Our Hearth

“Níl aon tinteán mar do thinteán féin.”

The first time I ever heard or read this very old Irish proverb, I was in the sitting room of my husband’s uncle’s home in Mitchelstown, County Cork. The phrase was written on paper and taped to the fireplace mantle. It was an Irish welcome home from Declan’s cousins to their father, recently returned home after a six-week stint in a Dublin hospital where he was treated for a very serious, life threatening illness. Thanks to the wonderful medical care he received in Dublin, his future was deemed bright and thanks to the Irish National Healthcare System, he was not debt ridden… but this delicate and timely subject we can save for another day! My husband’s aunt and uncle were both aware of, and supported, my attempt to learn the Irish language. Retired teachers that they are, they couldn’t resist the opportunity to quiz me about this Irish sentence, which at first glance was pure “Greek to me”! However, they were patient and didn’t rush in to help me out right away. So, I looked for words that seemed familiar and gave my weak translation, pointing to each word in turn as I recognized it… Níl, I remembered means ‘is not’, or, the negative. And aon, means ‘any’! Hey, I was getting somewhere! Ok… I knew do, is a word used to indicate possession, and féin, means ‘the self’ or ‘own’. I wasn’t sure what tinteán meant, but I did know tine, means fire… and since this sign was taped above a fireplace I asked, “fireplace?”  Bravo! Finally, I was awarded for my noble effort when Declan’s aunt said, “Very good” and proceeded to translate the phrase for me. “There is no fireside like your own fireside.” Basically, this would be the Irish equivelant of “Home Sweet Home”.

At that moment I knew, at least hoped, that one day I would have a fireplace, a hearth, and when I did, I was determined I would put those words above it. ‘Níl aon tinteán mar do thinteán féin.’ You see, I have never had a fireplace. During my life I have lived in several apartments, a dorm room, a Chicago bungalow (my favorite, by the way) and a series of three, post WWII, ranch houses… with not a fireplace between them! And, not only have I never owned my own fireplace before, I had never in my life built a fire in one. Until Rose Cottage.

The hearth in Rose Cottage is the heart of the place. The focal point of the main room, it’s the first thing you see when you enter the front door and because it has been kept intact and virtually in its original state, it is a treasure. At one time this was an open hearth and would have contained a swivel hook where pots were hung and swung over the flame and where the kettle was kept in order to provide a ready supply of tea for the family and for neighbors dropping by for a visit. But, like most of the open fireplaces in these old cottages, a wood burning stove has been installed and takes up part of the space where once an open fire would have been. Our stove is a rather rickety black ‘yoke’, or device, that I hope to one day replace with a sturdy Aga. Now, to American, suburban eyes used to clean and new… the value of this old hearth may be missed upon first glance. It would look quite rustic, the beam of wood above the opening, slightly crooked, and the soot covered stone, dirty and in need of a good power cleaning. However, that would be missing the beauty of it. The old, wood beam, is slightly tilted due to the many years of endurance and settling of this old, stone house. The soot covered stone is evidence of a century of daily use, when this fireplace not only held the fire that cooked the family meals, but was the sole provider of heat for the inhabitants of this little farm cottage. These are the very features that make this hearth a treasure and a joy to behold! Its age, so visible in the stone, wood and soot gives our hearth an aura of the ‘sacred’. And when we built our first fire at the onset of our first evening in residence, it felt like a solemn occasion, a nod to all the fires built before.

So, on our first day at the cottage we bought some turf, yes turf, and built a fire. And, to the turf fire a single piece of firewood, brought all the way from Declan’s mother’s house in Dublin, was added for continuity. Soon this fire roared… the sweet, earthy scent of turf filled the room and the smoke, thanks be to God, went in the right direction… up the chimney!

Now all that is left for me to do is to place that old Irish proverb on the stone above the hearth.

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