Easter in Northern Ireland

OK folks,

I've been working on some new stuff but it's taking me a while to get around to completing it. Sorry for abandoning you for so long.

As a little filler (but by no means written with any less effort) and seeing as it is Easter time, I thought it appropriate to put something up from my archives - the writing that I did before I started this website.

It's a story close to my heart and I wrote it at a time when I was trying to deal with a few things from back home.

I hope you don't mind the indulgence and are all keeping well.

Easter 2002
Ever since I was a young kid, much, much younger than I am now - in fact so young, I wasn't even born, and that's as young as you can get really, isn't it? I was but a twinkle in my fathers eye, or at the very least an uncomfortable itch in his pants.

Anyway, I think you get the idea...

Several years ago, my father's family started a wonderful tradition at Easter to ensure that this time of year is just as an important occasion for my family as Christmas is for most other families.

That is not to say that Christmas is not a special time for our family, on the contrary, but Easter has always played a special role in my family's calendar and I pray to God that it shall always be so.

This tradition has been repeated every year for a long time and is sometimes the only time in the whole year that my father's side ever get to see each other.

To illustrate just how big a deal it is for the family, let me digress slightly with a true story.Last year, a few weeks after Christmas, my fathers mother, the originally named 'Gran' was rushed to hospital and the whole family was informed that she was on her way to meet her maker. She was in her 80's and had been plagued with back problems for nearly as long as I could remember, becoming more and more stooped with age. Despite her obvious physical problems however, she was always as sharp as a tack. She spoke quietly but when she spoke – everyone listened and she had a great sense of humour, cutting down any "smart Alec" comment (normally from - it has to be said - my father) with one of her own.

Upon hearing this, the whole family rushed to be by her hospital bedside in a hospital just outside Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Actually out of 8 children, Lord knows how many grand children and a sprinkling of great grand children, the only people that had to travel any distance of note were my aunt and uncle who both lived in London and err, me travelling over from Liverpool .

Not big travellers my family, I think it's safe to say - but I think you understand – we all wanted to be there to spend a few last precious moments with her.

So there we were - all at the hospital pacing nervously around the waiting room, speaking in hushed tones. There were so many of us in the hospital, that we were sent to see Gran in shifts. Soon it was our turn.

My father, my two brothers and myself, nervous and as quiet as little mice as we went to see our Gran for one last time. At the time we never spoke to each other about it, but before we turned into the ward, I could see we were all thinking the same thought – "This is not going to be a sad moment - let's give her a bit of a laugh, like we always do!".

My father has a great sense of humour and it has rubbed off on all three of us. In fact, to be honest, we are sort of the comedy act of the family, taking part in banter and gentle ribbing of ourselves and other members of the family at every opportune moment.

So it was with a certain steely resolve we entered the room, the smell of death mixed with disinfectant hanging heavy in the air.

The room had 6 beds - 4 of which were occupied. The bed beside Gran's and Gran's bed itself were empty but not because she had already said goodbye to this world but because she was sat in a chair beside the bed. She was sitting up, which was good, but she looked so pale and frail, which was most definitely bad.

We shuffled around next to her, and made small talk, but to be honest, the sight of Gran had knocked the wind out of our sails. Everyone was at a loss what to say until my wee brother asked "So what are the neighbours like?" referring to the other patients. "They're not too bad, but that one talks in her sleep" she whispered to us, nodding towards the woman in the middle bed across from us.We had a quiet snigger amongst ourselves at that and we relaxed a bit.

"And what about this bed here beside you? It must be nice that there's no-one there to annoy you," he continued.

"The man that was there died in his sleep last night" she replied, her voice barely audible.

A shot of panic registered in all of our faces. This was a subject that we did not want to talk about. But unperturbed and without breaking his stride, my brother moved towards Gran, held her by the hand, looked her in the eye and said, in his broad accent: "Auch, Gran – how're ye supposed to get better in a place like this? You need to be out and about with your family back home – and if you don't watch out you're going to miss Easter Monday at Tullymore Forest Park!".

I could have hugged him there and then as I watched a look of determination appear in her face. Dim, but it was there for all of us to see.

"Aye, you're right" came the hushed response.

We talked for a while longer, not wanting to leave but also aware of the backlog of visitors that we were creating.

I travelled back to Liverpool the following day a troubled man. Of course I had been to funerals before, it's a lucky person at 29 years of age that hasn't, but to say goodbye to somebody that was about to die was something entirely different. I kicked myself for some of the things I said and kicked myself for other things that I didn't say.

But as it turned out, I did not have to return until the Easter weekend over three months later. There was no funeral, and of course who made an appearance that Easter Monday? - none other than the great woman herself!

In a wheelchair and unable to walk for any great length without assistance but she had made it to that great family tradition – Tullymore Forest Park on Easter Monday.

So what is this great place of wonder that inspired Gran to quite literally get off her death bed to be with her family?

Well - it is an absolutely gorgeous part of Irish scenery, that my words would never do justice to, but I'll try anyway: Steeped in the group of mountains in Northern Ireland, known as The Mountains of Mourne (or to the locals 'the egg-basket'), this Forest Park is one of the largest in Ireland and it provides the visitor with varied walks along bubbling brooks, rapid rivers, flowing waterfalls, all set in a backdrop that no painter could ever imagine.

As I write these words, in my minds eye, I see it in all its glorious detail and it fills me with a wonderful feeling as it brings back such lovely memories.The family have headed there in a convoy of cars for decades. Sometimes the numbers swell and dwindle but the destination always remains the same - Tullymore Forest Park, in the mountains of Mourne, Co. Down.

When there, we have a picnic, play football, get beat-up by our stick-wielding little cousins, scrape dog shit off our shoes, walk till we can go no further - apart from Gran – we leave her locked in the car to look after all our belongings.

