At the age of seventeen I began a love affair with a place. That place was off the Kinnahalla Road near the Spelga Dam in the heart of the Mourne Mountains, County Down, Northern Ireland. I had been coming to stay in a friend’s old rented cottage for a few months and wanted to find a place of my own. I asked in the local pub and heard about an old farmhouse that might be suitable. I was directed to the owner’s modern farm and asked about the old place.
He pointed across the valley to a group of farm buildings surrounding a two-storey house. “It needs a fair bit doing. It has nae electric nor any modern stuff but if yee want it I’ll take ten bob (Ten shillings or 50 pence) a month aff yee.”
I rode my little 50cc step-through scooter down the rough lane and explored the house. It had water running down one kitchen wall from missing roof tiles, rooks nesting in the chimneys and one downstairs room had no floorboards. Water was from a well and it gurgled out a few black, wiggling leeches when I tried the tap. The main room had a little cast iron range of the Aga type. A sofa and two armchairs sat beneath a blanket of dust. Upstairs there was a huge high-ended double bed in the main wood panelled bedroom. Another room had two singles. The mattress looked astonishingly clean to my eyes and that was as well, since carrying a new mattress on a scooter would have been a challenge.I spent three days hooking twigs out of the flue and chimney of the range. Rooks are very industrious birds – there must have been a whole tree’s worth of sticks dropped down that chimney to make their nest.
The bedroom and the living room got a coat of white paint. Three paraffin hurricane lamps were bought for lighting. A big old enamel coffee pot sat on the now lit range and was always hot while I was there. Eggshells were dropped in the fresh ground Kenyan blend in that pot, it was supposed to make the coffee shinny and thick and it did. When the pot was three-quarter full of grounds, it got emptied and a fresh pot started. I smoked Capstan Full Strength un-tipped cigarettes and drank very strong coffee!
This place, hereafter known as the house in the Mournes, became a bolthole and refuge for me for the next ten years. Every weekend after work I’d escape Belfast and my family. So important was it, I once walked the thirty-five miles from Belfast when I had no transport. I walked in the blackness of night and enjoyed every step.
I explored the mountains and swam in the beautiful pools of the Shimna River. Screamingly cold but sensually stimulating to a horny twenty-year old. I brought my first serious girlfriend to the house but she did not appreciate the simple romance of it all. Coming as she did from a farming family, an outside toilet in a rickety shed and a chamber-pot under the bed for the night, paraffin lights and no TV had no appeal for her. The big double bed collapsed under us one night during vigorous use. The cloud of dust that rose round us, showed my idea of clean and hers was rather different. She didn’t come back.
This past week I took the beloved Brigitte to see the old house that had meant so much to me. The roof had fallen in and it was completely derelict but the range was still there and I could smell the brewing coffee as I stood before it, transported back forty years to the time when this place saved me from the madness of the Troubles and my wildly dysfunctional family. Brigitte said she would have loved the hurricane lamps, ever-hot coffee pot and even the collapsing bed. If only we’d met then – but – she would have been thirteen years old jailbait to me then? But since when have facts mattered when to comes to memories and romance?
Once such memory relates to the Mourne Wall pictured here. My father told me about his own father walking the sixty miles there and back to the Mournes from his home in Belfast every day. He and many others built this dry stone wall to enclose the new water catchment area known as the Silent Valley. This was a kind of unemployment relief for men like my Granda who could find no work after the Ist World War. So much for a home fit for heroes! The history of the wall makes no mention of this but simply says it took from 1902 to 1922 to complete.