"...stories birling through my mind..."
A literary journey
Nostalgic Irish prose
Irish culture & folklore
Ulster-Scots short stories
"...stories birling through my mind..."
It’s 1986, I’m ten years old, and God is reigning over Butlins.
I queue for the chalet key, take a deep breath and sigh because my heroine is right before my eyes, a beacon of amusement clad in a red blazer and a gorgeous, pleated skirt.
O to be a redcoat!
There’s an outdoor pool with a red and white fountain, and I skreich as my bare belly hits the icy water. I shiver and thaw in a towel by the side of the pool where adults slarry suncream on goose-pimpled skin. I grab my coat and my cousin and race through rows of pink and lemon chalets towards the Big Dipper, the Mexican Hat, the chair lift, the wee train, the Tilt-o-whirl and The Donkey Derby.
Dusk descends on the bonnie hills of Ayrshire, and I know that God is there when the silver moon of the Stuart’s Ballroom alights across a dance hall filled with children. ‘Let’s do the Time Warp again,’ I sing, and it’s astounding and time is fleeting as I jump to the left and skip to the right. I follow the white plimsolls in long lines of vigorous hip twisting, my heart thumping as ‘pi-a-pia-piano’ tinkles from the ebony and ivory of my fingers, my Dambusters’ aircraft sweeping through the room.
The Bully up the Brae
I went to Moyle Primary School. It was the best school in Larne. It was the best school in County Antrim. It was the best school in Northern Ireland. It was the best school in Europe. It was the best school on earth. It was the best school in the universe.
It was wile good.
I liked Moyle Primary School, but on my first day, there were girls and boys who were crying to go home. What did they have to cry about? There were fat, juicy pencils, the likes of which I’d never seen at home. There were trays with coloured cubes that made me feel so happy that my tummy got a wee bit fluttery. There were easels with big, white pages. They were the widest, shiniest pages I’d ever seen. I wanted to dip a brush into a big blob of blue paint and make a line of sky.
That was Miss McBride. She said children instead of weans. She had black hair and a lovely, long skirt that matched her scarf. She had a wile nice smile when she was happy, but when she was cross, she would say, ‘Now children. Don’t be naughty!’
We learned to read and write at Moyle Primary School. The teachers were smart, but they didnae understand the local language.
The Accidental Wife by Orla McAlinden is collection of short stories that pumps good language and the theme of bad blood through a body of work that has all the comfort of a novel.
There’s the language of farming and it’s sharp and metaphorical in a way that only one familiar with the metal spike on a velvet-soft muzzle could imagine, “The bull’s nostrils slammed open on the instant and he sucked in a huge, shuddering breath, rasping like a stone caught under a tight-fitting door.” There’s Irish mixed with Scots mixed with Middle English, all churning into buttery swirls of Ulster dialect on the page. When the Facebook generation appear with their like, like like, like, the reader pines for a quare oul trip back to the solid old oak Omagh dialect of Dominic and Alo.
In Primary one, in the midst of those fat, yummy pencils referred to here, a linguistic journey began for me that ended in a love for languages. It’s not unusual for a child to be exposed to two languages in the early years. The problem for children who speak Ulster-Scots is that the dialect is often mistaken for poor English, and the education system swiftly stems its progress as children adapt to Standard English. Those who started school with me in 1980 may well have been the last generation to be told to redd up the house, to get up at the skraik o' dawn, or to pay heed to the teacher. My mum and dad’s generation is likewise the last to sincerely belong to an ancient, poetic language that allows women who are gey and fond of a wee drap o' tay to be skunnered about the brave and long day at work.
It wasn’t until I read Sam Hanna Bell’s December Bride that I actually learned to spell any of the words I was weaned on. I nearly jumped out of my skin when I saw the word blirt written down for the first time. I had always assumed it was a word that my mum and dad had made up.
Here are some wee things you might like to know about Ulster-Scots:
There’s a house at the top of the hill in the townland of Ballysnod, and a family with four children walk there every Sunday with a Tansad. The children skip down the Old Glenarm Road, swinging the toddler over the knobbly bits of the footbath. They stroll along the empty, barricaded Main Street, cross the bridge at Inver River, climb the crooked horseshoe bend and traipse up a steep, country road, trailing sticks from the thorny hedges along the tarmac. They stop to look at the town with its smoky chimneys and long lines of terraced streets and they point to their home by the giant sheds of the GEC factory before waiting and watching the Townsend Thoresen cross the turquoise sea.
Raise arms, bend knees, face the front and lunge. Pas de bas, pas de bas. Clasp hands. Now spin! Polka two three.
Heads up, hands out, concentrate, and smile!
There we were, twelve girls fluttering across the room in staggered lines, straight lines, canons and in pairs, dancing in painted gutties threaded with satin ribbons with the pitter patter of feet that were uniquely Girls’ Brigade.
‘Attennn shon’ was the signal from Captain Dundee that it was all about to begin. ‘Stand at ease’ followed as hair, hands, navy tunics, red jumpers, white socks and navy knickers were inspected in marks out of ten.
