He died many years ago. Yet my times with him remain vivid. I wrote this story in 2009, long after Michael passed, and recently included it in my book. I can think of no more perfect testament to Ireland’s cauldron culture. Bless you Michael.
You Might Consider Hanging on to That
I carried that scrap of paper in my wallet for years after Michael died. One word, Meitheal (meh hul), he had written in a shaky hand. Perhaps due to the strength of the local moonshine in the Irish coffees he poured for us. More likely due to the encroaching cancer in his body.
Meitheal: a spirit of community. An ideal he believed in passionately.
Well I remember the first time we stayed at Michael and Rita’s B&B. Their dining room had a sweeping view of Bantry Bay, the sky filled with birds soaring and diving and riding the thermals. So on the second morning, we brought our binoculars with us to breakfast. Michael was delivering two plates of food from the kitchen when he stopped at the end of our table. He looked at the two plates and then at the binoculars. Then back at the two plates and again at the binoculars. “Well now,” he said, “I know we’ve a reputation for small breakfasts, but I’m not thinking you will need the likes of those to find your food.”
That was the first summer of Michael’s retirement from teaching, a decision forced by his declining health. A leaving that took him all too soon from the young lives and families he touched so profoundly in a two-room schoolhouse in the small village not far from where he was born and raised. A scholar, poet, wit, and gentle spirit, his eyes danced when he shared stories from his teaching years. Those generations of children and parents were his neighbors and community, and there were no limits around his caring for them.
Over subsequent visits, Michael and I became friends, spending long evening hours in deep philosophical wanderings. It was during just such an evening with Michael sharing stories from his youth when I asked him if he would have us return to those earlier times. Hard times indeed for the Irish. Times of extreme poverty and harsh social repression. Times he had lived and knew well.
His answer came without hesitation. “Oh, yes,” he said, “because people took care of each other. I think that’s getting lost altogether these days. You see, everyone was considered important. Even the man who was only capable to sweep the village streets. He and his labor were both valued. And when a farmer was sick, the whole community turned out to take in the harvest for him or put a new roof on his barn. Whatever was needed. That was the way of it.”
“That is Meitheal,” he said, writing the word and handing me the scrap of paper. “You might consider hanging on to that.”
Thank you, Michael. I am hanging on to that. May we all hang on to that.