The evening, like many in middle age, starts with the babysitter. It is no ordinary babysitter, but a bedraggled Peig Sayers, whisked from the windswept Blasket Islands to look after my children.
We’re in a manor house — kitted out with a bar — overlooking the harbour in Kinsale, a small town in Cork famous for the Atlantic seafood served in its high-end restaurants. Glasses of Guinness are lined up and my father is in the kitchen, gutting the fish that will provide our main course.
Peig’s account of her life of hardship in a remote Gaeltacht community in the early 20th century was a key Irish-language text for secondary school children when I was growing up. She, more than anyone, deserves a night out.
The Peig at our doorstep is not the misery guts worn down by life but young and, dare I say it, optimistic. Drink and eat as much as you like, I tell her, just keep an eye on the kids — who I hope will appreciate her famous storytelling more than I did when I was at school. She frowns disapprovingly, but babysitters don’t need to like you, they just need to keep the children alive. Before she can say anything, I head to the door.
And there he stands. Michael Collins, the Irish revolutionary and politician, the man who some Republicans say was outmanoeuvred by the British and sold out the cause, the man killed by . . . Well, who exactly did order the killing of Michael Collins?
The Collins that arrives, shaking the rain off his hat, is a ghostly, all-knowing figure, who I hope will deliver insights into some turbulent years of Irish history. He takes a pint and unfolds an Irish Times, still wet with newsprint. Peig, I notice, has eschewed the Guinness and made do with a small glass of Powers. I don’t remember her being a whiskey drinker but then my belief that there was more to Peig than meets the eye is one reason I asked her to come.
My next guest appears with a colourful, flamboyant fanfare. No tantrums or tiaras yet but, after reading his autobiography, I expect lots of biting good humour and witty asides. Elton John switches off my husband’s funky playlist and takes to the grand piano overlooking the harbour — but not before appraising Collins and waspishly observing that he prefers Liam Neeson, who played him in the Hollywood film.
The next arrival is Guy-André Kieffer, a French journalist who disappeared in mysterious circumstances in Ivory Coast in 2004. He comes, bearing tales of intrigue, corruption and scandal, and grabs a seat next to Collins, where they share stories of colonial misdoing. I keep one ear on the conversation, desperate for clues that might explain what happened to Kieffer after he allegedly fell out with the Ivorian elite.
Not everyone’s here, but I need to get on with the food. Yes, Kinsale is famous for its seafood, but there is an additional culinary theme of the evening. This is fare I’ve eaten and liked all over the world: kelewele, a spicy fried plantain popular in Ivory Coast and Ghana, seven-euro-a-pop olives I had in a Catalan restaurant, an overripe roadside pineapple from Uganda, that lovely lemon pasta I once ate in an Italian canteen, piping hot spring rolls from Thailand . . . It’s all there in little bowls for people to dip into while we wait for the starter to arrive.
There’s a lot of noise in the kitchen, but suddenly the doors fling open and vast tureens of steaming sea chowder emerge with plates of freshly sliced soda bread. My guests slurp back the soup and open the bottles of Barolo that line the candlelit table.
On the blackening horizon, we glimpse our fifth companion. A plane lands bumpily in the grounds, startling awake the cows and prompting distant gunfire from a rattled farmer. Out emerges pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart. Resplendent in her flying gear, she takes a seat just as we are served the main course — sea bream and hake with mounds of mashed potato, along with broccoli that nobody touches. Dessert is ice cream and strawberries, sloshed with Baileys.
I told the guests to bring booze: Peig offers poitín; Collins, Powers whiskey; Elton (30 years sober), Seedlip; Kieffer, a bottle of Bordeaux; Earhart, Jim Beam. Once we’ve laid into all that, I forget any questions I had about the Irish civil war and Elton starts cannibalising his backlist to make fun of us — “Amelia is travelling tonight on a plane. By the look on her face, she’s completely caned.”
We’ve arrived at that moment in a dinner party when you look at the good-humoured faces around you and decide that all the hassle was worth it and you marvel at the very slippery nature of time and history that has brought you all together.
But reality is catching up with us. There’s banging at the door. It’s the police, wondering if we have a licence to serve alcohol this late. People begin packing up. More worryingly, I realise that Peig is nowhere to be seen.
Then I spot her walking out of a side door with Amelia, towards what I now notice is a two-seater plane. The much more sober Peig is climbing into the front. We all watch, agog, as they head off into a very black night. There, I realise, goes my babysitter. And, with that, the night is over.
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