OK, so she wasn't left on her own and the car wasn't locked, a couple of great-aunts keeping her company until we returned from our walk.

We continue walking well beyond our capabilities until we arrive at the beautiful duck pond. It's more of a small lake, but it never goes beyond a couple of feet in depth and upon arrival, it signals the start of that other great family tradition - the "throwing-the-family-members-that-you-don't-like-into-the-pond-to-see-if-they-can-swim-with-the-ducks" game.

A game that has since somehow mutated into "Let's all get ME and throw him in".

OK they may only be four and five years of age, but what they lack in age they make up in gritty determination and a wonderful ability to score a direct hit on my private parts every time.

Cold and exhausted we then climb up the biggest hill I have seen (or so it always seems when you are shattered and wearing dripping wet clothes in the freezing cold) back up to the car park. But before we go up and rescue Gran (actually no that's not true, we do send someone up to go get her); we then engage in the next tradition, namely the "let's-throw-painted-hard-boiled-eggs-at-each-other's-heads-as-fast-as-we-can-to-see-if-they-break" tradition.

(The eggs, not the heads – whaddya think we are? hooligans??).

It stems from the safer, but oh so much more boring tradition of painting the eggs, rolling them down the hill, and then when they eventually break, eating them. Tame stuff and not enough action for us lot.

I have told people about this tradition and not many have taken part or even heard of it, but I believe it has to do with the resurrection when the stone to Jesus' grave was rolled away.

Perhaps I’m wrong but it seems somehow familiar.

Afterwards we eat whatever stale sandwiches are left, play some football and rounders (a similar idea to baseball) and then take ourselves off home, wrecked from exhaustion, swearing to never do it again, or at least in my case, to remember to bring a change of clothes…


Summer 2004

Two years further on, please allow me the indulgence of a brief but important addition to this story. Two years is not that long in the grand scheme of things, but for my father's family it has been quite traumatic times.

In the brief interlude since writing my initial "Easter Tale", the family has sadly had to say goodbye to two of its members. My uncle who lived in London died at the age of 51 years young.

It was a shock to us all and he is dearly missed, not by just our family but by anyone that came into contact with him. He was just one of those guys. He had a wonderful presence about him and was known by what seemed everyone in our home town Ballyclare – and this is a man who, very reluctantly, moved to London for work reasons 12 years ago.

Even though he left Ballyclare, Ballyclare never left him. Every day's vacation he ever earned for the 12 years he was over there, were used to return to "The Centre of the Universe" as he would refer to it.

He never referred to London as home and was very quick to point this out to anyone who enquired as to when he was returning home, meaning London.

"Sure - this is my home!!" He would always reply.

It seemed he knew more about what was going on in Ballyclare than those that were still living there, so close where the ties he kept.

And the town of Ballyclare paid their respects in the best way that they could – unveiling a new banner for our orange lodge with his portrait on it. The joke was that the banner was awkward enough to carry without his big lump of a frame on it…

Had I made it back home for the Easter get-together in 2002, that prompted this writing in the first place, it would have been the last time I would have seen my uncle – as it was I have to make do with the back bar at our local pub in Ballyclare, The Ballyboe at Christmas 2001 – where, like me, he was most at home – telling his stories, laughing with all the enthusiasm and energy of a schoolboy, so pleased was he to be back home, surrounded by the people he loved and that loved him.

In The Centre of the Universe.


Less than nine months after his death, his elder sister, who also lived in London (perhaps I should get back to Northern Ireland asap?!) died aged only 53.

Plagued by illness for the last few years of her life, and as a deeply religious person and member of the Salvation Army - Iris ignored her own problems to ensure that other people who she deemed needier received the help they required.

A Protestant married to a Catholic, her and her husband, decided to make a new life for themselves in London at the start of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Again they were reluctant movers (I told you we weren't big travellers!).

Perversely, the last time I saw her alive was when we went back to Ballyclare for the unveiling of my uncle’s banner. Stood next to me she was looking very pale, which unfortunately was nothing new for her by that time. As the banner was unveiled by my wheelchair-bound Gran, I thought my aunt was about to collapse so overcome from grief was she. As I held her in my arms, consoling her I noticed how thin she had become. Her bony shoulders and thin arms shaking as she mourned the loss of her wee brother.

Little did I know then, that the next time I would be reunited with my family, it would be in London for her funeral.

I said we weren't big travellers but everyone was there in London – even Gran in her wheelchair as she said goodbye within the space of a few short months to the second child of hers that she had outlived.

And this, the woman who was on her death bed four years ago! Testimony to the kindness and impact my aunt had on people was the huge turnout of people at her funeral – people from every walk of life and every creed – people whose lives she had touched in some way.

Her husband's brother, who also lived in London, had been fighting cancer for a long time but despite her own problems, my aunt Iris visited him in hospital EVERY day. The day after he was told she had died, he passed away as well.

I don't think it was any coincidence.

As I said my goodbyes and condolences to my uncle to return to Belgium that evening, I saw a weary old man, who knew he was only half way there.

He was after all, burying his brother the very next day.


In loving memory of my uncle JB – with your infectious stories and your daft grin and the saint that was auntie Iris – with more love and caring in one person than anyone would have ever thought humanly possible.


And of course dedicated to one of the strongest women I have ever met. The irrepressible Gran, who as I edit this tale for my little corner of the internet, Easter 2006, is still going strong.

Whatever she's made of – I want some of that!


Anonymous said…
Hey Jonny, tis your cousin Julie,
I liked reading your Tullymore story, it kind of makes feel like I'm there. With the family, sure it's your side of the family, but you and the boys are my family just the same!
This is my email should you be interested in emailing me sometime since.76@hotmail.com
maybe we can share war stories some time.

All the best...