“Fleá na bPratai” meaning Potato Festival…
A “Potato Festival” you said? I know, only in Ireland you might think? But the story is a little more complex than that I am afraid. It started in the summer of 1995; my girlfriend had been assigned for a five months placement in Galway Co. Council, water quality department, if you don’t mind, with the white lab coat and goggles… But enough with the romance here, I, had to find a job! Or actually design myself one. My ornithological and wildlife guide experiences wasn’t going to put food on the table, not in the “City of Tribes”, not on this Island, not for now. And before anyone puts anything on the proverbial table, we needed to find a place to live for the summer. 1995, the best, hottest and sunniest summer since ever… I am serious, people still speak about it! And as I am looking outside the window, they probably will do so for another twenty years!
Every Wednesday afternoon, the Galway Advertiser was out, the demand for accommodation was quite important as Galway was considered by most as one of the coolest student cities in Ireland! I just enjoyed the view… Yeah right! We finally found a place in the Newcastle area, West side of Galway… I paid the taxi fare and knocked at the door where we were welcomed by a tall red haired, red bearded Belfast guy; I am not joking, give the guy a sword and a shield and you are in the legends of Fionn MacCumhaill here… And when I say welcomed, I mean welcomed!
Pádraig and his wife Caitlin from Shetland were long time tenants of this fine semi detached suburban house, the rent was affordable, nice big yard for barbecues, large en suite bathroom! “We’ll take it!” I said in haste as if some invisible bidder was going to pop out of the living room with a better offer. “You will have a cup of tea?!” said Paddy; to this day, I am not quite sure if this was a polite rhetorical question or a direct order. “ I made some soup? Celery and Stilton… It’s nice, here, c’mon, you will have some soup!” There he went again, I was too hungry to refuse and before long, I found myself with a can of beer in one hand, a mug of tea in the other, a vegetarian quiche and a bowl of soup in the middle. Armed with a wooden spoon, “Fionn” was about to deliver his final blow… “spuds?! Go on, have a few spuds”. I looked at him with a faked smile, which is a hard thing to do when you start to look like a greedy hamster, and managed to squeeze out an unconvincing “sure!”.
That wonderful summer ended in October, I had been pretty unsuccessful at finding a job in one of the multitude of small restaurants the city harboured and became a chimney cleaner in Connemara instead, probably for the better. We headed back to Sligo while Pádraig and Caitlin were soon to leave Galway for a more rural life east of the County, ideal place to raise a family. We met a couple of times after, but sporadically; life has a way to keep one busy and therefore forgetful, “far from the eyes, far from the heart” my mother use to monologue in her kitchen amongst other of her cheery daily diatribes.
My friends had another take on it and to prevent this from happening, they started to organise an annual gathering, under the excuse of a three day barbecue, mostly traditional music, Gaelic speaking, or not, and maybe a few drinks… Maybe… Hum. But the whole weekend was around potatoes, in all its forms, salad, mashed, roasted, as bread (yes it does exist, speciality from the north of the Island, amazing for breakfast), in a veggie stew… You name it. For sure, that long haired and red bearded Antrim boy wasn’t going without a fight.
I went back to the Fleagh, a couple of weeks ago and as I write these few short lines, I realise that it has been twenty years to the month since we met on that scorching summer’s day. The potato fest is still going strong, with friends turning into families, stronger and bigger. The music and the potatoes are still there and very little has changed really. As I parked – my own car this time- in the driveway, it wasn’t long before I found myself teleported in a whirlwind of déjà vu, a cup of tea in one hand, a bottle of beer in the other and that big Belfast boy’s hand over my shoulder saying: ““ spuds?! Go on, have a few spuds”.