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When we had our final walk through Rose Cottage before the closing, my husband was quite pleased to see a tea kettle sitting on the counter as part of the furnishings that came with the house. I thought at the time… how Irish. And once the papers were signed, the last thing we did on our way to the cottage, was stop at a shop for Barry’s Tea and a litre of milk, because for Declan a house is not a home without a kettle on the counter, milk in the refrigerator and tea in the cupboard. I recall a television commercial which aired quite often on RTÉ the year I lived on the outskirts of Dublin that always gave me a good laugh. If I remember correctly, it was an ad for some PMS remedy. A woman is sitting on a sofa, clutching a throw pillow, looking harassed and annoyed. Her husband, not knowing how to make this poor woman happy and in an honest effort to cheer her up asks, “Will I get you a cup of tea, love?” Her response was to hurl the pillow at him and snarl, “A cup of tea? A cup of tea?! With you it’s always a magic cup of tea! All I could think of was the magic spell tea seemed to have over my husband. First thing in the morning, even before a visit to the ‘loo’, the kettle was filled and switched on so that first cup of tea could be made immediately following his shower.  And at the end of the work day I could always expect a phone call when he was 5 minutes from home asking, “Will you put the kettle on?”

The first evidence of culture shock I witnessed with Declan in the US was his look of total bewilderment the first time he ordered a cup of tea in an American establishment. It was during his first visit to Chicago when, good hostess that I was, I brought him to the Field Museum. He enjoyed the museum, and in fact, was delighted to see among banners suspended from the ceiling printed with greetings in languages from around the word, a banner written in Irish! However, any feelings of welcome and familiarity must have disappeared when we were ordering lunch in the food court and he made what he thought was a simple request, “I’ll have a cup of tea.” The server first asked, “Iced or hot?” The question caught him off guard and he responded, “Excuse me?” She had to repeat it so he could catch her meaning the second time around. But when she followed up by reciting a vast list of choices, the herbals, blacks, greens, greys, reds, fruits and flowers…. she lost him. He just stared at her, his eyes blinking. I had to rescue him by saying “English Breakfast”. I think if I wasn’t there to sort out the tea order, it may have evolved into a situation similar to the scene from “Moscow on the Hudson” when Robin William’s Russian defector character finds himself in an American supermarket, face to face with the vast selection of toilet paper. I think the paramedics were called!

An mhaith leat cupán tae? “Will you have a cup of tea?”

Brown Betty teapot - from ShopStashTea.com

I believe this is the greeting that is most common as you enter a home in Ireland, said in English of course… I just threw the Irish in for fun. The Irish love their tea. And who can blame them, it tastes so good there! They know how to make it right and their restaurants know what’s expected. What passes for tea in most American, or at least Chicago area restaurants, would be considered, and I quote, “dreadful!” But in Ireland, tea is the order of the day and it is prepared to perfection. Just about every restaurant and pub will be ready in advance for its tea drinking customers with small pitchers of milk, never cream, waiting on every table. And even in humble establishments, if you order tea what you can pretty much count on getting is a ceramic pot with perfectly steeped, hot, black tea. ‘Tea for two’ will get a larger pot and two cups. But don’t expect slices of lemon on the saucer or a choice of teas. Simply expect good, hot, properly made black tea, with milk and sugar offered on the side. “Real tea”, as my husband calls it.  However, the days of loose leaf tea seem to have vanished. In the restaurants, and even in homes, the bag has replaced the loose. My earliest exposure to the Irish culture and Irish tea drinking was at the home of my childhood friend, Maureen. Her family arrived in the U.S. from Ireland in the late 1950’s, probably at a time when tea in Ireland meant loose leaf black tea. And I remember on more than one occasion, Maureen, in that haughty way she had of lecturing on the superiority of the “Irish way” of doing things, told us in no uncertain terms that the only way to make tea was with tea leaves. Well, I’m sure even Maureen is using bags today! But bags or loose, the tea in Ireland is simple, straightforward and delicious.

Don’t get me wrong, Ireland has its share of coffee drinkers, and even coffee shops. And in Dublin these days it is nearly as common to see folks walking down the street with a cappuccino or mocha in hand as it is in any American city. Coffee shops have laid their claim on Ireland, much to the surprise of my husband, a mocha loving, tea drinker who once said, “Irish people will never stand in line and pay this much for a cup of coffee!” And in Dublin, the two of us have a favorite coffee shop where we know we can get a good mocha. But, for the most part, when I’m there I stick to what they do the best, magic tea.

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