How To Survive The Irish Dinner Party

WILD AND WHACKY, the IRISH DINNER PARTY is not for the faint-hearted, as writer ILSA CARTER discovered when she swapped urban life for CO WICKLOW … 

Party Girl: Ilsa Carter

If you’ve squandered your youth in big cities as I have, you’ll find life in the Irish countryside intriguing. After a couple of quiet years in a thatched cottage tucked so deep in a valley that there was no internet or mobile phone coverage, I was astounded by the sight of two statuesque redheads in a Mercedes convertible roaring down my long lane. They leapt out of the car and introduced themselves as sisters living closer to the village, then further explained our “six degrees of separation”. Apparently we had a chain of mutual friends stretching like dominoes across the Atlantic all the way from Cork to California. It was only natural that we accept to attend their dinner party the following evening which promised to be a casual affair … a little family thing.

When you’re from New Orleans, like I am, there’s only one way to prepare to meet an assemblage of strangers in a strange land, no matter how hostile they pretend not to be, and that is with a “dresser”. A “dresser” is a colourless, odourless dram of liquid courage, a vodka martini or large glass of white wine. (Red wine turns the lips and tongue black as a chow chow dog and the juniper reek of gin will give you away every time). It facilitates that femme fatale flourish required to make an effective entrance, after all, first impressions last forever. When I lived in Hong Kong my best Chinese girlfriend told me “Your face is your future”, so with “dresser” in hand I put the warpaint on (heavy eyeliner and mascara better in candlelight) and chose something conservative to wear by Michael Kors (I was feeling patriotic), to compensate for what that same Chinese girlfriend had described as my “mistress’s taste in shoes”. These redheads were tall, so the orange Louboutin six-inch stilettos were the obvious choice.

Breathless, and half an hour late, I hobbled in having underestimated the rural topography, and with one eye on the turned-up edges of Indian carpets strategically positioned to trip up the “blow-in”. The intimate room was a blur of expectant eyes and bared teeth sparkling in the crackling firelight, all apparently related, full of curiosity and hands extended uttering names I immediately forgot. A teenager made me an impeccable dry martini before what would turn out to be a five-hour dinner for 30 people. There were welcome speeches, wedding plans, and party pieces. Party pieces were new to me. I had heard of singing for your supper but didn’t realise there was a place in this world where guests were actually required to do that. Poetry was recited and magic tricks performed. When the youngest boy announced he would now demonstrate his talent as an escape artist, I was ready to go with him. His aunt made eye contact with me across the table and mouthed the words “Welcome to the spider’s web”.

 

One invitation led to another and the monastic existence I had envisioned to write undisturbed was transformed into a demanding social calendar of lunch parties that ended with judges swimming naked in rivers to applause from the terrace, or designated drivers disco dancing in kitchens until dawn. I became accustomed to eating venison shot by good members of the gun club or salmon caught by cashmere-clad doyennes. Cosy clubs met regularly around blazing fires to debrief about the debauchery at the last bucolic bacchanal or in anticipation of the next. The cast of characters included artists, activists, aristocrats, shepherds, politicians, pig farmers, movie directors and stranded gentry. There would be Easter egg hunts and summer barbecues, kite flying and costume contests at Samhain, Christmas and Stephen’s Day dinners and hot port parties with rock stars and fireworks displays on New Years Day.

My permanent French fiancé and I have observed that here in Wicklow, society can be divided into the so-called smart set who sit down to dine in each other’s houses and then there are the upstanding people at the pub. There is a marginal overlap, but they’re really two different tribes. As “blow-ins” we’ve carved out a niche for ourselves between them, best described by the French term, pique-assiette, which is a kind of befriended freeloader, in that we don’t get around to reciprocating by throwing dinner parties of our own. In return for this dispensation, we go to a certain pub, which some find rather high church in ambience, where the calibre of the craic is exceeded only by an Aladdin’s cave of wines that eclipse the average Irish off-license, and we buy exceptional bottles to bring to the table. It’s a weak excuse to have another “dresser” while being interrogated by the regulars as to our destination, and a nightcap allows the same smiles on the same stools a recap of the evening. It’s a bit like being a cultural attaché, only the diplomatic pouch holds a brace of pheasants from a pleasant plucker, which I then deliver for Christmas dinner to a manor down the road.

My primary news source has changed from The Wall Street Journal to Irish Farmer’s Journal and I no longer see cities as vital hubs of civilisation where important events happen that I might be missing. I look forward to the lambs in March and regard a slow tractor pulling a trailer full of firewood with the same envy I used to have for a luxury sports car. I’ve developed night vision so as not to hit a rutting stag or a sleeping sheep in Sally Gap. I’ve developed a fetish for Donegal tweed, waterproof boots, and the weather. And my heart breaks every time I look down from a departing plane through a duvet of cloud at Wicklow disappearing into the distance. I’ll always remember the day when a neighbour and I climbed the mountain to repair the fragile makeshift plumbing between the water source and my cottage next to his. He paused to survey our valley and asked “You know what the best thing about going away on holiday is?” Struggling to catch up with him, I answered, “No, what’s that Séan?” And after pursing his lips he stretched them ear to ear and said “Coming home.”

 

I no longer felt like a “blow-in” when I was made a godmother, included in a First Communion, and when I had known the gentleman the funeral was for and truly mourned him. This increasing sense of connection is not as claustrophobic as the old me would have found it. Away from the dirty density of the metropolis, these tenuous tethers balance out the rugged remoteness of the landscape I have chosen.

One autumn, back in a chic converted barn after a mushroom hunt, we were cooking up a feast from what we found. A pretty five-year-old imp, named Polly, said suspiciously “You’re not from around here are you?” I confessed to being American to which she retorted “Well you’re in the middle of nowhere now”.

Ilsa Carter

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