KENT — Several of best-selling Irish writer Frank Delaney's novels begin with storytelling in a kitchen. An unannounced visitor trudges up through the Irish countryside to a house with "calm light in the window," and then, after a meal, seated beside the hearth and with firelight playing on his face, he unfurls the captivating tales of Delaney's novel "Ireland."
"The Last Storyteller" also begins in a "wide old kitchen," with walls two feet thick, a floor of huge flagstones and a long table dominating the middle of the room.
So it is fitting that Delaney and his wife, Diane Meier, are opening the rustic, quirky, story-filled kitchen of their Kent barn as part of a tour of six distinctive kitchens in Kent and Cornwall, on Nov. 2 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., to benefit the Housatonic Musical Theatre Society. It's the 11th year of the tour, which will support the Housatonic Valley Regional High School's production of "Hello Dolly" next March.
"Kitchens are for conversation," Delaney said. "They're not just for cooking, they're for conversations."
Theirs is a kitchen of found objects and charming surprises. The wide white farm sink was found by the side of the road. Tucked here and there are bird's nests, a collection of blue bottles, antique tea kettles, mugs and cups hanging from hooks. There's a stuffed owl in the rafters, a stuffed goose on top of the refrigerator, and a pair of lifesize sheep at the French doors.
The backsplashes of vintage painted tiles look like a pair of patchwork quilts. The bright blue chairs around the kitchen island could have come from a Vincent Van Gogh painting. And an amusing hatrack is constructed of antlers embedded in a pole that sits on a base made from a old metal wheel perched on upturned horseshoes.
The kitchen is completely open to the rest of the large barn. There are two pianos, a harp, comfortable arm chairs and a collection of pig cuttingboards and artworks, including one sly piglet wearing lipstick.
Clearly a key ingredient here is mirth.
"The kitchen is the core of the house," Delaney said last week. "In our house, it was the living room, too."
The youngest of eight children whose parents both were teachers, Delaney said the kitchen in Tipperary, Ireland, where he grew up was "not even remotely" like the kitchen in Kent. His family didn't have electricity or running water until he was 15, he said. He did his homework by candlelight.
"We had a big black stove, which was kept going 24 hours a day, winter and summer, and two enormous kettles on the stove."
Delaney and Meier who were married in September 2002, had the floor of their barn in Kent laid earlier that year. Meier, a Manhattan native who runs a luxury marketing firm and has written two books — "The New American Wedding" and "The Season Of Second Chances" — owned the house since 1997.
Originally intended for storage and a pool house, the barn — painted a vibrant cornbread yellow, like the house and nearby milk barn — has become the heart of their home. It's where Delaney does virtually all of his writing, and where they host numerous parties and fund-raisers, including auctions, concerts and poetry readings.
For smaller parties, Meier does the cooking, and, Delaney said, "I clean up as she cooks. I'm a superb kitchen maid."
Delaney and Meier call the barn their wedding barn, and two large wooden planks signed by their wedding guests flank each side of the doorway.
Delaney said they were just about to sign the contract to have the barn's frame of Canadian pine closed in that fall, when "a guy from Vermont" drove up the driveway and urged them not to do so yet.
They left it open for two years to season the wood, and as a result the beams inside are beautifully weathered and silvered. And, Delaney happily pointed out, there are no fishplates — the metal braces that are needed to hold things together when wood beams begin to separate.
The delay in closing-up the skeleton of their barn actually was more fortuitous than that. Delaney said that while they waited, they realized the barn could have a big kitchen — it stretches nearly 40 feet.
"We had the chance to pay close attention to all sorts of detail," he said, "to plan what we would do here, meticulously. We had the time to think it through — absolutely to the square inch what we wanted."
They have two dishwashers, two stoves and two sinks, and the enormous island is made from wood milled from a cherry tree on the property that they'd had to take down.
Their long, welcoming dining table is made from wood of the same tree.
And as Delaney pointed out, everything is on wheels.
Vintage Pitchers And More
Delaney, who turned 71 on Thursday, Oct. 24, had a long career with BBC broadcasting, in Ireland and then in England. He hosted a variety of talk shows and served as literature director of the Edinburgh Festival, before moving to Kent and becoming a full-time writer. He said it's been estimated that he has interviewed more than 4,700 writers and poets. In 2010 he developed a highly successful series of free weekly podcasts discussing and explaining the allusions in the work of James Joyce, called "Re: Joyce," which, he said, has been downloaded nearly a million times.
When he moved to Kent and he and Diane began to unpack the container from his large house in England, which was built in 1560, "we realized we had the same things."
There's their collection of 19th-century spotted pitchers on a high shelf in the kitchen; they can no longer remember which pitcher belonged to whom. Meier owned a 19th-century mixing bowl — putty-colored on the outside, robin's-egg blue inside — and, she said, when they opened up one of Frank's cartons, there was the very same bowl, in a different size.
One of Delaney's most detailed descriptions of a kitchen comes in his 2009 novel "Shannon," the story of Robert Shannon, a young priest from Sharon, Connecticut, who is suffering from severe shellshock after World War I. Shannon is sent to Ireland to try to piece his life back together, walking the river Shannon and searching for his family roots.
At one point in the book Robert Shannon, his mood swinging between strength and tears, finds himself drawn to a white house with a yellow door. Dawn has begun to open fully, in more ways than one. As he moves into the house, he sees "a frill of light around the edges of a closed door." He knocks, and, when nobody answers, he pushes open the door "into the glowing welcome of a large kitchen," where everything he sees speaks of "comfort, peace, and safety."
One of the sweetest details in this fictional kitchen is the large food cupboard that is closed with chicken wire in its lower half; "it had chicken wire because it contained chickens, tiny cheeping creatures, fluffing themselves and stumbling about in the warm little cage."
And in Delaney and Meier's Kent kitchen, at the bottom of their large, cherry-topped kitchen island are shelves fronted with chicken wire that hold stuffed chicks and chicken figurines.
The couple also used chicken wire in lieu of wooden spindles up their staircases and along the balconies of the barn's writing lofts.
"You can't write about Ireland in Ireland," said Delaney, who does most of his writing in Kent, in the barn, early in the morning and late at night.
In a 2005 interview, Delaney explained: "Distance lends enchantment to the view. But it also lends objectivity."
The Connecticut countryside is similar, he said last week, though Ireland didn't have tobacco barns.
But, he said: "America is totally different to live in. You don't know the depth of volunteerism here, the size of the generosity, the intensity of the neighborliness.
"This is the longest I've ever lived in any one place," he added. The welcome he received in Kent "was really astounding. I was made to feel at home at once. And it continues."
KITCHEN TOUR: Tickets for the Nov. 2 Kitchen Tour are $35 in advance and $40 the day of the tour. For information, go to hmts.org, call 860-364-6022860-364-6022 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun