea-bags’. “The dust from the bottom of the tae-chest went into them,” they’d say. And maybe they were right.

The most memorable mug of tea I ever had was on Clare Island, the home of Grace O’Malley or Grainne Uaile, the Irish Sea Queen who sailed up the Thames to meet Queen Elizabeth I in 1595. In May 2010, a fellow teacher and I accompanied a group of students from the Achill secondary school on a visit to Clare Island, the largest of the 365 islands in Clew Bay.

Once the boat steamed past the southern tip of Achill Beg and entered the open sea we were escorted by a school of dolphins; their playfulness mirrored the young energy gradually awakening within our barque, ready to be unleashed on the island.

After disembarking from the ferry we made our way to the Abbey on foot and rented bicycles. But the Abbey was locked. I was tasked with finding the key-keeper and returning with him to open the 12th-century Cistercian Abbey. On enquiry, I found his open half-doored house.

I knocked and was bid enter into the scene of two elderly men: one sitting on a low, three-legged stool beside the open fire, the other at the table, both drinking mugs of tea and deep in conversation, before I interrupted. I introduced myself as one of the teachers accompanying the students.

The man at the table, the key-keeper, said, “Yer late! I was up there.”

I apologised, saying the boat was delayed. “Ye know youngsters”, I said, “hard to get them out of bed in the morning.”

He lifted his head and nodded in acknowledgement. “Ye want a mug of tae?” he asked.

“I would love one,” I replied. It had been a number of hours since I left home; the salt-laden air of the trip across from Achill in the boat had me longing for a good mug of tea, or something to quench my thirst. And sure, tae was better than nothing.

The original premise of my mission and the group standing waiting at the Abbey faded fast. I had the feeling that neither of these men were going to be hurried. I had entered a different time zone.

The key-keeper filled an electric kettle and plugged it into a socket that was about a foot off the floor on a partition wall and set it to boil. Upside down on the red and white oil cloth–covered table was a lone, large eggshell blue mug with a chip at its base, near the handle.

His broad, work-formed hands reached for the tea caddy that was sitting on the window sill and spooned two good-sized levels of loose leaf tea into the mug.  He resumed his seat, handed me the mug and nodded towards the now-boiling kettle on the floor. I had never made tea this way; in a mug.

“Leave it for a minute or two,” he said.

We chatted about the two islands and who we had in common. He even told me stories about my own family and their maritime exploits.

“Want milk?” he asked.

“Yes, please”, I responded.

He took the muslin cover from a large, yellow delph basin on the table.

“Do you mind the cream?” he asked.

“No,” I said, shaking my head. A blue trimmed handle of a small enameled mug peeped above the morning fresh, cream-rich milk; he deftly scooped some of the milk into my mug. The cream took just moments to melt in the hot dark liquid, turning the contents into a rich reddish-brown colour.

The milk dish reminded me of one my mother had when I was younger and we had cows and she collected the cream to make a churn. We then had our own butter and buttermilk for making bread.

He pushed out a chair with his foot and bade me sit down at the table. I sat facing him and the man at the fire and proceeded to enjoy my mug of tea and the company. The key-keeper spoke of the Abbey, its history and paintings, and his role in helping to document its story. His knowledge left me mesmerised.

I savoured every sip of the tea and got to where the tea-leaves rested.

“Have ye ever read the tea leaves?” the key-keeper asked.

“It’s a long time ago,” I responded.

“Give it to me here,” he said as he reached towards the mug in my hand. He looked intently into the mug, rotating it in his large calloused hand.

I felt a bit vulnerable as I didn’t know what was in store for me.

“Hmmm!  Ye’ll be going over and back across the water soon.”

Living on an island ‘going over and back across the water’ was a daily routine, so I felt safe enough there.

Then he hesitated. “And there’s a man that’ll come looking for ye.”

“Do I know him?” I asked. “Maybe it’s yerself,” I said half-jokingly.

“Ye’ll see,” he said simply.

He pushed his chair back, got up from the table and took his cap from the hook attached to the mantlepiece. “We’ll go now,” he said.

Off we headed up the hill to where the others waited patiently amid the ancient grave-markers outside the Abbey.

“Where were you?” they asked in unison. “We thought you were lost.”

“No,” I said. “It’s a long story. All in the tea leaves.”

Sheila is from Achill Island and her writing reflects a sense of belonging to that place. She has been published in the Galway Review (2016), Something about Home: New Writing on Migration and Belonging (2017) and is a regular contributor to Dodging The Rain. She is also Chairperson of the Achill Heinrich Böll Association.

One thought on “Sheila A. McHugh, The Key Keeper and the Tea Leaves

  1. Love this story…and I believe I might know of the where-abouts of the milk basin, which belonged to your Mammy for collecting the milk when ye were a wee girleen 😉


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