Nestled between the Ring of Gullion and the spectacular Mourne Mountains, Newry doesn’t make many headlines these days. I drove into the city with a load of wet washing drying on the back seat and vague memories of grey stone and dullness and necessity. Over the next two days, however, I was to become quite attached to the grey stone, the glassy canal, the compact little city centre embraced by the misty, enveloping arms of the mountains.
It didn’t take long to find my B&B after stopping at a petrol station and grinning like an idiot as I listened to the directions issued in that gritty, sing-song accent that was so very dear to me. I used to talk like that when I was a child, I thought. I wish I still did. The Northern Irish accent is so very different to the Southern Irish one, it’s like you’ve arrived in a new country altogether. And throughout the north there are numerous variations. As soon as I opened my mouth people could tell I was from overseas, but a handful of thoughtful people took a moment and then grinned and nodded in recognition when I said I used to live in South Armagh. They could hear it in the few words I still say differently. “Sure but where’s your balaclava?” said one particularly amusing shop owner. Well, he thought he was funny. He actually slapped my back while asking the question. I nearly slapped his ear but decided I didn’t want to live up to the South Armagh stereotype.
My lovely B&B host Geraldine welcomed me in that understated way that Ulster people have. I walked into my room (well, “suite”) and gasped at how lovely it was. Can we all just take a moment, in particular, to admire the kitchenette contents?
This was supposed to be my breakfast the next day but I engulfed most of it like a whale engulfing plankton as soon as Geraldine left me to rest. Then I heard a gentle knock.
I shoved half a cinnamon pastry into my mouth and spat it out again as I answered through the door. “Yeth?”
“Since you’re in your city of birth, sure let’s take you for a wee drive around your ancestral home, shall we?”
And she scooped me up and spent the next two hours driving me around Newry and up and down breathtakingly narrow country lanes to get to ancient Celtic ruins and spectacular lookouts.
As we hurtled around blind corners, Geraldine tapping the horn and chatting away merrily, I gripped the dashboard and wonder if perhaps Newry would hit the headlines after all with a front page story of two women hurtling off a dolmen-covered cliff into the canal.
As we stood looking over Carlingford Lough towards Warrenpoint, Southern Ireland just 50 metres to our right down a leafy track and the North spread out before us, we mused on the implications of Brexit and what it would take to police the border when so many crossing points were, in fact, unsealable.
We shook our heads over the startling stupidity of people. “And what about Trump?” I added, as a spectacular sunset softened the landscape below us into a mellow palette of gorgeousness.
“Fucking eejit,” said Geraldine, in her broad Newry twang. “Fucker.”
I nodded solemnly and we drove back down the hill, content in the knowledge that we were possibly the last two sensible and sane people left in the world.
I slept brilliantly in a bed fit for a queen and rose early to run. I was determined to keep up my fitness routine, particularly as mashed potatoes were apparently my major food group for this trip. It was fabulous to stretch my legs and see Newry from a different perspective. I ran into the city centre and along the canal, stopping regularly to take photos, including a sign towards the hospital where I was born. I met a number of other runners and we raised our eyebrows at each other (or panted) as we passed. I felt like a local, and it was wonderful.
I was despondent about leaving Geraldine’s Palace, as I had christened my B&B. I had already booked another place for that night, Monday, in Armagh city, and I was regretting it. Before hitting the road I asked Geraldine if she had a vacancy for Tuesday night, and she did. I made a split-second decision to come back to Newry for one more night of luxury before heading to Belfast.
But today, I had somewhere very important to be.
I headed out on the road to South Armagh. The sun was shining and my heart was beating just a little faster.
I was going home.
For as long as I can remember, I have had dreams and fantasies and imaginings about Ireland, and about Altnamackan, the small village where I spent my first five years of life. When I got back there, it was with a sense of incredulous delight that I realised those dreams and fantasies were, in fact, memories. I had dreamt many times of running down a long slope towards my school, impossibly green trees enfolding the wide lane in dappled shadow. I drove through Newtownhamilton towards my old house, and there it was. I had dreamt of dense forest, magical hidden lanes and hedged hills that rolled on forever. I had dreamt of ancient stone bridges and misty vistas that could break your heart. Here it all was.
