One of my favourite things about returning to Ireland, I realize as we take our seats at a little cafe, is the tea. It’s probably the best remnant of the British occupation- a readily-available respite from the rigours of the day- and a way to perk yourself up as the afternoon drags on and you begin to feel peckish. My sister and I have spent all day walking around Bantry, and are planning to take a bus down to Glengarriff to take a walk in the ancient oak forests surrounding the towns and ringing the bay. But first, we have thirty minutes to spare and a slight edge to our stomachs.
Teatime isn’t ritualized here in the way it is in England and the remaining parts of the Commonwealth. The country doesn’t shut down for teatime and the cafes and restaurants don’t overflow with people seeking their afternoon buzz. But when we order tea from the woman behind the counter, she brings us a tray with china cups, a silver pot of tea, and- my favourite part- scones with jam and fresh butter from the local dairies. Hannah and I settle in for our thirty minutes of bliss as we spread the creamy butter over each lightly sugared bite of scone and sip from our piping cups. Teatime might not be the focal point of most peoples’ afternoons here, but when it happens, it isn’t done halfheartedly. It’s a time of day in which to indulge in treats and the company of your friends or family.
The last time I was in Ireland was twelve years ago- and the country was very different. Soldiers with machine guns were standing outside the post offices and the populace was holding its breath as the Good Friday Agreement was drawn up and signed in Belfast. Hannah and I were traveling with our parents and riding around to various bed and breakfasts in the southeast. But even then, when the tension was thick enough to breathe at times, the hostesses at each B&B would bring us to their lounge and then disappear, only to return with a pot of tea and a plate of scones. We would then spend an hour talking with her about the towns we’d seen, the relatives in Belfast we hadn’t felt safe enough to see, and learning from her about the area. One offered to ask around and see if we had any family remaining in Skibbereen. Another pointed us to a nearby heritage centre where we could find family records dating back to the Famine. For all of them, offering us tea was a basic part of hospitality and a way of connecting.
Today, as we take our tea in the relative anonymity of the cafe, we talk about our pipe dream- opening a bed and breakfast of our own out on the Sheep’s Head peninsula. While out that morning, we’d found the local real estate office and, as is our habit, taken note of what properties were available and for how much. This time it had been a “fixer-upper” of a barn with associated outlying buildings. We want to rent out the buildings as cottages and serve breakfast in the main building, and we plan for future patrons who will want to use us as a base from which to explore the nearby Sheep’s Head trail. Mostly, we’re debating about what colour schemes to use in each building. But as we finish the last sips of our tea and polish off the remaining crumbs of the scones, we agree on one thing: our bed and breakfast will have a lounge, a parlour, in which we will furnish our guests with tea, scones, and conversation. Whether or not tea is an institution, we will have it as an opportunity- an opportunity to chat, to connect, to feel welcome and at home. Because, whatever tea may be in any other part of the world, here it is a pause, a rest, and the sense of togetherness.