My old friend Billy McCulloch, whom I have written about often, here and in my last book, took a turn for the worse just after Christmas, suffered a stroke and was in hospital for some weeks. He has now been transferred to a nursing home in County Down, far from his own familiar living room but close to his son and daughter-in-law. From the conservatory of his new home he has a soothing view of Slieve Donard, a mountain which Billy knows like the back of his hand from his hostelling days.
Anyway, my wife and I went down to see how he was keeping and to bring him some cheer. As we sat talking I looked around at all the old dears, some of them lost to this world. But there was one woman – I’m sure, she must be, like Billy, in her nineties – who looked up from her book and with whom I made eye contact several times. I crossed over to her.
“Do I know you?” she said.
“I’m not sure. You might,” I replied.
“Do you know me?” she asked.
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“Well, then, that makes us evens.”
We both smiled. She searched my features, raised her brows and shook her head. I said I would come back in a bit. When I returned she said, “You’re one of the Whites.” I was astonished. I told her my mother was, indeed, one of the Whites, Susan, and that my grandparents came from outside Dromore in County Down.
“From Islanderry,” she said.
“How do you know?”
“My mother was the cousin of Billy White,” she said. “We came from Dromore and had a shop there.” I said that Billy White was my grandfather. She said she had known my grandparents well and knew where they were buried in St Colman’s cemetery, Dromore. She told me her name was Winnie.
“What happened to everybody?” she asked. I told her who was dead and who few were living and she sighed and I promised Winnie I would come back another day soon and have a longer talk.
Itwas probably this encounter and the memories it stirred that inspired me two days later to cycle out to Islanderry where the Whites once had a cottage where we spent many childhood summers. From a high point on the Ballygowan Road I could see, twenty miles in the distance, the city of Belfast to where many of our grandparents or their parents flocked, looking for work in the late nineteenth century, thus settling in and creating places such as Ballymacarrett, the Falls and Ardoyne.
Most of us city slickers when we sneer at country yokels make fools only of ourselves.
The gorse hedgerows were in bloom, the road relatively quiet, apart from the odd tractor and fast car. There was a palpable power and beauty to the rolling acres of land turning a lush green in the sunlight – reasons why people would spill blood for its ownership.
I looked for Geordie Dempster’s farm, where, a long time ago, we bought our milk. Instead, there was a modern monstrosity in its place, with twenty windows to the front, like something out of ‘Dallas’.
A hundred yards later, I found our lane. Where Florrie Haskins’ cottage used to be was a bungalow. In the summer, magically, there were always butterflies coming into Florrie’s kitchen and I the child was told, and believed, that they were her pets. Our lane, once naturally overgrown, stony and streaming with rivulets on rainy days, was now tarred; the hedges cut back; the character of the place, changed but not quite utterly.
For you cannot hollow out memories. My cousin Thomas, who went passed the place recently, said, in a wonderful phrase, that the hedgerows were calling out to him.
The cottage never had running water or electricity and the toilet was anywhere up the field and behind the bushes. You washed in a freezing stream beside the house. The old iron beds with lumpy mattresses were as damp at the end of the summer as when first aired in spring. You had your supper and went to bed to the almost-mute hissing of a tilly lamp and fell asleep to the voices of your elders, sifting the past, arguing and joking, or to the sound of my Uncle Seamus’s accordion.
But now the house is gone. The small orchard at the back is gone. That is how it must be. That is life. The world changes. The trees to the front which broke the worst of the gales still stand. I searched and felt the bark for the names we had carved there but they were gnarled and overgrown and a right autumn storm would topple the trees one day.
I have photographs of the cottage. My grandmother sitting as if proud, mother of a brood of ten, though pride is the wrong word and was alien to her character and kindness. There is a photograph taken of my Uncle Seamus when I, an infant terrified of fire, was present. He is burning gorse at the back of the house and I can still smell it and hear the violence of its crackle. In the living room was a quaint gramophone, the type that you wound up with a handle. Miraculously, it still worked and Uncle Seamus would play 78 rpm records not only by Count John McCormack but by Mario Lanza whom I loved.
I remember my cousins Eileen and Thomas and myself in the meadow, some distance from the cottage, darkness descending, and hearing the phrases of ‘Serenade’ fall across the fields: “Drifting along in my heart/There’s a song/And the song in my heart/Will not end…”
And it’s all gone.
Part of the human condition is never to let go, is to want things to remain as they were when we were innocent and happy, and before the monster of the real world prowled through ours.
My Uncle Seamus, of the Seamus White Ceili Band, whose fingers it seemed only yesterday danced across the buttons of his accordion, his face written with love of Irish music, is now stilled by infirmity and age, his accordion sealed in its box, its box gathering dust, as the life of his jigs and reels die slowly in our veins…