Skip to main content

Friday morning and we’re on the main A road to Armagh in Northern Ireland. We’re passing through Fivemiletown west of Enniskillen where Jo spots an attractive looking ladies boutique so we drive out of town and in again on the one way system and park up. 

I have another ingrained memory of 1976 that relates to Fivemiletown. It was late evening, perhaps 8 or 9pm when, in the vicinity of Fivemiletown the Volkswagen Beetle made a deathly rattle, came to a halt and refused to turn over and restart. The road was dark and eerily quiet. The troubles of Ulster were a constant feature of news at home and in Holland so I was feeling a bit edgy. We must have had AA membership because I volunteered to find a telephone box and call them. Forty minutes walk back down the road was a red call box where I had a pleasant conversation with a woman from the AA. ‘Where are you?’ she asked. ‘Near Fivemiletown.’ said I. ‘Where near Fivemiletown? Are you heading east or west and are you east or west of the town?’ ‘We’re heading east.’ I’m thinking, ‘Have we been through Fivemiletown or not? I don’t know. I wasn’t paying attention.’ So I said ‘I think we’re west of Fivemiletown, but I’m not sure.’ She said ‘Please return to your vehicle. We’ll send somebody out.’ Forty minutes walk back to the dead VW and Maria was patiently waiting in the dark. We waited for two hours but no rescue vehicle showed up. How busy can they be? What time do the IRA start their night patrols?  It was almost midnight when I trudged back to the phone box. The AA woman was still cheerful. ‘We can’t find you. You said you were west of Fivemiletown but we can’t find you. ‘Then we’re east of Fivemiletown, can’t you cast a bigger net? ‘Our patrols stop at midnight for security reasons. We can’t help you tonight.’ I said, ‘You’re kidding. You can’t leave us out here all night in a GB registered vehicle at the mercy of the paramilitaries.’ I’m sorry.’ said she, ‘There’s nothing more I can do tonight.’ ‘Right, that’s it is it?.’ said I, desperately seeking a killer riposte. ‘I’m going to insist that my sister cancel her AA membership and, and I shall write to my MP.’ 

When I arrived back at the dead VW there was a vehicle parked behind us. ‘Christ. Provo bandits have found us. We’ll be kneecapped, tarred and feathered or worse.’ But no, it was a delightful man from Ballygawley who gave us a lift to a B&B in the town and arranged for the VW to be towed to a garage in the morning. It would need a new engine costing about £100, a lot in those days. Maria cried.

Reflecting upon that incident I’m reminded that as someone who appears to be as English as Michael Cane, I’ve never encountered much ill will and no aggression during my many visits to Ireland. But I have occasionally been treated as a feckin pompous English eejit. I once asked a drunk Irish pub landlord, ‘What’s the name of the mountain in the MacgIllycuddy Reeks?’  He looked at me contemptuously and snarled, ‘None of those feckin’ mountains had names before yous feckin’ English came here.’

During the Falklands War in 1982 I was working in Massachusetts USA, South of Boston. I’d been warned by my colleagues that, with my accent, I should avoid driving into the rough Irish district of South Boston. But late one Friday night, in my gas guzzling Oldsmobile, I was compelled to pull off the freeway for gas – in South Boston. The station attendant was a big Irish America lad in a greasy baseball cap, with black curly sideburns halfway down his jaws. I was expecting a nice chat.  ‘Would you fill her up please.’ I said. Without much acknowledgement  he inserted the nozzle and held the trigger. ‘Yer not from these parts are you?’ ‘Nope.’ I said. ‘Where ya from?’ ‘England.’ ‘England eh. Well I reckon yer doin’ a fine job down there in the Falklands. Yep a fine job. But you should get the fuck outta Ireland.’ He wasn’t up for a complex socio-political debate so I said, ‘You might just have a point there.’, paid my money, said ‘Thanks.’ and sped off.

Boston Massachusetts USA 1982. With my gas guzzling 1972 Oldsmobile Cutlass

In October 1984, I was working late in Brighton the night that the IRA attempted to kill Margaret Thatcher, and killed other members of the Conservative party staying at the Grand Hotel. I heard the shuddering boom of the bomb. And on an equally momentous but significantly more positive occasion, in 1998 I was salmon fishing with my ex wife Penny and my daughter Hannah on the River Backwater in County Cork on the day that the Good Friday Agreement was signed – an agreement that has kept a sometimes uneasy and challenging peace in Northern Ireland for almost thirty years.

It’s a lovely boutique in Fivemiletown, stocked with expensive designer labelled, outdoor ladies’ clothes and footwear. On the drive out of town I can’t help but look out for a red telephone box. And there it is, a few miles east of Fivemiletown, set back from the road, a bright red defibrillator box.      

A British Army Patrol and Armand outside Edward O’Neil’s Bar in Armagh City

We arrive in Newry Co.Down in the late afternoon where we are staying with my close cousin Dympna. She and her younger sister, Urbanie are the daughters of my mother’s Belgian brother Gust who started his tenure as the organist at Newry Cathedral just over 70 years. My cousins now have an extended family of children and grandchildren, some of whom we’ll catch up with this weekend, but for tonight we’ll drink wine and chat over Dympna’s husband Danny’s very fine cooking. Once a professional chef and owner of an award winning pub restaurant in Ireland, he says he doesn’t cook as much as he used to but he hasn’t lost his touch. We have sticky spare ribs in a sweet sauce to start, followed by a fish pie packed with the freshest fish and shellfish in the county. 

The following day we meet with my other cousin Urbanie and her husband Colm, and son, Colm Jnr. for lunch before a late afternoon walk to Carlingford and an evening session at Lily Finnegan’s Bar in Whites Town. There’s live music and England vs Fiji in the Rugby World Cup Quarter Final on the TV. All the Irish are Fiji fans who roar with delight when they score, and  subdued when England win the match. I’m quietly delighted.

The following day, we’re a couple of hours early in Larne for the ferry back to Scotland, so there’s plenty of time, whilst in the queue, to reheat and eat the remains of Danny’s wonderful fish pie.

In his excellent first travel book, McCarthy’s Bar, Pete McCarthy, who was born in Warrington England of an Irish mother and an English father, drives through the west of Irelalnd under the self imposed directive of never passing a bar called McCarthy. It makes for a very funny, yet insightful journey. As he drives from Cork to Donegal he stumbles across many McCarthy’s bars (and plenty not called MCCarthy) in which he explores his confused Anglo Irish identity. He talks about genetic memory and his Irishness being implanted in his mind from before birth. He certainly had an affinity for, and often a desire to be accepted as Irish. 

Even though I’m a colourful mix of Anglo, Belgian and Irish, I have a strong sense of my Irishness when I’m in the country or amongst the people, never more so than over the last few weeks. It’s been a pleasure but I shan’t over analyse it and  take it too seriously. Put me in a Yorkshire Dale or in a Belgian Café and like a chameleon I will morph into a Dalesman or a Fleming.

One Comment

Leave a Reply