And then something else struck me. All my life I have loved forests and hidden glens, magical hidden landscapes with rivers and bridges and mystery. And as I travelled through Armagh (and the rest of Northern Ireland), here it all was, and I understood that this place was actually in my blood and my spirit. It sounds melodramatic, perhaps, but everything just…fitted. Nothing was unusual. Every tree, every lane, every stream, whispered Home. This was what took me most by surprise on my trip: the way so many things about myself suddenly made sense; in fact, took on a new clarity and meaning that shed light on who I was as a person. It was very moving.
You guessed it. I cried. And that was before I even started talking to the people.
(My propensity to laugh, my urge to tell stories, to sing and make music, my love for mystery and melancholy, and my ability to strike up a conversation with a doorknob are all very stereotypically Irish traits – and they, too, all started to make sense. They’re not just stereotypes. Irish people are actually like this. I am like this, I thought more than once. I fit in here.)
I visited my old house first. The lovely woman who now lives there invited me in and let me poke around, even though the manse had been extensively renovated since we lived there, and I hardly recognised a thing. Her mother was there helping paint the baby’s room, and she remembered my father very clearly. This was to happen over and over again as I went from house to house, to my old school, to the churches where my father used to preach, and even as I ambled along country lanes. Everyone I met, without exception, remembered my father, or my sister, or me, or all of us. No-one else had moved away, you see. They had all stayed and made lives, had their children, all within metres of their family homes. We were the only family to move away, and because my Dad was the local Reverend, and we had moved in quite dramatic circumstances (my father had been told he was on an IRA hit list) and to the other side of the world, everyone remembered us.
At my old school I was warmly welcomed and invited to look through the 50th anniversary commemoration folder. The first page was a copy of the cover of the small book my father had written about the history of the church next door. I flicked further and there were pictures of my sister, my brother, my best friend, families I had known so many years ago. It was uncanny. I cried.
As I wandered down the lane outside the school, I struck up a conversation with a farmer. When I mentioned I was travelling from New Zealand, he squinted, and said in a soft voice, “Alison?”
Alison is my older sister. This was Ivan Warnock, who had been in the same class as her, and who now farmed the land like his father before him. “Sure I remember the day your brother was run over by the tractor,” he sniffed. “Came up to the manse with a bottle of Lucozade for him, so I did. Do you not remember?”
I had been told that my father’s photo hung in McKelvey’s Grove, one the churches he preached in on a Sunday. I was also told how to find the house of the woman who looked after the key. When she opened the door and I told her who I was, she almost fell over in shock. She readily agreed to take me over the church and unlock, all the while staring at me like I was a ghost from the past (which, I suppose, I was).
“Sure I remember your Daddy cycling up here and baptising my three boys,” she said. “Sure I remember as clear as day.”
I briefly called in on the new Presbyterian Minister who directed me to the home of my mother’s best friend, Olive Henry. Again I knocked on a strange door and became an instant celebrity. Olive wouldn’t let me go, drinking me in, gripping my hand and plying me with bottles of water and chocolate biscuits. Friends popped in and out during my visit, often staying to chat and reminisce about my parents. One of them, Gracie Herron, stayed for a bit longer. She and Olive joked that they had once heard my father say if he hadn’t married my mother, he would have married Gracie. She blushed.
Eventually I needed to head off to Armagh city. Olive and I both had tears in our eyes as we embraced. “Know that I’m here for you if you need me, alright?” she urged. “You’re not alone in Ireland.” I was missing my daughter that day. Olive’s words helped enormously.
I drove once more past the old manse, past the road which led to my little school, past Bells Lane, through Newtownhamilton. I felt drained, and elated. I felt more alive, more in touch with who I was, more grounded and complete, than I had in many years.