There is something about the light of the sun and the lengthening of shadows over the last few days that makes it feel as if we are moving into the final stretches of the summer. August is almost ready to give way to September, and minds are turning, with some reluctance, towards Autumn, to shorter evenings, and a return to the regular routines and demands of the working year. Every season brings its own opportunities. This summer has afforded time to appreciate places that are close to home, and reflect on the kind of blessings that we sometimes take for granted.
Our final stop on this ‘Summer at Home’ staycation journey along the North Coast of Ireland is the seaside town of Ballycastle. In arriving at this point together we have reached the gateway to the Glens of Antrim. But that is a story for another day.
Landside, Ballycastle is watched over faithfully by the mighty promontory of Fairhead, and by the rounded outline of Knocklayde. A generous hill, covered in grass and soft heather, Knocklayde is iconic to this place, and visible for many miles. I often remember gauging the weather by looking at it from a distance: a glorious tapestry of earth colours under the sun, but some days shouldering the kind of low cloud that can blanket our lives in rain. On the sea side, there is the constant presence of Rathlin Island, with its cliffs and lighthouses, keeping a steady vigil from its watery vantage point just a few miles across the bay.
Ballycastle is a place noted for its connections. The Western Isles of Scotland are surprisingly close, and looking out over the sea on a clear day from the coast here it is always exciting to try to identify the mountains and islands of that other part of the ancient Dál Riadan kingdom. Closer still is the island of Rathlin, just a couple of miles off the shore. In comparative terms, it is diminutive in size, but nevertheless, said to be identified in very early cartography. More recently, experiments in wireless communication, fundamental to the broadcasting that has connected lives across the globe since the early twentieth century, were carried out between Rathlin and Ballycastle in 1898. This historical moment is commemorated still by the Marconi Monument that stands near the harbour.
The Auld Lammas Fair has taken place in Ballycastle for 400 years. People would come to the Fair from all arts and parts; traditionally to buy and sell cattle, horses, and miscellaneous goods, but also to meet with family and friends, and sample local delicacies and culture. I recall fiddle music in the streets, and throngs of people. There was the singular taste of ‘yellow man’, a hard candy confected from sugar and syrup, and there was ‘dulse‘. This dried black seaweed is as salty as yellow man is sweet. As a child, I experienced Ballycastle as a home of good food, and can remember especially the creamy white triangles of fadge and the wheaten bread bannocks that we enjoyed in Harkness’s bakery on Castle Street hill. We still go to Ballycastle to eat, regularly joining the queue at Morton’s for local fish and chips. We buy bread too; these days the exceptional sourdough loaves and delicate pastries that are handcrafted with such care and artistry in Ursa Minor Bakehouse.
Thinking back over the years, I have come to realise that my personal memories of Ballycastle share a common and important thread. It is the thread of kindness. There was the time when friends gifted my parents with a caravan for us to stay in for a week when we were children, making a happy family holiday both possible and memorable. And among other friends, there was the local jeweller and watchmaker and his wife and family, who showed us warm Irish hospitality around the dinner table in their home above their little shop in Anne Street. They used to allow me and my brother to choose a special treasure each from the shop to take home. Then there were the families of my school friends Laura and Deborah, who showered us with kindness many times at birthday parties, at Christmas, and in the long summer holidays. There was the Corrymeela community that I visited; a foundation that has sought for decades to foster peaceful relations within the island of Ireland and beyond.
More recently, there was the gift I received from poet Medbh McGuckian, who has spent time in Ballycastle over many years. Medbh kindly sent me a signed copy of the Inaugural Seamus Heaney Memorial Lecture, ‘Remembering Seamus Heaney’, that she delivered in September 2014 in Budapest. I had met her at the Seamus Heaney Summer School in Belfast a couple of years previously, and I had been working with her daughter Emer for a time. Medbh considered Heaney as her ‘poetry school-master’. In her lecture she paid fitting tribute to him, and to his words, in language that reaches far into the depths of human experience, with all its joys and complexity and sorrows. She spoke of Heaney’s extraordinary generosity, as a writer and as a person. I thought about Medbh recently when I wrote a poem inspired by Ballycastle and published on the Placing Poems map.
On Ballycastle Beach We walk on shingle and sand: on pebbles of painted lavender dipped in honey that offer soft paths to the feet and yield a quiet song: a music that is intimate like water over rocks. A gentle river flows from Glenshesk. We pause by the yellow gorse and breathe her fine perfume. Almost it is Easter. Towards Fair Head and out to sea there are distant hills: the rise of Isla, Jura, Mull, and further still; the light of a different shore. We pray blessing on your days.
This year, Ballycastle has been selected by Poetry Ireland as one of 20 ‘Poetry Towns’ across Ireland, as part of the Poetry Town initiative featuring poetry events throughout Ireland between 10th and 18th September. Kate Newmann has been appointed Poet Laureate for the town and will write a new poem honouring the place and its people to mark the occasion. For me, Ballycastle is about more than the place, although the town and its setting are certainly beautiful. My memories of Ballycastle, and of North Antrim more generally, are inextricably linked to the people associated with the place. These are memories that I treasure.
If revisiting Ballycastle as part of this staycation journey has made me understand a little more fully the significance of kindness, and the value of hospitality and community, then it has been a journey worth making. The Old Testament Book of Proverbs puts it like this: ‘Whoever pursues … kindness will find life’. As this unique summer draws to a close, these words of wisdom call for fresh consideration. In our world, with the dawning of each new day, they seem more urgently needed than ever before.
Summer at Home Staycation Series: