On a certain section of the Connecticut Post Road in a town called Westport, a row of neat but nondescript stores sit quietly amid the frenzy of traffic and rhythm of life.
One storefront stands out.
An Irish flag positioned aside an American one guards the entrance and on certain days if the breeze from the nearby Long Island Sound kicks in, its tricolours of green, white and orange wave gently - a tribute to the owners, Brian Ellard and Margaret Kirby who hail from Tipperary.
I can’t recall the first time I visited Peggy’s Cottage, but I do know it was that Irish flag that beckoned and once I stepped foot inside, there was no going back.
Growing up, my life encompassed all things Irish. My mother was Irish born and my Irish/Scottish father managed a well-known Irish pub called Rosie O’Grady’s in New York City.
A few charmed summers we visited Ireland and rented a house for two weeks, memories I will always cherish. We owned a huge but gentle Irish Wolfhound we brought back one trip who was the talk of our neighbourhood.
There was no getting away from my Irish heritage and my love for the country and people.
And then in later years after moving from the city to Connecticut, life became a wee bit grander when I discovered Peggy’s Cottage.
A warm and welcoming refuge, modelled after an authentic thatched Irish cottage, Peggy’s offered all the magical treats of my youth.
The lovely, light pork sausages my dad so loved, served with fried tomatoes and steak sauce on Sunday mornings. The many varieties of Cadbury delights (the Flake bars undoubtedly being my favourite).
The “drinking chocolate” my mother made for us on chilled winter mornings before school and the Bird’s custard she would use in her famous Irish trifle.
It was not just the foods of my childhood that brought comfort but the many authentic touches displayed throughout the store: the “himself/herself” set of Irish mugs I use daily, the gorgeous handmade knitted sweaters and tweed caps and my absolute favorite find in Peggy’s Cottage - the Irish Worry Stone, a smooth, emerald stone carved from Connemara marble you could tuck into your pocket and gently hold when worry or anxiety struck. My mother always brought worry stones home from Ireland as souvenirs. The day I discovered them at Peggy’s was no doubt a nod from my mother that she too approved of this special place.
Although I loved the many Irish offerings, the real reason I returned was Peggy herself. Margaret, Peggy, Peg or the name I chose to call her “Mag”, was my calm in the storm.
Her quiet presence seemed to right everything.
Each time I came through the front door I would spot her, a slight, pretty woman sitting contentedly behind the glass display case in the rear of the store.
She would greet me warmly and we would talk of life. My son had just entered college in Dublin and was struggling with the isolation of being in a country so far from home.
Each visit, Mag remembering my worries would question: “How is Owen getting on?” and I would tell her of his ups and downs.
One day while in the shop, I FaceTimed Owen to introduce him to Mag. The three of us enjoyed a good laugh as I showed him around the store, knowing he too would find the comfort which Mag and her cottage so effortlessly offered.
But as is often the case in life, I never really knew of her own struggles. And when I learned that she had died last month at just 54 years of age after a long illness, of which she never spoke, I felt such a profound sadness it took my breath away.
Sadness in never getting the chance to say goodbye.
Sadness for her partner Brian and son Darren who she left behind and a sadness in knowing when I return to Peggy’s Cottage my greeting from Mag will be only in memory.
There is a line from an song, recorded in 1914 by Irish tenor John McCormack, which tells of a deep love for a place, no matter how far away you roam:
“It’s a long, long way to Tipperary but my heart lies there.”
Born in the parish of Sologhead, near Tipperary Town, I imagine a part of Mag’s heart will always be there and the other right here in Connecticut in the little shop bearing her name which she loved so well.
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