Our cozy fire in the rustic, ash covered stove.

The temperature in Chicago has plummeted in the last few days and the sky is grey. Having returned home the other night from a dinner of Family Bean Curd (“… with broccoli, no pea pods”) at The Red Dragon in Elmhurst, I noticed as I walked from the garage to the house that my next door neighbor’s fireplace was in use. Despite an absence of the sweet aroma of turf, the earthy scent of the burning wood made me yearn for Rose Cottage and our wood burning stove.

Having lived most of my life in three post-WWII Ranch homes and one Chicago-style Bungalow, I have never had the pleasure of owning a fireplace. Therefore, other than the infamous bonfire I built, with my sister and best friend, in the prairie next to my house when I was around 10 years old, I had never built a fire before. On our trip to Kilkee last November, I left the fire building to my husband who has built fires his entire life. However, on this last trip he was not coming along and with neither son any more experienced at fire building than me, I needed instruction. So, before leaving on our recent trip I asked Declan to explain the process of building a fire in a fireplace. He drew a diagram showing me how to start by placing the kindling in the stove and then, because I am a novice, he advised placing fire lighters between the kindling. Next he drew two little briquettes of turf I was to place, like a tent, upon the burning kindling. Finally, once the turf was burning he advised the addition of some coal to keep the flame going.

On our way to the cottage from the airport we stopped at Mace, the equivalent of our White Hen Pantry or 7-Eleven, and picked up supplies for the kitchen along with the items I needed to build a fire. Thus, well prepared , the first thing I did when we got inside the cottage, while Anton vacuumed up the mice droppings we found scattered in corners, was to get to work building a fire. Kindling, check… fire lighters, check… wash gasoline smell from the fire lighters off my hands before handling a lighter, check…. I lit the fire, waited for the kindling to catch and, with a real appreciation for the history of this old house, I put the turf on the fire and watched it burn! By the time Anton had the floors, beds, furniture and countertops vacuumed, my first fire was already dwindling and dying. I threw in some more fire lighters and kindling… then another piece of turf, and got it going well enough so that we were able to sit and watch it for a few minutes. However, I learned that it is very difficult to turn a bad fire into a good one and before long it was just a bit of spark and smoke. A dud.

The next morning I tried again, determined that we would start our first day with a roaring fire in the stove and have smoke rising out of the chimney announcing our residence. Again it was a dud. Eóin told me I was “a bad fire maker”. I feared he was right and that we wouldn’t have a decent fire the entire week.

But, remembering the words of Winston Churchill that we must, “Never, never, never give up!” I was determined to overcome this bad fire making affliction so I asked my husband for a refresher when he phoned later that morning. Then on that second night, equipped with my new instructions, I tried a third time and, charm that it was, I finally built a roaring fire that lasted throughout the evening! It was a thing of beauty… and I made my youngest son admit it! From then on every fire was a success and the perfect ending to each night.

It was my belief, and still is, that two things an old cottage in the West of Ireland must contain are 1) a roaring fire and 2) a bottle of uisce beatha, better known as whiskey. Thinking ahead when we were about to depart from O’Hare Airport in Chicago, I had the presence of mind to buy a bottle of Jameson from the duty-free shop. Therefore, once I had the art of building a fire under control, all that was left to do was make the hot whiskeys each night for Anton and myself (see recipe in my post of January 7th). My oldest son and I love rituals, so even with our short stay in Ireland we managed a nightly ritual of sitting at the kitchen table reading our books, sipping a lovely hot whiskey and, now and then, looking up to admire a gorgeous fire in the hearth.  Frankly, life doesn’t get better than that!

Hot Whiskey, sans the lemon and cloves, photo by kconway at flickr.com

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