My life has changed immeasurably... Ireland and the UK have changed too

Former BBC journalist James Helm on a special bond with Ireland that has sustained his family through tragedy and change

James Helm: ‘For five great years I had what was, without a doubt, the best job in the global operations of BBC News.’

James Helm: ‘For five great years I had what was, without a doubt, the best job in the global operations of BBC News.’

 

A sunny morning in August 2011. I turned right out of the driveway one last time and the tears began. First it was me, then Charlotte, then each of the three boys in the back of the car, eldest to youngest. As we passed Sandymount Green and headed for Dublin Port, we were all sobbing.

Tiredness played its part. We badly underestimated how long it would take to pack up the belongings which we had accumulated over almost 10 years in Ireland. For most of the night, friends joined us to help sort, box, fold or chuck as the urgency increased. I finally got an hour’s rest on the empty lounge floor before it was time to pack the car and set off for the ferry. We crossed the Liffey and took a final look to our left, upriver. On either side, sharp and sleek, sat new buildings that had leapt up during our time in Dublin, a changed city.

Now the symmetry is complete: our time in Dublin, then 10 years here, just outside London. The hinge between the decades was that ferry-crossing to Holyhead after the tears had dried. After a long wait due to the pandemic, I am hoping to visit Dublin again soon. My life has changed immeasurably, as has my hair colour. Ireland and the UK, and their relationships, have changed too.

There were three of us at the start of our Irish adventure. We arrived early in 2002 with a babe in arms and a few suitcases and boxes after the BBC despatched me over the Irish Sea for what we thought would be a year’s stint. Less than two years into our married life, Charlotte and I leapt at the chance. We never imagined how our stay would stretch to nearly a decade, that it would shape our lives, and what happiness and friendships would unfold and grow.

Sandymount Green, Dublin. ‘This was our social crossroads where the children chased, parents chatted and coffee was sipped. I saw Seamus Heaney at the cashpoint and Daniel Day Lewis collecting his fish and chips in Borza’s, but nobody made a fuss.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Sandymount Green, Dublin. ‘This was our social crossroads where the children chased, parents chatted and coffee was sipped. I saw Seamus Heaney at the cashpoint and Daniel Day Lewis collecting his fish and chips in Borza’s, but nobody made a fuss.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

The weather was atrocious when we arrived – a huge storm had hit the east coast and the river Tolka had burst its banks. The taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, was photographed in the floodwater in his hat and wellies. We rented a place in Sandymount, which some saw as foolish then as prices rose, but genius when they plummeted years later. It was neither. We began to make friends with other parents of young children, and a few contacts we had. At weekends we put the child seat in the car and explored Ireland.

National drama

For five great years I had what was, without a doubt, the best job in the global operations of BBC News. On my very first day, an American trader called John Rusnak mislaid nearly $700 million in a bank that was part of AIB. I followed elections, referendums, political shenanigans, and a World Cup around Japan and South Korea.

I watched as the Celtic Tiger roared, and reported on whatever caught my eye, from Ireland’s profound and rapid social change to culture and the arts, and sporting triumphs. I got to meet the leading characters in the national drama, and its supporting cast, to stand on touchlines, and to go behind the scenes when big moments arrived. It was a privilege.

On a sparkling May Day in 2004 at Dublin Castle, the European Union welcomed 10 new member states. Three years on, in the corridors of Stormont, I peeped in on Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness on the extraordinary day they became first and deputy first ministers in a powersharing government for the North. The only time in my broadcasting career when my recording kit failed was when I was interviewing the great Maeve Binchy at her home in Dalkey. Unperturbed, we went next door to Finnegan’s for a bottle of wine over lunch and then recorded it all again.

John, Charlotte and their boys in 2010

School gate

Two more sons arrived at the hospital on Holles Street, and we were putting down firm roots. Charlotte wrote and edited books and built deep friendships at the school gate, through her work, and around the village. She was sociable, open of heart and mind and, unsurprisingly, much loved.

Our favourite spot was the patch of scruffy grass called Sandymount Green, with its bust of Yeats (which sometimes served as a goalpost), and, much later, of Heaney. The ball always landed in the bushes where the drinkers gathered, an odd palm tree sat at its centre, and easy access to busy roads on all sides scared those of us with young, mobile children. This was our social crossroads where the children chased, parents chatted and coffee was sipped. I saw Seamus Heaney at the cashpoint and Daniel Day-Lewis collecting his fish and chips in Borza’s, but nobody made a fuss.

