By Jack Holland
Unfortunately, summer in Northern Ireland is cursed by association not with idyllic escapes to holiday spots, but with bonfires, riots, marches, and mayhem — or at least the threat of mayhem. No wonder people there look on the season with a sort of dread and seek to flee from the place more from self-preservation than in search of a tan.
However, when I was growing up in Drew Street in the 1950s, summer was still seen primarily as holiday time, and longed for through the last weeks of school, which seemed to drag out forever. We were like prisoners looking forward to our release. By the time June came, we did nothing but stare out the classroom window.
On the last school day, September seemed an eternity away — so far into the future, across the gulf of months, as not to be worth a single thought. It would never arrive. And in the meantime . . .
In the morning, if it was sunny, the kids in the street would sit with their backs against the walls of the houses on the west side, facing eastward. We’d sit there, faces to the sun, and then as the sun moved west, we’d follow it. We’d sit with our backs against the walls of the houses on the other side of the street and repeat the process, desperately trying to get a tan.
As the season wore on, we’d grow more ambitious, organizing expeditions into the world beyond Drew Street. I can recall several destinations. One was the banks of the Blackwater river — known to us as the Blackie. In truth this was not a very ambitious expedition, since it was within five minutes’ walk of the street. Anyway, it was a preliminary run, and we’d pack cheese sandwiches and bring along lemonade with which to refresh ourselves when we reached it.
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In fact, being a sort of open sewer, it was not the ideal place for a picnic — among other things, one had to contend with the large rats nosing around in the grass by the river bank. But it got us into the mood for travel. Further afield, we ventured into south Belfast, along the rich avenues of the Malone Road, where dwelt the middle-classes. We had heard rumors about the existence of wealthy people. But the only members of the middle classes any of us had met up to that point were teachers and doctors. The teachers looked pretty shabby to us, and bore no obvious signs of riches; usually when we encountered doctors we were too terrified or too anxious to pay attention to anything but the needle he was about to stick into your arm. In any case, it was clear from our first trips along the Malone Road that all middle-class people were not equally wealthy. We gaped through gates at gardens which were large enough to accommodate our entire street, and then some.
Another spot we reached was Musgrave Park, on Stockman’s Lane, in the southwest of the city. That was a favored destination because the park had a large pond in the middle, with an island in it, quite wild and overgrown. It was our ambition to cross to the island, about which we had built up quite a few fantasies, since most of us had by then seen "Treasure Island" at least once. Even though there were no palm trees or sand dunes, it was easy to imagine that something interesting must be hidden in its leafy dells. But though we tried several routes, we never did make it across the swamp. We consoled ourselves with catching frogs and trying to spot interesting insects.
My trips were not limited to expeditions inside Belfast or around its environs. At some point in the summer my family always went south. Usually, it was around the 12th. Most often, we motored down to Rostrevor, where my grandmother, who grew up near there, would rent a cottage for a fortnight. That had been a family tradition since the 1930s. At first it had been an escape hatch because, though the Hollands were Protestant, my father (for reasons which were never really made clear to me) was raised a Catholic. So for his own safety, since we lived in mostly loyalist areas, he had to be sent south until the Orange blood had cooled and it was safe for him to return.
Now and again, we’d cross Carlingford Lough to Omeath, and rent a place there. It was an adventure for a young boy. But it was also like a trip into the past. The facilities in the cottages — which were actually small farmhouses — were usually more primitive even than those back in Drew Street. In Omeath, we never had electricity, and depended on oil lamps for lighting. There were no flush toilets in the farmhouses in which we stayed. It was, indeed, a bleak kind of summer getaway, especially when the wind began howling down the slopes of the Cooley Mountains. Then the idea of "summer" took on a whole new aspect. Omeath did have its consolations, however. The little stalls along the quay where the ferry boat came in from Warrenpoint were always full of the most wonderful junk for kids — including plastic binoculars and spyglasses and little rubber bayonets, knives and hatchets with which one could fight a fairly realistic battle.
Two of my most memorable summer holidays were spent much farther south. My cousin Ena entered a convent near the tiny village of Loughglynnn, between Castlerea and Ballyhaunis in County Roscommon. The convent was on the shores of a small lake, surrounded by woods. There was a special house where the sisters’ relatives could stay as guests. The sisters had their own farm, raising pigs, and they made their own cheese, thanks to an old nun there who was French. In fact, their cheese was quite famous. (Many years later, when I was a student in Dublin, I found it being sold in a fancy food store near Grafton Street. Unfortunately it has long since gone out of production.)
The nuns offered what seemed to us like luxury. We ate with them in a large dining room every day, the guest rooms were well lit and spotlessly clean and the food was exquisite. Most of all, I loved the dairy where the cheese was made. They stored huge wheels of cheese on wooden shelves. As a cheese lover, I was in heaven. And sometimes listening to the nuns singing in the chapel in the evening, I really thought I was.