It’s been more than 13 months since I’ve seen my mum (or to use her proper name, mammy). It’s the longest I’ve ever gone without seeing her. We have been separated before – there was that year in Australia when I was 19, then six months in South America in my mid-twenties, which I’m sure felt long for her, but flew by for me as I was so busy having fun.
But this latest period of separation has felt tougher in so many ways. Not only because we’re stuck at home and time has stretched on relentlessly, but because she’s vulnerable. She’s been in hospital twice during all this (once with pneumonia) and I’ve been left feeling redundant at the end of a phone line. And also, because this time there are kids involved – my own and my brother Thomas’s kids – it’s just not fair that she doesn’t get to see them and that they don’t get to see her.
It’s where I returned to during university holidays, where Christmases have been spent squabbling, laughing and getting drunk for a couple of decades and, more recently, it’s where my brother Eoin died and where he is buried.
But before you think I’m about to get all maudlin, don’t worry. My love for Derry began long before Mum moved back there and long before Eoin got sick. It began some night in late July in the mid to late eighties and continued in much the same vein for years. Mum would lift me and Eoin, still sleeping, into the back seat of the car. She’d tucked us in, head to toe under a duvet (car safety wasn’t yet a thing) and drive us to Liverpool from our London home for the morning ferry crossing to Belfast.
That evening, we would cross the Glenshane Pass, peering bleary-eyed as the sun set behind the Sperrin Mountains and watching as the road dropped away and the mist cleared to reveal a valley of undulating peat bog, broken by slithers of streams and speckles of sheep, wondering what lay ahead. Well, I did that – Eoin probably had his head out of the window complaining of being car sick.
As we crossed the “new bridge” into Derry and drove down the Culmore Road, I no doubt stared longingly at my Aunt Stella’s road, where I always stayed – but we wouldn’t stop there yet. Cousins could wait. Granny could not.
We’d be greeted with warm hugs and expressions of “welcome home” and “how was the journey?” at Granny’s, as though we’d crossed the Atlantic and not the Irish Sea.
A cacophony of aunties and uncles would talk as we were offered plates of biscuits and then dinner – one of the younger aunties (usually Norah) had always been instructed to cook – and then we’d decamp to our home for the next few weeks, knowing we might not see our mammy for a while.
We wouldn’t care though – she’d be catching up with her mammy as we’d be sizing up our cousins (we each had our own little gang), and within the hour it was as though we’d never been apart.
Summer in Derry was really all about summer in Donegal. A convoy of cousins, aunties and uncles would descend for the day on Kinnagoe Bay, Stroove or Dunfanaghy with windbreakers, swimwear, towels and cool bags filled with egg and onion sandwiches, Taytos and cans of drink.
It was building castles and knocking them down again, building a mound in the sand and seeing who could jump over it. They were blissful, innocent days
They were glory days. We’d race down sand dunes with abandon until someone would fall face first into a mouthful of sand, tears streaming as they were deposited to their mammy while the others would shrug it off and get back to the game.
It was running in and out of the water while your mammy or someone else’s mammy ordered you to be careful. It was rock pooling, going on an adventure with Uncle Bernard or burying him in the sand. It was building castles and knocking them down again, building a mound in the sand and seeing who could jump over it. They were blissful, innocent days.
Later, you’d stop into Moville for burger and chips, followed by scoops of ice cream at Fiorentina’s. You’d pick up some scratch cards and see if you could win a punt or two and you’d make sure someone took one home to Granny.
On special days you might go to Red Castle or to Portrush on the Antrim coast for fairground rides and a swimming pool with an actual wave machine. At some point during the holiday, you’d probably clamber over the Giant’s Causeway, counting down the minutes until you could cross the rickety Carrick-a-Rede bridge down the road.
Other days you stayed in. You dressed up, learned dance routines and songs and made up little skits for shows that you’d charge your own family to attend. It was impromptu singsongs, jokes, fighting like siblings. It was going up the town to spend hours buying tat. It was doing the limbo with a tea towel. We didn’t care, as long as we were together.
This closeness has endured. When my brother died, my aunts, uncles and cousins enveloped me, Thomas and mammy in love. They protected us from the worst of it, lightened the dark at times, and always shared in our grief.
When my brother died, my aunts, uncles and cousins enveloped me, Thomas and mammy in love
My granny is sadly gone too, but my kids still have their grandma and video chats will no longer cut it. They deserve the extended visits, the endless playtime, the stories, the tears of laughter and the naughty glint of a sage but rebellious matriarch that I got to enjoy.
My husband said to me recently he found it sad that our kids won’t have the carefree childhood holidays that coming from a big family allows, but this year we’re going to give it a bloody good go.
Who knows with Covid-19 if we’ll make it to Donegal – maybe this year we’ll get to know the beaches of the six counties really well – but I intend to find a way to hang out with my family, to let the kids of our extended family bond and have a taste of the freedom we once enjoyed.
Forget pining for European holidays: I’m a Derry girl at heart and this year, more than any other, I need to go home.