Preparing to return 'home' to Emerald Isle

Ro Cambridge is off to visit her daughter in Ballycastle, Ireland where they hold the 'Ould Lammas Fair',  one of ...

Ro Cambridge is off to visit her daughter in Ballycastle, Ireland where they hold the 'Ould Lammas Fair', one of Ireland's oldest every August.

When I was 20, I spent six lonely and unhappy months in London. I had gone to England because I was unhappy with myself, and with life.

I hoped that I would feel a greater sense of belongingness in the city where my mother, my grandparents and my great-grandparents had been born, than in New Zealand, the country of my own birth.

In September, en route to three weeks' travel in Ireland with a friend, I'll be in London again, 45 years after that first miserable experience.

During my first stay in London, I worked as a nanny for a wealthy Knightsbridge family. I shopped for them at Harrods.

On my days off, I rode about on double-decker buses and made solitary visits to the city's museums and art galleries. I ate Kit Kat bars out of vending machines in The Underground. 

When I felt homesick I visited New Zealand House to read the noticeboards and hear New Zealand accents but I scrupulously avoided Earl's Court and other place where I might meet New Zealanders. For a reason I still can't articulate I felt this would somehow be "cheating".

Unsurprisingly, I returned to New Zealand, no less unhappy with myself. I did however return with the understanding that, for better or worse, I was indeed a New Zealander: I was not, in spite of my family heritage, a displaced Englishwoman whose true home was England.

Thanks to that youthful first visit to London I'm under no illusion that London holds any cure for what might still ail me. But Ireland ... ah ... that's another matter.

My father's family hails from Ireland, although in a far more distant way than my mother's family hails from England. I never heard any talk of Ireland, or Irishness from my father or my 10 paternal aunts and uncles.

Their clannishness and their Catholicism were perhaps the only clues, much worn by time, of the family's origins in the Emerald Isle. And yet many of my closest friends over the years have Irish origins.

It's tempting to believe that there is some buried Irishness in me, which responds and feels at home (that word again) with something Irish in them.

This kind of talk can easily sound like silly nonsense - a crock full of wishful thinking. I will freely admit to the wishful thinking. However, I am not, not yet anyway, and certainly not on the eve of my first visit to Ireland, willing to forgo either the foolishness or the wishfulness.

If I wanted to argue that genes and buried family history will out, I could point out that my daughter - who has had no contact at all with my father or his family - has ended up having a child with an Irishman, and has thereby neatly stitched Irishness back into the family genetics.

I might also point out that my daughter's father is a Korean, a people often described as "the Irish of the East".

But let's not argue. The weeks I will spend with my daughter, and granddaughter in the warm Catholic bosom of her partner's family in Ballycastle, County Antrim will either banish the foolish notion, or strengthen its grip.

Besides which, I've got preparations to make for the journey. Naturally, as a reader, I've been tempted to plough my way through the entire Irish literary canon.

However, I've decided to rely instead on the rich Irish stew of fiction and poetry that I've already chewed my way through, including Oscar Wilde, Yeats, Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon as well as Ann Enright, Colm Tóibín, Roddy Doyle, Frank McCourt, John Banville and Nuala O'Faolain but excluding James Joyce who has stubbornly proved indigestible.

Then there's all the Hollywoodised history I've absorbed from the movies over the years, ranging from My Left Foot and The Commitments, to Bloody Sunday, Veronica Guerin, The Magdalen Sisters, Calvary and most recently, The Journey.

Of course, I have a stack of travel guides to hand. But, I've turned my back on them. After browsing a few I began to feel coerced into seeing Ireland, and indeed travel itself, as an inexorable parade of tourist "attractions" to be ticked off a list.

Besides which, I'm rather occupied right now with the literal matter of eating my way through the entire contents of my pantry and freezer before departure.

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Rather than consuming travel hints or more Irish history and literature, I'm busily concocting meals - I use the term "meal" rather loosely - from anonymous frozen lumps of food from the freezer, unidentifiable Asian curry pastes, coconut flour, Marmite, ancient packets of couscous, Christmas mince and anchovies.

Did I mention lychees?

This kind of diet is not for the weak-hearted or the weak-of-stomach. I'm rewarding myself with an episode of Father Ted for every meal I manage to eat without gagging.

On the bright side though, after three weeks of this regime, even the modest offerings of Irish cuisine are going to taste bloody marvellous.

Soda bread? Superb! Five different potato dishes in a single meal? Delicious! Even - and my daughter swears she saw this served in a Ballycastle restaurant - pasta with potatoes? Why sure, that'll be grand!
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 - Stuff


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