It’s 5 a.m. and pitch dark outside when the alarm goes off.
“Huh!? What!? Umph,” I mumble as I swing wildly at the bedside table searching for the source of the annoying sound.
“It’s Easter,” Sara tells me calmly. “We’re going to the Mass at Teampall Geal.”
“That’s right,” I say, “and then we’re stopping at Tus’s house for a cup of Easter tay!”
I leap out of bed.
There is a long tradition in our little townland that all the neighbors gather at Teampall Geal, the ancient oratory dating to 800 AD on the hill above Tus’ cottage, at 6 a.m. for Easter morning mass. The night before we had laid out our clothes, preparing for near freezing temperatures. Long underwear, heavy socks, shirts and pants, jumpers, knit caps, and waxed cotton coats were ready. And, of course, our trusty wellies. In our coat pockets we had our gloves and our torches (flashlights) to light our way.
We park our car near the Young Farmer’s yard and walk the last mile or so up the hill to the oratory. There is a full moon, though you wouldn’t know it because of the clouds. The torches guide our way through the first field, past the holy well, and over a fence before we begin the steep climb up the hill. Other torches bobbed ahead of us and behind us, lighting the way for toddlers and teens, adults and old ones leaning on sticks making the dark ascent.
Above the oratory, behind some stone walls, Tus has lit a giant bonfire to help us find our way.
At the top, torches are turned off as we all gather in front of the stone walls, huddling around the standing stone that marks St. Manchán’s grave. We pull our caps tighter on our heads. The wind is fierce.
A table is set in front of the low entry to the oratory, beneath a simple cross on the gable, protected from the wind. A single candle provides the only light.
“In ainm an Athar agus an Mhic agus an Spioraid Naoimh. Amen,” the priest begins. “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The entire Mass is in Irish and I had just exhausted my entire vocabulary, but it is easy to follow the age-old formula.
He offers us God’s blessing, “Beannacht Dé ort.” And we all recite The Lord’s Prayer, or at least the first few words that I know, “Á nAthair, atá ar neamh.” “Our Father, who art in heaven….”
The wind has picked up. I lean over to Sara and say, “I can’t feel my toes.”
“Neither can I,” she replies.
A fiddle and a tin whistle provide mystical musical interludes. We can feel ourselves transported back in time when all celebrations of faith in Ireland had to be hidden away behind hedgerows or in remote, inaccessible places, free from the British overseers. But the faith, and the people, prevailed.
The Mass ends. “Tá an tAifreann thart. Imigí faoi shíocháin.” “The mass is ended. Go in peace.”
A single voice begins to sing a capella in English.
“Christ the Lord is risen today” and the rest of the gathering joins in. “Alleluia!”
All together now, “Sons of men and angels say, Alleluia!” The hymn swells and floats down the hill.
In the east, the sun rises from behind Mt. Brandon.
“Thus to sing, and thus to love, Alleluia!” we finish.
The priest has one final announcement.
“Ye are all invited by Tus, a man of legendary hospitality, to his house below for a warming cup of tay.”
The people begin to find their way down the hill, enjoying the warmth of the rising sun. We pass the holy well, the water source for Tus’ tay, and turn into his yard.
In front of the door, a small table is set up in the yard. Tus walks out the door carrying a large tray holding perhaps a hundred shot glasses, souvenirs from this simple sheep farmer’s travels. There are glasses from Dublin and Cork, Lisdoonvarna and Mullingar. Atlantic City and Orlando are represented. I think I spot one from Tokyo. Some things are not always what they seem. Tus reaches down and, from beneath the table, produces a bottle of clear liquid and begins to pour.
This is the fabled “tay”, Tus’ poitín, made with the blessed water of the holy well according to a recipe handed down from generation to generation. He hands me a glass. It has NYC on one side and a red apple on the other.
“Thank you,” I say. “We’re your neighbors from down the hill, in the second house in the woods.”
“Ye’re very welcome indeed. Will ye go inside for some cake?”
“We will, thank you.”
We file with the other neighbors into the house, finding a seat on a wooden bench in the sitting room. In the kitchen, neighbor women are serving soda bread and brown bread and scones and homemade jams. They even have actual tea.
I take a tiny taste of Tus’ tay. It is wonderful. Very smooth and light, with a hint of flowers and fruit about it. More neighbors gather in the small room.
About half way through my cup of tay, I turn to Sara and say, “I’m beginning to feel my toes again.”
“Hand it over,” she demands.
We chat with our neighbors about dogs and kids and the wonderful events of the morning, drinking our tay and enjoying the warmth of the fire. And the warmth of finding a welcome here in our little community.
Then it’s time to thank our host for his hospitality, take our leave, and head down the hill for a good long nap.