Then, late in 2009, life suddenly and brutally tilted on its side. Charlotte discovered she had breast cancer. Finally due to return to London with the BBC, I had decided to leave the job so we could remain living in Dublin. Her treatment started immediately at St Vincent’s hospital. The grim routine of appointments, car parks, corridors and waitingrooms began. She hated the word “brave”, but she was determined this thing would never define her.

One of my tasks was to open the door for the queen and the VIP party at the end of the tunnel on to the Croke Park turf for an iconic moment

Food appeared at our doorstep, a kind woman arrived to do the ironing, and family life stuttered but then continued in a new form. The boys perched on the bike which I pushed to their school each morning. In the midst of her chemotherapy Charlotte joined a new gospel choir that sang at the nearby church. One Sunday morning the boys and I stumbled in late just as, wearing a bright headscarf to cover her recent hair loss, she stood to sing a solo. It remains one of the most moving moments of my life.

We finally left Ireland in 2011 after I took a new job in London and the weekly commuting took its toll. Ireland’s economy was trying to recover after the deep pain of the previous years, but its relationship with the noisy neighbour, and our destination, felt pretty good. The royal visit had proved a huge success just a couple of months before. I had played the tiniest of parts in it, helping the Buckingham Palace team, which allowed me to watch it close up. One of my tasks was to open the door for the queen and the VIP party at the end of the tunnel on to the Croke Park turf for an iconic moment.

We settled into a new and alien place in the south of England, into schools, commuting, a house. Our Irish guinea pig fell victim to the local foxes. Then, after years of visits back to Ireland to see our friends, seeing the economy rebound and its rugby teams triumph, the latest unexpected twist in our islands’ relationship happened: the rupture and rifts and rows of Brexit.

In 2017 I visited Dublin with Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former adviser, to speak to Irish chief executives on the big issue of the moment over dinner at a smart hotel. Even then we had little idea how bruising and difficult my country’s departure from the EU would become. Now removed from the journalistic fray, I could only read what others wrote and wince at some of the harsher words and spiralling sentiments.

We got to celebrate her birthday with a gold-themed party and – somehow – she danced till the early hours

My own imprecise measure of the relationship was incoming texts from Irish mates and, for the past year or so, Zooms. Most featured updates on family news, the progress of teenagers, celebrations, and sports-related to and fro. Then came the concerns, polite but also clear, even pointed, the questions about political events or intentions, comments and media coverage.

Like the bonds with old friends, I care deeply about those between our two countries. I’ve learned that relationships of any kind are rarely linear, and these sibling islands continue to be close and to share so much, a function of our proximity, habits and history.

The past decade has brought its fresh and unexpected challenges, but also new steps and changed attitudes: for example, the shared recognition of enormous sacrifice in the first World War. In arts, culture, business, and much more, those bonds are deep and inextricable. In sport, often a source of division, an Irishman is captain of an England cricket team; England’s soccer captain recently sent good luck messages to students in Connemara, where his grandfather was born and raised.

In 2015 Charlotte’s cancer returned. In the years that remained to her, and despite her exhausting treatment, she grasped life, editing books as a freelance while bringing up three sons. Irish friends returned her loyalty and friendship and flew in to visit her, laden down with gifts and books.

Croagh Patrick

We returned for family holidays with dear friends: outdoors, laughter-filled stays in Dunmore East in Waterford, Westport in Mayo, and a memorable stay on Inishbofin. Charlotte scrambled up Croagh Patrick with us and we gazed down at that gorgeous panorama of deep blues and lush greens.

She died in late 2018, soon after turning 50. We got to celebrate her birthday with a gold-themed party and – somehow – she danced till the early hours. At her funeral, dozens upon dozens of friends arrived from across the Irish Sea to mourn alongside us. At one point in the service I heard the wheels of a suitcase scrape on the old stone floor and saw yet another Irish friend whose flight had been delayed and who was now trying to find a spare seat in the packed pews. It was extraordinarily comforting. In our worst times, for Charlotte, and now for us, the bond with Ireland has helped sustain us.

In the last three years, those same loving friends have welcomed me and our three boys back, housed us, indulged my wistful memories, and stuffed us full of food. They have provided calm advice as well as sympathy. They have faced their own losses, pain, and struggles. They ask me when I am “coming home”, and that may happen one day.

Looking back on almost two decades, two blocks of time sitting side by side, one in Ireland and one in the UK, there are the clearest threads and recurring themes: they are about love and friendship, hope and belonging, and how they endure, through thick and thin, through tragedy and change.