Colette Sheridan: Reunion evokes memories of stew on the stove and wild fox

In her weekly column Colette Sheridan reflects on a recent family reunion
Colette Sheridan: Reunion evokes memories of stew on the stove and wild fox

LIVING OFF THE LAND: A turkey mart under way in Midleton in Christmas week, 1973

DRIVING up the country, through fertile land dotted with fat cows, to a family reunion at Crover House in Lough Sheelin, Co Cavan, recently, we stopped off in Oldcastle, Co Meath.

It’s the town (population 2,316 as of the 2011 census) where my late father was born and reared.

One of a family of twelve children (all deceased except for elegant aunt Monica), my father used to make frequent trips ‘home’ when we were kids.

“Whose turn is it to go to Oldcastle?” we would chime and each of the four of us got lucky on several occasions during our childhood.

The long trip from Cork always involved a stop-off in Cashel where we’d be treated to chips in a hotel. My father would only take one of us at a time to stay in his old family home, a handsome largish house where there was always a cat or two in the yard and comforting brown stew on the stove.

It was pure magic for us city kids, a place that was teeming with cousins, our grandmother, aunts and uncles and a pony called Elvis that belonged to an uncle. (There was also a wild fox that would race through the garden of that uncle’s house, sometimes shimmying into the kitchen, terrifying me, a total wimp around frisky animals.)

Two weekends ago, decades since my last visit (why did I take so long to return?) Oldcastle seemed bigger than I remembered it as a child. There is a lot more in the town than just the hotel and the auction rooms my father frequented.

On the other hand, Mount Dutton, the family ‘seat’ so to speak, seemed smaller than the ‘huge house’ of my childhood perspective.

My sister had business to do in Oldcastle. We pulled up outside the butchers, called Floods, that she always drops into when she visits —mainly for funerals. The man behind the counter knows her at this stage.

She bought four venison burgers, four rib-eye steaks, lots of lamb chops and stewing beef — all for just €50. She reckoned the meat she purchased was worth about €80.

As a cousin commented the previous time my sister made a swoop on the butchers, “we’ll be paying for this for the next year”.

The butcher shop supplies fancy restaurants around the area.

The signpost in the town square points to Castlepollard, Kells and Virginia. These are familiar place names from my childhood, far from Cork, sounding a bit like cowboy territory and conjuring up memories of great holidays that sometimes included ‘following the hunt.’ (Latterly, my youngest brother became an avid anti-blood sports campaigner. What were we thinking of, posing on horseback for photos prior to the hunt?)

At Crover House, overlooking the shimmering lake, the dinner option for the 106 of us was beef or salmon. Being the descendant of cattle dealers, I chose the beef which had been aged for 28 days. It was delicious.

There had been a ferocious level of planning for this reunion, with meetings taking place in Dublin, attended by one of my brothers and some cousins.

Emails were sent to all of us, instructing us to send on old photos and any Oldcastle memorabilia we could find. There was an itinerary; speeches to be delivered by one member of each of the many families represented.

Along the walls of the hotel dining room were hundreds of photos and, in between courses, the speeches, mostly humorous, were delivered.

My brother had sourced film footage of the cattle mart that used to take place around the Navan Road area of Dublin.

As young boys, my father and some of his brothers and their father would make the journey to Dublin in the early hours of the morning to sell cattle at the mart. Some of the men at the marts would nip into O’Hanlons, an early house at the time, for a warming snifter.

These trips to Dublin were bread and butter for the family. But education wasn’t sacrificed in the interests of commerce. My uncles and aunts spoke proudly of having attended the co-ed Gilson National School (followed by secondary school).

The Gilson National School was financed by the legacy of Laurence Gilson, a native of Oldcastle, who, having amassed a fortune in England in the nineteenth century, bequeathed his money for the education of the children of the parish.

He died in 1810 leaving, £25,400 for the building of a school which was completed in 1832. The Gilson Secondary School was amalgamated with the local VEC school in 1969.

The Sheridan reunion was a great success — and a bit of an education. It was so much better to meet this way than at a funeral. My father would have loved it.

Already, there is talk of another reunion.

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