A tall man, dressed in a grey raincoat, black cap, blue jeans and black shoes comes down the stairs. While he is not very big, the man is tall and well built and in the narrow stairs he looks a lot bigger and does need to duck as he comes down the last few steps, just where the low ceiling meets the stairwell. In his hands are the empty soup bowl, plate and the mug that once held his tea. The man is smiling as his belly is full and the attractive lady behind the counter asks if all was ok with his snack? Later I discover that the snack to keep him going was a bowl of soup and many slices of freshly- baked rye bread, loaded with cheese and hummus; enough to fill any man’s belly. The man hands over his crockery to the woman behind the well-stocked counter. He thanks her and while probably not a shy man he looks like the quiet, modest type, definitely not the type to seek the limelight and in my experience all the better for that too.
“John,” the lady behind the counter addresses me, “this is Michael, the egg man, the man who’s eggs we love at home.”
I nod a hello.
“Michael,” she says next, addressing the egg man, “this is my husband John.”
We shake hands and I’ve a feeling I met Michael before but glad to be meeting him again too. In the shaking of hands Michael moves over beside me and as he does another customer comes into the shop. As she speaks with my wife Michael and I fall into chat.
The egg bowl is full with ones of all shades of brown, speckled and clear ones and all of a good size. I remark on how many eggs he brought in this morning, a cold day in February and a time traditionally when hens don’t lay as much as they would in warmer times. It’s the layer’s mash he tells me, nothing else gives the hens enough protein to produce a good nest of eggs each day.
“I tried the oat mix but it was no good,” he says, “you’ll get a few but they’ll be only small ones. The bread is useless altogether, though some people say it’s all they feed them. I don’t believe that at all ‘cos it’s pure useless.”
We go on to discuss what’s in the chicken feed and that layer’s mash has the best of all the ingredients and I can see the proof is in the laying. I ask him if the duck eggs are his too, as I notice three, half-dozen boxes on the other windowsill.
“No, not at all, though the woman who supplies them comes in on the bus with me,” he says.
The picture of the two coming in on the public service bus from Castlegregory with their stash of fresh eggs is a lovely one. I wonder what their conversation is about and how long they have known each other.
“I used to keep ducks but I got out of them, and sure not everyone eats the duck eggs these days,” he says.
I tell him how I used to love the duck eggs with their big yoke but lost my taste for them years ago. Michael nods as he knows exactly what I’m talking about. He has a lovely soft voice, clear but yet you feel like drawing nearer to him so as not to miss a word. It’s a skill that you couldn’t have if you knew you had it. As soon as you realised what a beauty you had in your voice you would either become self-conscious about it and speak less, or you would try to weaponize it and quickly cause the voice to lose all of its charms.
Michael and I talk about how life in Castlegregory and he tells me of how quiet it is at this time of year. I can only imagine, as it is a town very reliant on tourism and must be empty once the holidaying families leave in late August. Michael must have seen all the changes over the years and after decades of farming he is taking it easier I presume. While in hospital recently I met a man around the same age as Michael, retired too, after years of working on building sites. The man also ran a small farm and a roadside filling station of two pumps, one diesel, one petrol. His business had long gone as price alone was stopping him being competitive. What the man still kept was his small holding and he raised store cattle for selling on to other farmers as two-year olds. Nothing too strenuous, like Michael’s hens, but I wonder how many small farmers are there like the two around Ireland, keeping their hands in but also keeping them in connection with the rest of the country? They aren’t happy to stagnate or let the brain petrify, but keep going and will be as sharp as a tack for all of their lives. These are the people who keep rural Ireland alive and their younger successors on the way up will hopefully do the same.
I ask Michael about Sean Cummins, who I knew from my days in Dingle and I know lives over Castlegregory way.
“Ah Sean’s a lovely man,” says Michael, “he’s a neighbour of mine and I see him a lot on the road. A great man for fixing the tellies in his day.”
Which is how I knew Sean as he was the TV and aerial repairman for the whole peninsula in his time, and was in big demand.
“Sean would call to you at anytime of the day and night and he’d never let you down and sure it was probably what killed his marriage, being out all the time and never home for the dinner,” Michael says, looking at me, “and sure he’d stop for a pint too, you could in those days.”
“Well nothing worse for his wife that he’d be coming home late and smelling of drink too,” I say.
Michael nods wisely.
“Funny enough I never knew his wife was gone from Sean,” he says.
“Sean never came to me one time, and when I met him on the road the next day I said to him: ‘I told your wife the TV was giving trouble’.”
“ ‘Sure I haven’t spoken to that woman in twenty years!’ Sean said to me,” Michael is laughing as he tells me, as I am too, “twenty years, can you imagine?”
Just shows that no matter how small rural Ireland may be, it is still possible to not know what is happening next door, though I imagine Michael wouldn’t be the nosey type.
“He called round that night and had it back working in no time, a genius with the tellies was Sean,” Michael says.
He’s not the only genius from Castlegregory I’m guessing.