Books: A blow-in's appreciation for Ireland's Beautiful North
Sometimes it takes a blow-in to point out what's wonderful about a place, writes regular Irish News contributor and Liverpool native Dominic Kearney, whose new book reflects the warmth of feeling he has for his adopted home
A YEAR after our mother died, my 'little' brother and I moved to Northern Ireland. We sailed on the night ferry from Birkenhead on August 4 2012. I have a photograph of my brother leaning back on the ship’s rail as we moved off. Behind him is Liverpool, the city rising from the river.
This was the city he had lived in all his 45 years, the only home he had ever known. Our last few days there had been full of fun but they were now over, I was taking him away and the reality of the move was with us. In the photograph, the lights on board the ferry blur his face, but it is still possible to see the tears.
My fiancée – now my wife – was already living in Derry. Before doing anything else, she had arranged for a Sky dish to be installed, and had made my brother’s bed with an Everton duvet cover and pillow cases.
Simultaneously familiar and foreign. And intensely warm and welcoming – easy words that flow like a platitude but true, nonetheless, no more so than in Derry, home of the world’s worst car-parkers and people so talkative they make Scousers look like Trappists, people who’ll go the extra mile for you and buy you a pint along the way. Approachable doesn’t begin to describe it, which made finding work here all the easier.
I’d been a teacher for 25 years, but caring duties made full-time work impossible. I had to find work I could do from home. I could write, so I wrote. But whereas in England it would have been next to impossible to get a reply to a pitch, here people were ready to listen, delighted to help, and open to suggestions.
And the same was true for my brother. We walked into the Mencap office by the Diamond one day, introduced ourselves, and the next thing you know he had two jobs, one in a café and one in the Guildhall, and he can’t walk through Derry now without familiar faces saying hello and asking if I’m actually his dad.
Eventually, I was asked to write a book, a guide to the counties of Ulster. Not an exhaustive guide, not a list of hotels and routes and opening hours. More suggestions, really, of interesting places to go, an introduction for those coming to visit, maybe a reminder for those who live here and no longer see it.
Sometimes, when you’ve lived in a place all your life, you don’t realise what you have. It can take a blow-in to point it out, because a blow-in has to explore, has to seek things out, or simply sees things.
I made a couple of visits before I moved here. The first trip, I came to Lough Swilly. Wind-whipped and raw, it seemed that here is the history of Ireland in one place. The earls made their flight from here. Wolfe Tone was brought ashore here. The Grand Fleet sheltered here. Amazing Grace was written after finding safety here.
And Fort Dunree was handed back by the British more than a decade after independence, in a ceremony in which a British soldier passed the fort to his brother-in-law in the Irish army.
The book has a subtext, one of appreciation of my good fortune to live here, my love for the north and its cities, fields, mountains, rivers, lakes, and coasts. And its people, and its contradictions and dilemmas, all held within one small place.
:: Ireland’s Beautiful North, by Dominic Kearney with photographs by Carsten Krieger, is out on 27 March, published by the O’Brien Press.