The young woman tending the Budget Car Rental counter at Belfast City Airport was delightfully Irish. After basking in the alluring lilt of her small talk—as she established where we were from and where we were headed in Northern Ireland – I was putty in her hands.
I asked how long it might take to get from the airport to our hotel, every bit as much to prolong the oratory as to learn the answer. “Oh, it’s but a five minute drive, so it is,” she assured me with melodic tone and captivating inflection.
“Could I see a wee motor permit?” she inquired with the confident expectation that makes an accent-envious car renter determined to win praise with an affirmative response. Like a third-grader eager to impress his teacher, I nodded enthusiastically as I fumbled through my wallet to triumphantly produce, not just an Ontario driver’s licence, but the international driver’s permit I secured in preparation for the trip (which in contrast to website instruction was deemed by the local counter staff to be entirely unnecessary in Northern Ireland).
“And do you have a wee credit card for me?” came the sweet finale to an enchanting and hypnotic itemization of charges and fees profoundly dissimilar to our on-line quote. “Absolutely,” I gushed, in obsequious compliance as I mindlessly turned over my wee card seconds before my wife intervened to right the charges and snap me out of my infatuation.
Thankfully, two of the rental car upgrades we chose were automatic transmission and a GPS unit. It was difficult enough negotiating the left side of the road from a right-side driving position, without having to add left hand gear shifting while making last-second directional corrections. Thirty-eight minutes later – after two dead ends exiting the airport parking lot and several catapults out the wrong spoke of roundabouts in the Belfast rush hour swell – we completed the five-minute drive to the hotel where we checked in and reported directly to the lobby bar to treat frazzled nerves – so we did.
It was evening when we arrived in Belfast and after savouring my first pint of Guinness at the hotel, the next order of business was to find a traditional Irish pub to deal with a fierce hunger. The hotel concierge was more than accommodating as he led us out the main doors for a literal pointing of directions. He rhymed off a few dinner options in thick Irish brogue. “There’s Fubber Magay’s down the way, or if it’s entertainment you prefair, go through Fubber Magay’s ’til you come across The Croin.”
“The Croin?” my wife asked, tentatively.
“The Croin,” clarified the helpful concierge.
Having some experience in deciphering Irish accents, I thanked the friendly chap and with a pretty good idea of what we were looking for, followed his directions until we came across a narrow but lengthy establishment called Fibber Magee. This pub was sparsely populated with what I suspect were regulars. The handful of patrons were either deeply engrossed in conversation or focused intently on TV monitors broadcasting a World Cup match.
We opted to follow the concierge’s advice to go through Fibber Magee’s. Cleverly concluding that through did not involve finding a back door from which to exit, we left the way we came in and quickly spotted The Crown a short distance beyond Magee’s. The Crown was packed and hopping with a raucous pub atmosphere, but also came with a long wait for a table. We crossed the street to find an opening at a great little pub called Brennan’s Bar where I ordered my second Guinness and the Beef & Mushroom Pie.
In my exuberance to share a bit of the experience with my brother – the only other family member to set foot in Ireland since my Dad left the country – I wandered up to the bar to snap a photo of the menu board featuring assorted Irish dishes, the texting of which would provide pictorial evidence of where we were. I hardly noticed the two Irishmen in rapt conversation on bar stools in the foreground. At least, not until the flashing of my camera snapped their heads in my direction with looks of mild annoyance – presumably in relation to why they were being photographed. “Uh, sorry guys. I was just shooting over your heads … at the menu behind you,” I explained. A well-intentioned clarification that, in hindsight, may not have been ideally phrased, for a Belfast pub.
Antrim Coastal Route
Our drive up the coast from Belfast on route to Derry was stunning. Apart from short periods of white-knuckled terror driving on the opposite side – of pavement and car – and competing for limited space on a ribbon of road winding perilously between solid rock and raging sea, the trip was spectacular. We came across great settlements with names of Irish/Gaelic origin that describe the landscape: Carrickfergus, Ballygalley, Glenarm, Carnlough, and Ballycastle. Where carrick portrays rock, bally is homestead, glen depicts valley, and lough means lake. It was a gorgeous coastline speckled with picturesque towns.
We paid a visit to the Old Bushmills Distillery before winding up at Giant’s Causeway for some breathtaking views. The weather and timing didn’t allow for a full tour of the Causeway, but what we did see was outstanding. We got the first blast of heavy rains, since we launched our holiday in Scotland, on the way from the coast to our next overnight stop in Derry.
Walking in Ancestral Shoes
This was my first visit to my father’s homeland of Northern Ireland and I was just the second of our family to visit since Dad left for good, 61 years ago. I’ve always felt a connection to Ireland and have enjoyed great friendships with some of its expatriates. With an Irish father and a Scottish mother whose own maternal bloodline connects us to the Duffy clan, I suppose the affinity for things Irish comes honestly.
I was interchangeably excited and melancholy as we drew closer to Drumquin, the nearest village to my Dad’s childhood home, about five miles out of town. The thought of sharing the space and seeing the sights he grew up with, was surreal.
When we got to town, we walked the main street snapping pictures of old buildings that had surely seen little change in the past six or seven decades. It was 1:00 p.m. but the doors of a string of pubs lining the main drag were locked on account of “the hard times,” as we would hear later. We eventually pulled a door that opened to a dimly lit room, with a middle aged women tending bar and a couple of men showing signs of having been well tended to.
“Would any of you have heard of a Jimmy Coyle who lived out on the Glen Road before moving to Canada 60 years ago?” I asked after my wife and I, under curious gazes, slid onto a couple of bar stools and ordered a beer.
“Quail, is it?” came the response from a customer who I’d guess was in his mid-40’s.
“No, Coyle,” I clarified.
“Oh, Jimmy Kyle, then?”
“Yes, Jimmy Coyle,” I confirmed.
The next half hour or so was a remarkable showing of small town hospitality as the three locals started talking amongst themselves, firing us assorted questions, and making every effort to assist in locating the home my Dad was raised in and the school he attended as a child. “Sure, it’s the old Laughmulharn School on the Glen that’s now lived in as a home,” one of the customers concluded.
One of the men called someone on his cell phone and was relaying the information I had shared. When he finished his call, the other man said, “Big Jimmy who lives on the Glen would know of the Coyles. Big Jimmy knows everything there is to know of the Glen.” The man who had made the call glanced at his watch and said, “Oh, ye don’t want to be callin’ on Big Jimmy now, he’ll be fulla-drink, so he will.”
As we finished our pints, the men tag-teamed to give us precise directions, in alternating snippets, from the first right turn at the crooked bridge to the Glen Road, and suggested we visit McLaughlin’s store at the turn to the Glen and talk to the proprietor who may be able to help.
The visit to McLaughlin’s was fruitful. It was now about 2:00 p.m. and the fellow behind the counter was chatting with several customers when we walked in to explain who we were and what we were looking for. After I said that I had heard the old school my Dad had attended had since been converted to a home, the man behind the counter said, “I know well the old school that was converted to a home, for it is I who live in it.”
The Coyle name and the names of the three mates my Dad emigrated with were known here. One of the customers shared the news that one of those mates had passed away in Canada a year ago, which ironically was news to both me and my Dad.
Though we didn’t see my Dad’s house, the shop owner provided a good idea of where it once stood and allowed us to visit his own property to photograph and spend as much time as wanted at the old schoolhouse. We did just that. I walked the grounds and pictured Dad walking up the steep hill towards it. Of taking his place at a table in the tiny building. Of walking back home to help on the cattle farm.
After 56 years of living with a fantasized version of my paternal roots, I am proud and grateful to have now seen the real one.