Listening to the radio and Johnny Cash singing ‘Burning ring of Fire’ and the memories came flooding back of the late Tom Mc Gowan, a Derry Social Worker, and of a week end spent in the Cork/ Kerry Gaeltacht, many years ago. I cannot name this unspoilt little place but I regret that I have never returned to visit it and wonder if in today’s sophisticated technological age, it is still as I remember it.
I was a Sinn Fein Councillor on Derry City Council at that time and the Council had been invited to send a delegation to participate in a conference on peace and conflict transformation.
In any event a number of Councillors and Council Officers as well as representatives from Derry Civic Society and various other organisations elected to attend. Most of the Councillors were accompanied by their wives or friends. I took my sister after persuading her that the place we were going to was up market with great shopping possibilities. In truth I had never heard tell of it and it wasn’t even on the map as our driver soon discovered, when we got lost en route.
When we eventually found the place, we wondered who in their right mind thought to organise a conference of this importance, in a place that looked for all the world like a scene from ‘The Quiet Man’. In addition, our knowledge of the Irish language in this Gaeltacht area was limited and it was even difficult to understand English when spoken in a Kerry dialect.
Our hotel, a bit of a misnomer, was for all the world last century architecture. The foyer was dominated by a photograph of Michael Collins which took up the entire wall. The key to our room attached to a large block of wood, looked as if it had served time opening dungeon doors.
Further surprises awaited us when we entered our room which housed a bed and two chairs. There was no wardrobe in which to hang clothes so we had to make do with a hook on the door and the catch on the window, not the place for my sister’s designer dresses. I kept my few duds in my suitcase. The bathroom was clearly out of another century, no shower, a jaw box and a bath on four legs.
We joined the rest of the Derry party at the other hotel across the street, wHere the irate husband of a Derry Councillor was enquiring why there was no TV in his room. He was informed that the only black and white TV in the hotel was in the pent house currently occupied by a well known SDLP Councillor and his wife.
Dinner that night was served straight from the garden as the spuds arrived to the table covered in clay. We were invited to the after-dinner entertainment in the local school house which was just around the corner. Those who liked accordion music were certainly entertained by a man sitting on an orange box playing deedle dee music.
I was awakened the next morning by a woman shouting ‘Time for Mass’. It was 7am.
The first day of the conference was interesting enough. The various workshops chaired by notable people with equally notable speakers gave us a chance to meet some of the other participants including those from the Unionist community
In the late evening more people began to arrive accompanied by a number of Garda cars. I later heard that the SDLP Councillor and his wife had been asked to vacate the Penthouse as it was needed for a VIP who would be arriving the next morning. We spent an enjoyable night in the hotel bar speculating on who the VIP could be and eyeing up what clearly was not the locals sitting some distance from us.
We learned the next morning that the VIP was Mo Mowlam which would account for the peculiar looking men who seemed to have a distinct interest in the Derry contingent. We were equally interested in them.
I cannot recall whether our deliberations contributed to the theme of conflict resolution but we were all invited to the Saturday night dance.
In the meantime, we found what seemed to be the only haute couture shop which would not have looked out of place in the BBC Antiques Road show. It sold everything from a needle to an anchor and indeed an old anchor was hanging from the ceiling as we entered. Beside it was an old tin bath, the kind my mother used every Saturday night to wash us children in front of the fire. That shop had clearly been stocked by someone with a knowledge of life as it was in the late 1800s, for hanging from the ceiling also was a lady’s corset, the kind you laced up with your foot to the lady’s back. There was a notice hanging beside it which read ‘Ladies French Corsets, Latest design’. At the rear of the shop amid wheel barrows, spades and shovels there was a rack of assorted screws, candles and all sort of accoutrements which I have since seen on the Two Ronnies sketch, ‘Fork Handles.’ And for good measure propped up against the wall was an old ‘daisy bell’ bicycle with quaint handle bars. Just wandering around was like being transported back in time and I hope that such a unique place has survived the march of the modern boutique.
Our last night was great craic as the Mowlam Special Branch entourage had departed. I had the feeling Mo wanted to stay but it was not to be. But many of the Unionist participants stayed and joined with us and the locals in the customary Saturday night ceilidh dance. The craic was great especially when the local ‘Barry Fitzgerald’ match maker tried to pair off my sister and a well-known Derry nun with some of the local farmers. The accordion thumped and so did the farmers as they burled the women around the school house floor. Tom Mc Gowan was in fine voice singing the songs of Johnny Cash and we all joined in to sing ‘The town I loved so Well’ and Amhran na Fein.
We danced and sang the night away and forgot all about the North and politics and religion and peace.
As we drove away from that little village, I could see that the lace curtains, waving gently from the pent house windows, were in need of a wash with the Lux soap flakes we had earlier seen displayed in the ‘old curiosity’ shop
I am convinced that the foundations for peace and reconciliation started that weekend in a place way off the beaten track, a place that had remained unspoilt in the competitive buy- more-see-more world of the eighties and where the simple pleasures of life could be enjoyed in the songs of Johnny Cash .