Birdwatching with Granda at the kitchen table

My mother likes to tell a story about me when I was maybe seven or eight years’ old, sitting at the table in my grandparents’ kitchen in a farmhouse in County Meath, looking out the window over the garden and the fields.

I loved that kitchen, and I loved that kitchen table. That kitchen table was the centre of my world. Peas were podded there. The old Amstrad computer, with the cassette games, was stationed there.

During one spell of collective frankfurter addiction, six or eight of us would gather there on Saturday mornings and my uncle would grill up a dozen or more frankfurters and serve them up to whoever was around. I made it my business to be around.

I loved it for more than just the food. Frankfurters are perfectly fine in a bread roll with onions and ketchup and mustard, but I loved it for the company. I loved it for my five uncles, who all seemed wise and silly at the same time, and so grown-up in a way that I could never imagine, even though all of them were younger then than I am now.

I remember a wooden bench, painted a glowing orange-brown, inside the table running along the window.

I remember reading the death notices in the newspaper to my grandfather. It wasn’t that he couldn’t do it himself. Maybe he liked to close his eyes and listen. Maybe it was just a way of building a connection with his grandson. (He called me “Jemmy”. I’ve no idea where the name came from, but he had his pet names for all of us, and we loved it.)

There was a clear and established process for reading the death notices. I was to read the name and where they were from, and only read the rest of the detail if Granda heard something in the name and location that merited reading the full death notice.

Me: “McHugh, Mary (née Farrell), Pettigo, Co Donegal … McKeever, Frank, Ballyjamesduff, Co Cavan … Nolan, John, Castlebellingham, Co L—”

Granda: “That one, a mhic. Read that one…”

I liked to birdwatch.

My mam and dad subscribed to a magazine called The Country Companion, which arrived at the local shop every week for about two years, and I treasured every one.

The story my mother tells about me and my grandfather, her father, came to mind on Sunday when I read an article in the Sunday Independent about the winter migration of redwings—a small thrush, with distinguishing red beneath its wings—from Scandinavia to Ireland.

We were sitting at the kitchen table one day in winter, me on the wooden bench, Granda at the head of the table, looking out into the garden.

“Look at the thrush,” said Granda.

“That’s not a thrush, Granda, that’s a fieldfare,” I said.

I guess we were both right.

Granda in the greater scheme of things, the general wisdom of having been around for several decades. Me in the studied specificity of young childhood.

Being right—thrush or fieldfare, or both—didn’t matter. What mattered was that a 70-something-year-old man and a 7- or 8-year-old boy were sitting at the kitchen table and loving the life that was outside the window.

Granda died 26 years ago. I was 14 when he passed away and I never really knew any of the challenges he had faced down and overcome, or the challenges he succumbed to. I never really knew him as a man, but I knew him and loved him as Granda, and that was good enough for a lifetime.

(If you’re interested, here’s a video from the British Trust for Ornithology on identifying redwings and fieldfares, both common visitors to Ireland and the UK at this time of year.)


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