OF LOVE AND EXPLORATION - AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY© Christopher Earls Brennen
``When you finally go back to your old hometown,
you find it wasn't the old home you missed but your childhood.''
Sam Ewing in National Enquirer (Readers Digest, April 1992).
We were going home to Ireland, my daughters, Dana, Katharine and I. For them it was a graduation present, an adventure and exposure to their heritage. For me it was a homecoming motivated by my father's illness and a detour prior to a scientific conference in Scotland. But I also welcomed the time for reflection, the time for equilibration. I had felt somewhat disconnected due to the pressures of my job and the effects which that pressure had created in my relations with Doreen and the children. What better place for this than the quiet, familiar landscape of my youth? It would be a crusade to cleanse my soul, a pilgrimage to my beloved country and to the roots of my being.
Dana and Kathy were chilled to silence by the sandbag-lined air-terminal with its machine-gun nests and armoured cars. We drove through towns and villages, along streets patrolled by black-bereted British soldiers carrying automatic weapons. The faces under the berets were boyish and bored. There was danger, yes. But England's young men had lived with Ireland's civil war for too many years. They didn't care anymore.
We turned west toward Magherafelt, toward home, but the route was unfamiliar. Once, I knew every crossroads with its inviting public house, every horse in every field, every row of pebble-dashed houses. But that was 20 years ago. The narrow, two-lane highway had been widened and straightened. Now it was called something sinister like M5 instead of the Belfast Road. It had always been the main artery between the two big cities of Derry and Belfast. But after several surgical bypasses and reconnections it was not the same road anymore.
The bomb that destroyed Cuddy's drapery shop Kerr's tailoring shop in Dungannon in the center of Magherafelt in 1971.
My mother had warned me of the changes, of the bombings and all the new buildings. She was right. Magherafelt had changed. We walked the length of its crooked streets but I saw no faces that I knew. I heard the whispers and felt the stares, though. They knew who we were and where where we came from. Small towns have few secrets.
The bombs had obliterated most of the memories of the urchin who had roamed the streets and alleys thirty years before. The policeman standing half hidden in an entry with a bazooka-like rubber-bullet-firing rifle only reminded me of recent television news stories. Yet here and there a red brick outcropping or the peeling paint of a sign above an old store sent my mind racing back to the time of roller skates and lollipops.
Another town represented my most substantial bridge to the present: Dungannon, for the first twenty years of her life the home of my lovely Doreen. On the second day we drove through the timeless countryside to the market town of Dungannon. But where was the dancehall in which, years ago, she sought me out after a brief rift and melted my soul? When my mother-in-law told me of the bomb in the car by the curb, I felt a sadness motivated not so much by the loss of a special place but by the loss of that special feeling.
After lunch we walked the few streets to where Doreen's father and grandfather had once built a thriving tailoring business in a prime location across from the cattle market. There I had petitioned the chief of the Kerr clan for his granddaughter's hand in marriage. There Doreen's much-loved father had vainly strived until his death to turn back the economic clock. Now it was one of the few structures remaining on that street. The cattle market had passed into history, in part covered over by a used car lot. The cinema and the hotel had been blown to smithereens by a blast which had briefly lifted the roof from Kerr's tailoring shop. The old place was but a boarded-up shell. It had stood for almost 300 years. Now all it contained were memories.
On the third day we drove to the seaside. To Portrush, that fairyground of my childhood days. Now the merry-go-rounds, slot machines and ice-cream parlors seemed shabby and broken, the place crowded by youngsters whom seemed unrelated to the Irish of my memory. Yet here we first met almost thirty years ago, when I chanced to say hello to a pretty little girl as she passed me on the street. A girl with gentle deep-blue eyes and a serene, sensitive smile. I had manipulated an introduction through a mutual friend with whom I saw her speak. And she had taught me a special kind of love I never knew existed. The little hope I had that this teeming place, this place of bombs and punks, could restore the special feeling rapidly evaporated. Dejectedly I headed for Dromore Head, a rocky promontory with an old harbor filled with memories. The seawalls were already old, broken and unused thirty years ago. Yet it was still there. Unbombed and unimproved for it was far from anyone's priority. I walked slowly savoring the memory of the rough, sea-worn concrete under my feet. I found the recess where I had taken her under my coat and her body had first told me that she might love me. I tasted tears mixed with the salt of the ocean.
It was on the fourth day that we went to the Moyola, our clear, brown river that curls through fields creamy with clover and sparked by wild purple thistles. On the rare days of summer, we used to swim in the Moyola, mountain-cold from its source in the Sperrins. We walked its banks and did forbidden things under the protection of its bridge. The old stone bridge built not to the straight lines on a computer-contoured plan but lovingly crafted to fit the idiosyncracies of the place and people. I needed to feel that intimacy again. With a lump in my throat I asked my brother to turn right, casually inquiring of the fate of the bridge. Of course it's still there was the welcome reply; sure who would want to blow up that bridge, the road goes nowhere.
We used to walk from town to the Moyola, but now, California-lazy, we drove. The bridge had changed, too. It was gray where I remembered it sparkling white. It was narrow, no wider than an alleyway, with no need to be wider. The Moyola itself was a stream where I remembered a major river. But in some ways neither I nor the river nor the bridge over it had changed. I felt the same joy for life as I lay across its old, broken stones and looked down at the gleam of the water. Sprickleybacks still darted over its round pebbles. Clots of rushes spiked the banks where a red-brown cow drank, lifted its head to stare, then drank again.
The Curran Bridge over the Moyola
Dana asked how I could bear to leave it those many years ago. I shook my head. There was no need for words. She knew. We had left Northern Ireland for her, and for her sister, Kathy, and her brother, Patrick. "The Troubles" were with us then, too, less public, less violent, but still evident. We wanted a future for our children that was free of hate and prejudice. It hadn't been easy to leave. And there were times when it would have been easy to go back. But for all that, there was always the love of this place.
I studied the bridge. Names I'd known in my youth were still there, scatched into the concrete. Frank Johnston, Lizzy Evans, Smokey McKeown.. .... Where were they now? One half-stone was blessedly smooth and unmarked. I fished in my pocket and took out my nail file. Scratching laboriously, bending to blow away the dust, I carefully carved my name. Then I drew a heart and below it I wrote her name, Doreen Kerr. Then I passed the file to my daughters, and they carved their names below that. I added Patrick's name.
I thought of graffiti, of ugly black letters spray-painted on walls and on the sides of buildings, which I'd condemned as a defilement of America. And here I was, having come thousands of miles to leave my mark in the stone of a little country bridge. Our names would never be on an Irish tombstone. But as long as the Moyola flowed and the bridge stood, they would be part of Ireland.
(Adapted from ``Going Home to Ireland - Change but no Change'', an article by Eve Bunting in the Los Angeles Times, 1983.)
Last updated 10/1/01.
Christopher E. Brennen