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The Go-To-Bed

You never know where you’re going to find a story. And this is a particularly true in Ireland.

The fourth book in my County Cork mysteries, A Turn for the Bad, will be released tomorrow. Since I like to get the details right, I travel to Ireland as often as I can, and I end up talking to a lot of interesting people. I’m not necessarily looking for story ideas, but I do enjoy hearing tales and learning how cultures differ from one another, even if you’re speaking the same language.

So this is a story from the Skibbereen Farmers’ Market, which was founded in 1657 when the town was granted a charter. It’s open every Saturday, year round. And for the past several visits I’ve timed my travel so I am sure to be there at least one Saturday.

As a result I’ve made some friends, which is odd because I see them only once a year at best. But we recognize each other. Apart from the amazing food products, there is a guy who makes magic wands, and someone who sells apple trees, and farmers in the warmer months who will sell you a live chicken or a duck. And there is an antique dealer I’ve been chatting with for several years now. He’s English but he lives in Ireland, and it turns out he’s also a mystery writer and an editor for hire. And, yes, I buy odds and ends from him when I’m there—a book, a silver-plated christening mug, a salt shaker from a defunct steamship line—and a go-to-bed.

All right, that stopped me. I picked up a small object at his booth (I’m always on the hunt for items that fit nicely in a suitcase!) and said, “what is this?” And he said, “it’s a go-to-bed.” I’d never heard the term. So he kindly explained it to me. In detail.

The simplest definition is that it’s a matchbox. The elaborate description is that it was invented (or popularized) by Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, who, being a Scot, was cheap (hey, I’m just reporting what I was told). Rather than taking a candle to hie himself up to the royal chambers to go to bed, he chose a small matchbox, with a rough bottom for striking the match, and a tiny holder on the top in which to insert the lit match. And then he would proceed to bed (which must have been a challenge, since if he moved too fast the match would go out, but if he went too slowly, the match would consume itself before he got to the bedroom).

Wikipedia kindly informs me: “One specific variety of go-to-bed worthy of mention is ‘Prince Albert’s Safety Vesta Box,’ … a decorated brass tub with an embossed top…ribbed under base for striking matches…a small finial to take a single match on to.”  Well, mine’s not brass, but it is covered in tartan and has that tiny finial on top. Maybe there’s a bit of accuracy in the story.

So in the course of a few minutes I went from never having heard of this obscure but charming item to being the proud owner of one. Not to mention a piece of history, false or not. Even if it’s not true, it’s a charming story that just fell into my lap.

And there are so many more! Of course I’ll keep going back to Ireland to collect them. The stories may not always be quite true, but the Irish love to tell them.

Today is Saint Brigid’s Day in Ireland. Brigid is the female patron saint of Ireland, and she is also the patron saint of babies, blacksmiths, boatmen, cattle farmers, children of unmarried parents [I am not making this up!], children whose mothers are mistreated by the children’s fathers [go, Brigid!], dairymaids, dairyworkers, fugitives, mariners, midwives, milkmaids, nuns, poets, the poor, poultry farmers, printing presses, sailors, scholars, travelers and watermen.

If that’s not enough, she is said to have the power to multiply such things as butter, bacon and milk, to bestow sheep and cattle and to control the weather. 

How can you go wrong with a saint who can multiply butter and bacon and control the weather?

Where do you find your stories? You don’t need to be a writer–just listen and enjoy!


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