why the irish eat early

“ It is easy to halve the bread where there is love…”  — Irish Proverb


by michael c. keith


If Colin McKenna didn’t make it to his parent’s house by five on the dot, chances were very good that his mother would give his dinner away to the Corrigan kids. They were a snot nosed and raggedy lot of neglected brothers who lived a few houses down the lane. His mother had a soft spot for the little urchins, and they knew how and when to exploit that fact. If they didn’t see his old Cooper in the driveway by the usual dinner hour, they would show up at the door and perform for handouts–their act consisting mainly of pitiful expressions and stirring entreaties for sustenance.

“Please, Mrs. McKenna, could you give us something to eat? Our mum is sick again, and we have nothing in the pantry. Our stomachs are so empty they grumble like the ghouls.”

The compelling pleas of the three neglected Corrigan children, ages seven, nine, and eleven, would invariably touch the heart of Colin’s mother.

“Well now, we can’t have you going hungry can we? You wait right here, and I’ll go and get you something.”

That “something” was usually Colin’s meal. Not only was it a way for his mother to address the needs of her starving neighbors, but it also served as a dramatic reminder to Colin that dinner was served promptly at five o’clock and not a minute later. Mrs. McKenna was a stickler about this rule and had been his entire life.

“Mum and Da gave us our meal exactly at five each day ’cause one was getting home from work just before then and the other was leaving for work not long after. They wanted the whole family to be at the table while they were both home. It was five o’clock or nothing. No grub if you weren’t on time. Go to bed with a hollow belly. My Granny and Grandad ate their evening meal at five, too, and turned in before the dark had come. They climbed from their bed ahead of the morning light to start their chores.”

“But that was a different time. You guys aren’t farming or working, so why do we have to eat right at five or not at all?” Colin had inquired as a disgruntled adolescent.

“If five was good enough for your ancestors, then it’s darn sure good enough for you,” his mother had replied.

* * *

Colin had wanted his own place, and the inflexible supper hour was one of the motivating reasons. But living at home was an economical necessity for him after his disastrous marriage came to an end. He was in debt up to his ears and was grateful for the free lodging. Yet he could not wait to be out from under the house rules, which also included lights out at 9 PM (to save on electricity), no overnight guests (not even a male chum), no television shows with violence (comedic or otherwise), all footwear consigned to the entranceway (to spare the carpets from becoming soiled), laundry only on Tuesdays (clothes could not be washed at any other time), baths once a week (another cost saving measure), no snacking or consuming of liquids outside of the kitchen (this one galled Colin as much as the five o’clock supper rule), ad nauseam.

Though Colin was not overly impressed with his mother’s cooking, he did have a great passion for one of her dishes–Hunter’s Pie. It contained the usual ingredients–carrots, onions, celery, potatoes, and lamb, but the stock had a magnificently unique flavor that defied any attempt to decode its composition. Sweet while a tad spicy, it was better than any he had ever had, and his mother kept the recipe a guarded secret. When he had asked for it, she made it clear she had no plans of ever divulging its contents.

“It’s the one hold I know I have on you, sonny boy. You’ll always come back to your Mum’s for her Hunter’s Pie.”

“There you have it, laddy,” his father had laughed. “Got you by the short hairs for sure.”

Although Colin heartily protested, Mrs. McKenna held her ground only agreeing to give him the precious recipe only after she went to her reward.

“I’m making it for supper tonight, so you better be here at five,” she declared, and the prospect of his favorite meal brightened his entire day.

* * *

As soon as his workday ended, Colin began his commute home. Halfway there an accident caused a major traffic backup, and by the time the road was cleared it was well past five.

“Cac!” he shouted in Gaelic.”

It was one of only two curse words in the language that he knew, and he used the other next.

“Feis!” he bellowed, gunning the accelerator. “There goes my Hunter’s Pie, cac!”

As he approached home, he saw the three Corrigan brothers moving down the street. The eldest was carrying a brown bag.

My Hunter’s Pie! The little blackguards have it! Well, we’ll see about that, won’t we? he growled to himself, entering his mother’s driveway. As soon as he got out of his car, he took off in the direction of the Corrigan boys.

“Hey, stop! Come back here with my dinner!” he yelled at the top of his lungs.

The brothers continued to run toward their house reaching the door just a moment before Colin caught up to them. They ran inside . . . and he followed. The inside hallway where the boys stood frozen in front of him was dark and smelled of urine and alcohol.

“Mrs. McKenna give us this ’cause we’re starving, sir,” said the youngster holding the bag.

“Well, it’s mine, so give me the bag. Where’s your Mum?” asked Colin in a menacing tone.

Before the eldest Corrigan child could respond, Colin ripped the small brown parcel from the boy’s hands.

“Mum’s sick, sir, and we got no food.”

“You mean your old lady is drunk as usual, don’t you?”

“No, sir. She’s . . .’

Colin turned and left the house with his meal in hand. His father greeted him as he approached the house.

“Where you going, Da?”

“Thought it be good to get out of the house. Going to the pub for a pint. You might want to come along.”

“No thanks, Da,” replied Colin, dashing up the steps to his house.

His mother greeted him as soon as he entered.

“What were you doing running down the street like a madman, Colin? And what is that in your hand? It’s not the fuilleach bia I give the poor Corrigan children, is it?”

“Leftovers?” repeated Colin, opening the satchel.

Sure enough, inside were a few pieces of nearly stale bread and three potatoes.

“I thought . . .”

“You thought what? That I gave away your cherished Hunter’s Pie? Well, I did not, but I should have. You were late again.”

“There was an accident. I couldn’t help . . .”

“So then you took the poundies and slim I gave to those poor little children? That what you done, huh?”

“Sorry, mum.”

“You should be! Those Corrigan lads are in harsh times with their drunken mum and dead da.”

“Said I was sorry.”

“Well, that be so, I suppose I shouldn’t waste the Hunter’s Pie. Do you still have an appetite for it, son? Suppose you do making such a big fuss of it. Go wash your hands. I’ll warm it up. Cold by now.”

“Really, mum?

“Go, clean up.”

After all that had happened, Colin was delighted that he would still enjoy his favorite dish. When he entered the dining room a few minutes later, his mother was just placing his plate on the table. He quickly sat down, placed his napkin under his chin, and dove into the pie. No sooner had he begun chewing than he spat the food out.

“What did you do to this? It’s like a salt lick, for chrissakes.”

“You deserve nothing better. You know what your Da is always saying, ‘Never deny the poor what you have in abundance.’ If you can’t remember that, then you got no memory at all, Colin? So eat up, me lad. It’s your favorite . . . isn’t it?”

Mrs. McKenna put on her coat and took a container from the counter.

“Where you going, Mum?” asked Colin, abjectly wiping his tongue with his napkin and grimacing.

“Going to take this good piece of Hunter’s Pie to them who deserves it.”

Colin’s mood darkened. Maybe I’ll get that recipe sooner than later, he thought, as his mother left on her mission of mercy.

Originally published:
Issue Sixty-Six
April 2013



(illustrations: john richen)

Michael C. Keith is the author of several story collections. www.michaelckeith.com


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