Crafts and scriptures came after P.E., which was less about PE and more about dancing of the ballet, Irish and Highland kind. We clasped our hands for verse speaking, our bodies tilted to the audience, ‘The Awell and the Pooosy caet went to sea in a byooootiful pea-green boat.’ Maze marching was the swinging arms and the criss-crossing of the floor to classical music from a tape in a red ghetto blaster before advancing two-three, retiring two-three, pas de bas and lunge through a swinging skipping rope, a little known life skill that is uniquely Girls’ Brigade.
I waited my whole life to go to Manderley.
At least, I was vaguely aware of its greatness for half my life.
As I trudged, strangely willingly, through the literary shell-shock of existentialism, communism and fascism in the French department at university, I often wondered what literary delights that period of the “interwar years” bestowed upon the students of the English department a few doors up. Were they as knee deep in la condition humaine as us? Were there to be men on the march of a red tide, all contemplating deep and meaningful isms? And Freud, let’s not forget him. Always there in the background with his dreams.
What of Rebecca? Was this the thinking woman’s novel of the 1930s? A white azalea in a path of blood red rhododendrons?
Rebecca is, on the surface, a feminine novel that has us squirming with discomfort as du Maurier tells the world our innermost thoughts and our most terrible weaknesses. We find ourselves protesting as we read: do we wish to be represented by a heroine who is weak and afraid and who stammers ‘little’ in almost every paragraph? Is our heroine betraying us by revealing our rambling dreamscapes and the winding paths of our imaginations that heave with monstrous plants and our own looming deficiencies?
You peek your upturned nose through the letterbox, inhale the smothering scent of wee buns, and holler, ‘Naaaan!’
The birds are pecking at the bird box, the drizzle is dripping from the roses and the concrete steps shimmer like marble.
You see a face at the window with hollow cheeks. It’s not quite your Aunt Nan, but she opens the door, puts her teeth back in place, smiles, and you feel rich.
It’s Tuesday. The twin tubs are swivelling their hips: one for washing; one for rinsing. The buns are ready and Nan lifts them onto a cooling rack. She has eyes on the back of her head.
Tut tut and a tap on the hand.
A French fisherman, an island off France and a spring tide: the perfect remedy to cast off the shadows of a grey January day! This scene from on the Île-de-Bréhat is one of my favourites in Snugville Street. Enjoy!!
The Île-de-Bréhat was a carnival of colour and fragrance, and it was filled with people searching out the wonders of the early July spring tide. Hannah inhaled the scent of eucalyptus, smiled at the sight of pink geraniums drooped over old stone walls, and tiptoed carefully over the craggy stones in rugged rock pools where she paddled among children and their nets. As puffins kissed on the pink rocks, Hannah relished the start of summer; she was almost nineteen, school was over and she was in France with Gildas.
Gildas, who’d been the first to contact Hannah upon her arrival in Paimpol, spent much of the time describing the tides to her. Hannah checked her pocket dictionary for a translation of ‘la grande marée’, such was its prominence in the discussion they were having. She’d never heard of a spring tide, but realised that it involved the sea parting from the land in an extended farewell.
They were kneeling and picking mussels when Hannah asked, ‘What exactly is a spring tide?’
Gildas’ eyes came to life and he explained carefully, ‘When you have a tide, it is caused by the force of the moon and the force of the earth.’ He formed planets with his fists.
Hannah’s head moved up and down.
‘The sea is pulled by the gravity of the moon...’
Hannah disguised her scientific deficiencies with a continual nod.
The rotational force of the earth, she heard. The sea bulges, she heard. The rest of his words fell through the gaps in her intelligence.
Hannah flicked the small swirls of worm-shaped sand and tried not to look Gildas in the eye. One of the first sentences she’d ever learned in French came mechanically to mind. Je ne comprends pas.
Gildas laughed, as though attuned to her thoughts.
He placed three shells on his arm in a vertical line. ‘Look, when we have the earth, the sun and the moon all in a line, we have spring tide. It happens when there is a new moon or a full moon. Today we have a new moon.’
‘And I take it that means the tide is very low,’ Hannah said, her eyes narrowing to a distant horizon of water.
‘Or very high,’ he added. ‘When the moon is closest to the earth, you get the biggest tide of all.’
‘I wonder why it’s called spring tide,’ Hannah said, her head cocked to the side. Jean was suddenly infiltrating her thoughts. Listen to your man, she was saying. Is this the language of love? Hannah smiled, straightened her neck, and removed the hand that had found itself resting involuntarily on her left hip. ‘It doesn’t just happen in spring,’ she observed.
‘No, twice a lunar month.’
‘A lunar month,’ she repeated. Why hadn’t she thought to listen in geography?
Or was it physics?
‘Yes, you know...the moon.’ Gildas was laughing. ‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘This must be very boring. You measure your day in degrees celsius and I measure mine in the tidal coefficient. Your head is in the clouds and mine is in the moon,’ he smiled.
‘I don’t know if that’s reassuring for me or not! You’re in charge of the boat home,’ she said, overlooking the tidal coefficient for fear of an explanation.
Hannah turned to Gildas and spoke slowly, certain that there must be a seductrice kindling within her. She just needed a little help stirring the flame.
