BBC special correspondent Fergal Keane reflects on his Irish childhood in ‘The Gathering — Reflections on Ireland’.
HOME is many places and feelings. It is London, where I live with my wife and children. It is a part of Africa that I feel forever bound to, and a few other places around the world where I have lived intensely. And it is in Ireland where I am rooted and feel unbreakable emotional connections.
I lived in Dublin until I was 11. Then came a traumatic migration to Cork, where I spent my teenage years. After that, I moved to Limerick, then back to Dublin and on to Belfast, until I left Ireland in the last decade of the old century. My peripatetic life in Ireland prepared me well for a career roaming the world.
From an early age, I was attuned to the possibility of sudden departures. I came of restless people. Both of my parents constantly spoke of places and ideas beyond our horizons. My father had taken the boat for London as a young man; my mother hitchhiked around Europe at the age of 18, a great adventure for a young Irishwoman in the 1950s. If at times there was a desperation spurring that restlessness, it was compensated for by a sense of the world’s limitless possibilities.
I left Ireland to live in South Africa in 1990 and, in the same year, I purchased a small cottage in Ardmore in Co Waterford, about 70km east of Cork near the mouth of the River Blackwater. This is my summer “gathering” place. It is a tin and wood structure, built in the 1930s and still — just about — weathering the storms of the Irish winter. The principal claim to fame of this little house is that Fred Astaire once stayed there. I have yet to discover why he came to so humble a dwelling.
I come to Ardmore every August, as I have done since I was a few months old and being “minded” for the summer by my maternal grandmother, May Hassett. She gave us the freedom to ramble, to lose and find ourselves across the cliffs, coves, and beaches as part of a large gang of children drawn from as near as Whiting Bay (one mile) and as far away as Co Antrim. A local told me recently that we summer visitors were known as “the swallows” to him and his friends, like those lines of Yeats:
They came like swallows and like swallows went, And yet a woman’s powerful character Could keep a swallow to its first intent;
(Coole Park, 1929)
These days on my journeys home, the destination is defined by the season. Summer is Ardmore. Christmas and the New Year will find me travelling between Cork and Ennis, dividing the days between my own family and the in-laws, motoring tentatively along icebound roads like so many other seasonal returnees, drowning in tea and catching up on news with old friends.
No place delights me more than Cork’s English Market in the last days before Christmas, perusing the turkeys and spiced beef before having lunch in the Farm Gate.
Then it is up the road to Ennis and a New Year’s Eve party with guitars and good voices. My wife Anne comes from a family of dancers and musicians. I vividly recall one of our first dates, when I wandered by mistake into a spirited — is it ever anything else? — bout of ‘The Siege of Ennis’. As the dancers thundered toward me across the floor, I feared briefly for my safety, like a small animal that trespasses into the path of migrating wildebeest on the African savannah.
Only my wife’s last-minute intervention — a sturdy hand whirling me away by the waist — prevented dire injury.
Several times a year, I will come back to go to rugby matches. I am a Munster fanatic and a strong Ireland supporter. Despite what some Leinster fans will tell you, the two are not mutually exclusive. I love Dublin on days when there is a big game. There is a sense of fun and warmth that you won’t find anywhere else in the capitals of the Six Nations.
For a long time after my parents separated and I had moved with my mother to Cork, I regarded Dublin as a city of ghosts. It was melancholy, shaded with unhappy memories, a place I wanted to avoid. Working there in the 1980s changed that. I rediscovered the city of my childhood and discovered that it held happy memories too: Going to the children’s cinema with my father on Grafton St on Saturday mornings; one endless July when my mother took us swimming at Sandycove day after day; fishing at Bull Island in the autumn.
The love of Ireland has been inherited by my children, Daniel and Holly. I brought Daniel to watch Ireland play France at Lansdowne Road, and he told me later that he wanted to come back and go to college in Dublin.
“It’s big enough and small enough, if you know what I mean,” he said.
I think I did.
In a bid to mark Ireland’s year of The Gathering, the Irish Hospice Foundation has produced a fund-raising book which it hopes will become a Christmas bestseller.
The Gathering — Reflections on Ireland is a collection of stories from events around the country this year, including contributions from influential individuals such as the late Seamus Heaney, writer Colum McCann, singer Bono, Riverdance producer Moya Doherty, rugby player Brian O’Driscoll, broadcaster Marian Finucane, and journalist and lobbyist Niall O’Dowd.
Edited by former Irish Examiner journalist Miriam Donohoe, the 256-page coffee table book celebrates a year in the life of the Irish people.
* The Gathering — Reflections on Ireland (€20) is available in bookshops, and at hospicefoundation.ie.
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