As recent posts indicate, I spent a couple of idyllic, sun-drenched days in North Antrim recently.
When my brother and sisters and I were children, we took for granted our frequent journeys to the North of Ireland. Through the 70s and 80s, when most of our schoolmates associated 'Up There' (if they associated it with anything) with daily news bulletins of violence, we knew it as where Granny lived - and one of our favourite places to be.
You can now travel from Dublin to Belfast in two hours or less on the motorway. Back then it was closer to four on narrow roads - woe betide you if you got stuck behind a tractor. We could recite by heart the towns we would pass through. Ashbourne. Slane, where the father built his four daughters each a house on a corner of the square. Collon. Dunleer. Dundalk. Crossing the border which now has a blink-and-you'll-miss-it quality. Back then there were soldiers with big guns. The soldiers were usually young, and usually friendly. But even our big car packed with mother and children and snacks and teddy bears was sometimes searched. Newry. Banbridge. Lisburn. Belfast. Antrim. Ballymena.
Ballymena is best known for its two most famous sons: Liam Neeson and Ian Paisley. Handily, they represent both sides of the political and cultural divide. To us, though, it was home to our Granny, numerous cousins in the first, second and third degree, McGroggans' ice cream and Camerons, fervently believed to be the best toy shop in the world. (You could fit Camerons in a corner of Hamley's or F.A.O. Schwartz ... but that's not to say that it wasn't the best toy shop in the world.)
Our visits to Northern Ireland were a complicated mixture of the familiar and the exotic. Familiar: family, food (the Ulster Fry as executed by my mama is a thing of great beauty), stories and songs. This was where my mother grew up and I knew the stories of her childhood and her mother's childhood as well as the plots of my favourite books.
But then there was an exoticism as well. The money was different. The accents were different (and my brother and sisters and I stuck out with our strange Dublin pronunciation). Distances were in miles, not kilometres. The school system was different and great was my embarrassment when I couldn't explain which 'P' I was in at school. (In Dublin, we had 1st through 6th Class; in the North they had P1 through P7.) I felt foreign and not-foreign, all at the same time.