'What kind of things happen at spring tide when there is a new moon?’ she asked, almost gasping.
‘All types of mysteries of nature,’ smiled Gildas.
Hannah’s face reddened.
‘It’s a ripe time for planting seeds.’
Hannah wanted to kiss him.
‘The body and the mind also change with the moon’s orbit.’
Hannah stopped breathing. Gildas’ body.
‘Things feel different when there is a full moon or a new moon.’
Was he still talking about the moon?
‘I know people have recorded the increase in violent crime...’
Crime? Hadn’t he sensed her femme fatale?
‘But it’s not possible to record the beauty, the positive energy that occurs.’
Hannah laughed aloud. She was on unfamiliar ground. Gildas stopped what he was saying and smiled.
‘We should walk back to the boat now,’ he said, pulling Hannah to her feet.
She stood up. He was still holding her hand. She walked by his side, the faculty of speech and her sense of reality anchored in the sand.
‘Did you enjoy the island? Gildas asked softly.
‘Did. Yes. Thank you,’ she said in English, her linguistic processes in disarray. There were words but there was nothing linking them together.
He helped her onto the boat and then kissed her gently as she stood on the step. Eucalyptus, geraniums, puffins, rock pools. He was kissing her. He stopped.
The boat started to drift from the shore and Hannah’s French floated behind it in the rippling current. She could only summon one sentence. Je ne comprends pas. Over and over. Je ne comprends pas.
He kissed her again as they approached his coastal home. She tasted the salt from his lips and wanted to place her hands over his body, but Gildas moved away silently and steered the boat to the dock at the end of his garden.
‘We are home.’ he said.
The beauty of the French language had now parted company from Hannah in an extended farewell like an unscheduled spring tide.
‘Let’s get you back to your dorm.’
Gildas reached out for Hannah’s hand in the car as they drove through the winding country roads. He kissed her goodbye at the dormitories.
She slept soundly, with the sea tangled in her hair, sand clinging to her arms and legs and the taste of salt on her lips.
The morning didn’t begin where night ended, but stretched lazily into the afternoon. She stood up eventually, looked in the mirror in the ensuite bathroom and saw that the pale girl with blue skin who had left Ireland only two days before, was infused with soft pink. She touched her face and moved her head to the side, her eyes still concentrated on the mirror, blue eyes that were large and instilled with life.
Her body was as petite as it had always been, but it felt fuller. Her breasts seemed to bulge through her skin. The sea bulging. Or was it the moon? Which planet was rotating? She turned to the side and looked back over her shoulder at the slope of her back. She shivered as she became aware of a swell deep in her body.
Hannah wouldn’t see Gildas again until Wednesday. She would have to enjoy the noise of Nicolas and the challenge of teaching English to teenage boys and girls for three long days.
Her legs weakened.
Subject, object, verb, came the echo of Miss Walker’s voice. Tu me manques. You me miss. You are missed, Gildas.
Hannah stood up straight again.
Hannah, Hannah, always so serious.
She walked back to her bed again and surveyed the sparse room with its plate cooker set on top of the fridge. Her eyes closed on an island and the soft laughter of Gildas as she recollected the past, the present or the future tense, and fell in love with French all over again. Je t’aime. Subject, object, verb. I you love.
Angeline King is the author of A Belfast Tale and Snugville Street. Click the links below to learn more:
A Belfast Tale: Troubles and misplaced passions course through rivers and oceans in this beautiful transatlantic story and uniquely Belfast Tale.
Snugville Street: A tapestry of love and loss is woven through humour and heart-ache as we move from Belfast to Brittany on a journey of shame and redemption.
In 1996, a crack commando unit was sent away from a photographer for a crime of fashion. The unit promptly escaped from the flashing lights and made its way to a restaurant in Carrickfergus. Today, still wanted by the Photography Perfection Police, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help...then you know what to do ...that’s if you were a kid in the 1980s!
It is my mum and dad’s twenty-fifth wedding anniversary and we are all going out for dinner. You wonder half the time why families put themselves through it. We proceed in false hope of warm smiles and familial bonding and risk our sanity and axe any surplus income in order to go to a restaurant. And just to make it really special, we’ll have a family portrait done en route.
I love it when a plan comes together.
Scene from Snugville Street
82 Waterloo Road
The Teacher Voice
The Last Day of Summer Scheme
Uniquely Girls' Brigade
The Children of Latharna
The Band Stick
The Bully up the Brae
God Created Butlins
History & folklore
Language Blog I
Language Blog II
Language Blog III
Language Blog IV
Fiddles and Melodeons
Martha Taylor's diary
Jean McCullagh at 104
Ballymena & the McConnells
Arms in Irish Dancing
Catholics & Protestants in Irish dancing
Irish Dancing: The Festival Story
The Protestant in Irish Fiction.
The Protestant in Irish fiction II
Ulster-Scots in Irish Fiction
An author in Wonderland
Dancing in Victorian Ulster
Learning the Irish Language.
John Hewitt Summer School
Thirteen Reasons for Peace
So Young then (Andrea Corr & me)
Lesley Allen & Helen Nicholl