“IN a big ocean liner I’m sailing in style, I’m sailing away from the Emerald Isle.”
So opens the nostalgic ballad, “Cutting the Corn,” which deals with the departure of a young Donegal man from his native Creeslough for the far-off shores of America.
From the start to finish it is a touching refrain but we will not concern ourselves with the lonelier side of the situation. Instead we will deal with a particular aspect, to wit a couplet dealing with stirabout pots and which runs something like this:
“Sure I swear to you Danny,
I’d swap the whole lot,
For the old wooden spoon
And the sirabout pot.”
Even allowing for poetic licence we may presume that Danny’s friend was deeply attached to the skillet or rather to the contents of the skillet. We may also presume that the young men of those far-off times after return from late-night dances, make directly for the skillet just as today’s young men make directly for the fridge.
I may not have the words exactly right but accuracy is not essential in this case so there is no need for readers to write in correcting me. It would be the waste of a stamp, paper and envelope constituting altogether another minor setback to the economy.
An approximation of the sentiment involved will serve our purpose and that purpose is to mourn the passing of the stirabout pot or as it is more familiarly known, the skillet pot. Indeed there is a delightful ballad devoted to this revered utensil, the chorus of which goes like this:
“Oh weren’t they the happy days,
When troubles we had not,
And our mothers made Colcannon,
In the little skillet pot”.
I may have mentioned in a column some years ago that the best interpreter of this song known to me is none other than the distinguished lady, Senator Kit Ahern. Whenever we meet, provided a happy occasion obtains, I generally prevail upon her to provide the company with her own inimitable rendition of this delicate and nostalgic little song. There are several other important musical compositions relating to the skillet also, all complimentary except for one in which the skillet is used to crack a man’s head.
The sillet was also less poetically referred to as the gruel vessel. Gruel and stir-about were one and the same thing, both being calefacted from ground maize and being the staple diet of most of the people of rural Ireland for many years after the Black Forty Seven. Maize was also used in the making of yellow meal or “pake” pointers but since these belong in another province, to wit, the griddle, we will not dwell thereon longer than we have to. Nowadays skillet pots are used for ornamental purposes only and in a sense I am glad for they might serve to remind us of times when hunger was the predominant fear of Irish households. In a sense I daresay the skillet pot has outlived its usefulness and could hardly be regarded as an ideal companion for the sophisticated foodstuffs we have today.
One of the great advantages of the skillet was its compactness and yet as a container it was most deceptive for it could hold as much food as certain other utensils which looked twice its size. Another powerful advantage was that it was made completely from iron, its cover included. This latter was a weighty object and unlike the compressed covers off other pots and saucepans which were largely tin and aluminium (no disrespect intended), great pressure was required if it was to be lifted from the parent pot.
Lifted, however, it foten was to allow the escape of what I will refer to as unnatural gases. These gases are the sole support of indigestion, dyspepsia, flatulence and all the other gaseous incumbents to which the human belly is heir. These gases abound in every stomach in great numbers and their discounted, volcanic-like rumblings are often an embarrassment to their owners.
Some gases merely gurly whilst others erupt into mighty belches. Other gases miaow like kitten while still more rumble and mumble like distant thunder. All these stomach utterances were once collectively classified under the general title of “wind”, surely a euphemism, if ever there was one.
Wind is a purifier whereas gas is a polluter. Of itself had no odour where as gases, particularly the ones in question, have. The moment the cover of the skillet is lifted by these internal powerful vapours it automatically falls back into place again, thereby retaining the natural and nutritive harmless gases which are fulsome and flavoursome and expelling forever those invisible but poisonous substances which have been the ruin over the years of innumerable stomachs.
Let me put it another way. If a gas is so potent that it can pressurize an iron cover into lifting itself, even for an instant, from its sole support we may well consider with alarm the effect his gas would have on an unsuspecting stomach. I am not suggesting that the skillet is the panacea for all stomach ailments. ‘What I am suggesting is that the skillet pot is a deceiver or the digestive tract like many others we could mention.
I’ll state no names but I will donate a prize to the first person who resurrects a worthwhile ballad about a frying pan.
Those who know me will concede that, for all my faults, I am not a man to make pronouncements lightly. When I do I am buttressed by solid evidence which I can produce at a moment's notice. I can cite examples too at a drop of a hat. The following will do nicely.
When I was a youth in the Stacks Mountains there returned to the land of his birth from the city of New York a long term exile whose Christian name was Patrick. He was immediately rechristened Patcheen the Yank. He endeared himself to all and sundry with an expression he was fond of using in public houses. The expression was purely and simply “The drinks are on me.”
This drew him many friends and sympathisers and when, after a few weeks of heavy boozing, his stomach started to react, there was widespread concern far and wide for his well being. There were other Yanks in the neighbourhood who came and went in the everlasting sense and who suffered illnesses of one kind or another but nobody, saving their immediate kinfolk, were greatly put out.
Patrick was a different kettle of fish. Here was a good natured, gullible fellow possessed of more than adequate coin and realm. Should his position deteriorate it would mean that he would have no means of spending his money and that there would be no friends at hand to help him spend what might be left over.
When he fell sick it was felt at first that it was a mere minor illness brought about by the change in climate. However, when he failed to appear in his favourite haunts after a period of three weeks his countless friends began to grow seriously worried. They wondered what could be wrong with him. The cause of Patcheen, the Yank’s setback was, of course, that his diet had been consistently liquid from the moment of his arrival in the old country.
Often in his cups he would mourn the friends of his youth and the death of ancient customs. Now and then he would wistfully refer to the colcannon his dear departed mother would hold hot for him in the family skillet until he came home from school.
Fortunately, there was an old woman at hand who possessed a skillet. It was an easy matter to make the colcannon. For a beginning he was given a bit out of his hand, that is to say a small saucerful or plateful.It worked wonders. His stomach healed itself in no time and he was, I am happy to say, quickly back to his old habit of saying, “the drinks is on me.”.
This article by the late and great John B Keane was first published in the Limerick Leader on April 16, 1977