Ciara Kenny

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Beyond Belfast

Long lapses between visits home can have sobering consequences, writes Philip Lynch.

Mon, Sep 3, 2012, 10:12


Long lapses between visits home can have sobering consequences, writes Philip Lynch.

After months of preparation, we’re finally on our way. The flight is long but uneventful. The food is forgettable and the leg room lousy. What is there to say about the Melbourne to London flight that hasn’t been said already? It’s long tedious and numbing but the price you pay to get to the other side of the world in 24 hours.

A few days with friends in a balmy London revives us. On the second night I drink too much with my mate at his local and bang on pathetically about how much I miss rural life in Ireland. Crying when you’re drunk doesn’t count, I know but that night the emotion felt true enough.

We set off for Edinburgh in our hire car. Apart from the small matter of missing the M1 turn-off on our way out of London and having to settle for the M3, the journey up to Scotland passes without incident. Jane’s careful planning and attention to detail is paying off.

The ferry ride over to Northern Ireland takes barely two hours. A black taxi takes us to the car hire place at Belfast city airport. I can’t help wondering if the driver is Catholic or Protestant. Not that I’m game to enquire. Not that it really matters anymore anyway.

After picking up our car, we drive around Belfast city. Down the Falls Road and for good measure along Shankill Road. The trip takes about ten minutes. Walled by mountains that look silently down upon the city, it seems such an ordinary place. Yet its history of violence and sectarian hatred has wrecked so many lives. Over a half of the 3,000 deaths during The Troubles from 1969 to 2001 occurred in this city. Today the defiant murals still remain and no doubt the heartache at the loss of loved ones.

We head south and cross the border into the Republic. Our car seems to swallow up the kilometres. As we draw nearer to my old home, I begin to recognize the towns along the way: Kinnegad, Delvin, Mullingar and Castlepollard.

It’s mid-morning, the middle of the week and there is little traffic, just the occasional car and tractor as we get closer to our destination. It’s summer but there is no tourist traffic. This is farming country. Not scenic enough to rival the spectacular landscape of the west or south west. But scenic in its own way.

Our two-year-old is now wide awake in the back seat, as if she too is in a heightened state of awareness. By now I’ve given up remarking on the scores of new houses that are dotting the countryside – indisputable evidence of the Celtic Tiger. In some locations, literally hundreds of houses have replaced what were once fields and farmland.

We stop off at a supermarket in Castlepollard, a town not far from our place. I park the Fiat in the town square. I remember the town hall almost burnt down when the hurling team’s championship victory bonfire got out of control on that night of celebrations. Years ago it was, I was still at primary school.

We get out and stretch our legs. I decide I’ll buy a tin of biscuits. Gifts of tins of biscuits I remember were traditionally given at Christmas. We won’t linger in this place. Anyway there are no cafes and we’re nearly home. There is a fish and chip shop, a chemist, a newsagency, a hardware store, two hairdressers and a post office, several pubs, three churches and the supermarket but no cafes.

We begin the final eight kilometres. The road narrows as I knew it would. I know this stretch well. Six years on the school bus has etched every bump and corner in my memory. On past the pine plantation, through the stretch of harvested bog, turning right at the fork in the road, then up a hill and then around three bad bends and we’re almost there. Past the low stone wall bridge that Joey Malone collected one night with his Lancia, obliterating himself and the car in the process. On past the ivy cloaked three storey mansion up on the hill belonging to the millionaire Smiths.

Suddenly we’re there. We slow right down and drive in over the cattle grid. Our tyres are crunching the gravel on the driveway. We come to a halt, parking behind the old blue Renault 5 my dad used to drive.

I park near the front door and kill the engine. Did the corner of that lace curtain in the kitchen window move? Nice looking bungalow, my wife says. It should be, I tell here, it’s less than ten years old. There is no sign of anyone. My mother is probably in there frantically tidying. Old habits die hard. Where is the old man? There’s no sign of his boots by the front door.

The lawn is in desperate need for a cut. The fruit trees haven’t had a pruning for a while. Strange, not like the old man to let things slide. Emaciated looking climbing roses devoid of any real colour, and in concrete tubs form an arch over the doorway. Red geraniums in terracotta pots sit on the window sills.

I retrieve the tin of biscuits from the back seat. Maybe I should have had it wrapped. It suddenly seems an inadequate offering. The rest of our gear can wait. Jane is unbuckling Molly. We walk towards the front door.

After hours of driving, after the noise of the airport terminals, and the relentlessness of the city traffic, it suddenly seems still here, almost eerily quiet. Like everything is suspended. A black and white border collie that I don’t recognise, its tail wagging a welcome, appears and it begins to lick at my feet.

When I get to the door, I can’t decide if I should ring the bell or just go in. I used to live here, though not anymore of course. My home is in Melbourne. I decide on the bell but the door opens as I reach for it. My mother is there, smiling awkwardly, reaching out to hug me. “Yis are here, at last,” she offers, wiping her eye. We are, we are, I tell her. I turn to Jane. She is holding Molly who appears to have been overcome by a rare bout of shyness.

We follow my mother inside, in through the porch, past the telephone on the table, along the hallway and into the kitchen. She seems smaller, more stooped than I remember, maybe it just her slippers, her gait. There’s the smell of cooking and the sound of a clock ticking. The old man is there. He is sitting slumped in an armchair; a crushed newspaper on his lap. He seems to be smiling. He doesn’t get up. He doesn’t say anything. It seems strange to see him in his slippers and pajamas in the middle of the day.

I walk over to where he is sitting.

I lean down to him and grasp his hand. “Welcome. Welcome,” he says, after a long silence, his voice is hushed, almost a whisper, as if he has suddenly remembered a greeting. He looks past me. “And who does this little one belong to?” He asks, pointing his stick at Molly.

Although it’s still early, it seems as if this day is well on its way, maybe even already gone. “I’m sorry, we’re late,” I say aloud, to no-one in particular. You can’t imagine how sorry.

Philip wrote this story a few years ago. Read previous Generation Emigration pieces by him about his relationship with his ageing parents here, and about his dwindling connection to Ireland here