The Eire Up There
The smashed avo on artisanal sourdough, teased with freshly ground spices and enlivened with hand-squeezed citrus was being well received by my adolescent dinner guests. OK, I would go on to make the exact same thing for dinner the next night and, yes, it was ultimately just discounted avocado on toast, but as my three young cousins gained little green moustaches in our motorhome, I felt as though I’d cracked parenting on day one.
This first meal was being demolished with alarming gusto in a carpark in Liverpool, but we were soon to drive onto a ferry to swap this drab location for a week of motor-homing around Northern Ireland and the Republic, sailing into Belfast and out of Dublin. An unusually favourable forecast meant we would have sun along the Irish coast, including a section of the much-touted Wild Atlantic Way. I hoped the kids would remember it, that it would feel foreign enough for them without being wholly alien. I hoped we’d have fun.
Isabel (16), Noah (14) and Megan (9) are my cousin Sarah’s children, but for that week, I was their guardian. Some friends laughed at the idea of me voluntarily going from zero-to-three kids, but I knew this trio to be bright, funny children who are largely well-behaved – and easy enough to intimidate if the need arose.
Our first stop was Belfast’s Titanic Experience which had us totally engaged across its six fact-packed floors. The highlight for Noah was the revelation that there were 40,000 eggs on board when the ship set sail. For a time, we pondered how many the passengers got through before the ice-berg did its lethal work.
Later, travelling west to the Drumaheglis caravan park near Coleraine, I felt a certain kinship for that doomed ship’s Captain Edward Smith – driving the motorhome along Northern Ireland’s occasionally narrow roads with my own precious cargo brought a very particular type of stress. If something went wrong, history would absolutely remember me as the villain.
I never came on holidays like this when I was younger and had scant experience of motor-homing, so once in a while I had to refer to the guidebook for our Swift Escape 692. Mercifully the kids’ own instructions were so in-built that my life was made fairly easy – importantly, they made a solemn vow not to use the in-vehicle toilet.
The highlight in Northern Ireland was a five-mile cliff-top hike to Giant’s Causeway from Dunseverick Castle. Before we set out, I gave everyone a cheap little disposable camera, the sort I’d used as a child long before smartphones became so depressingly ubiquitous. This was partly to teach the kids a little about photography and partly so they’d eventually have physical mementos of the trip, but mostly to force breaks in their Snapchat addictions. That strange obsession was blown away by the hike anyway, the sensational views matched only by the kids’ exemplary bladder control.
By the time we’d bussed back to Dunseverick and retrieved the motorhome, it was getting dark so I asked my passengers what they’d like for dinner. “You’re going to have to give us options,” said Megan. “You know, we can tell you aren’t really a parent,” added Isabel, conspiratorially. Perturbed that I’d been rumbled as a fraud, I decided to have an indoor picnic of dried meats and cheeses for dinner, all bought from Aldi. The kids seemed more than happy with this and if they’d noticed my growing financial panic, they were polite enough not to mention it.
The manifold expenses of childcare felt like bleeding from wounds that were unlikely to heal. This wasn’t because there’s something particularly pricey about travelling in a motorhome, nor because Ireland outside of Dublin is extortionate, but because going from feeding one mouth to four made me wince every time I had to hand over my creaking credit card. I repeatedly ask the kids if they maybe fancied paying for the next meal and passed it off as a joke when they declined.
Day three was spent largely on the road, pushing hard through Derry and Donegal to get to Easkey, County Sligo, in the Republic. We crossed the border so seamlessly that the kids barely even noticed the change of country, the Gaelic road signs the only real indication that something had changed.
As we got deeper into the Republic, part of me wondered whether or not to bring up the grinding suicide of Brexit, but I realised I’d been having a blissful break from that hateful topic and anyway, I’m pretty sure the kids know I’m not the sort of person who would have voted to restrict their freedom of movement.
When morning broke on day four, it initially seemed unremarkable. I was trying to get Megan to choose between brown toast and a bagel for breakfast when my own mother called for what I assumed was an update and perhaps a chance to laugh at my being overwhelmed. I took it on my headphones so I could keep going in the kitchen (against considerable odds the choice was toast) but from the tone of the first words, I knew it was one of those calls where there would be no jokes: my father had been found dead back in my hometown of Ayr.
Memory works in strange ways at moments like this. In our extraordinary week on the road, of all the meals we ate and the amazing sights we saw, this breakfast wasn’t one I thought would be so crystallised. My father and I weren’t close and hadn’t spoken for over a year; later, I reflected that if I felt any sadness, it was only at the absence of grief. That’s still true now.
His dissolution, alcoholism and fecklessness scarred my youth, and, in that moment, I decided to not let him pollute my week with the kids, too. I didn’t want to let this distant, spectral event creep inside the motorhome, and so rather than spread the news, I held up the spreads. Faced with three jams or goats’ cheese, Megan of course asked for Nutella instead.
Attempting not to break stride, I threw myself further into what we’d termed #Vanlife. Blur’s Parklife and The Crusaders’ Street Life had both been adapted to sing of our exploits (“Vanlife, it’s the only life we know…”). We’d nearly perfected the dances necessary to navigate motorhome’s tighter spaces and our bedtime routine had become a well-oiled machine. I’d found extra gears in myself, too, developing a near sixth sense for sharp objects at children’s eye-height. Their thirst, hunger and comfort were never far from my mind.
Ireland offered near endless distractions, but when my passengers dosed off during longer drives, I was left to think of my father. He may have set a very low bar, but it cheered me to know that I was creating more happy memories for these kids in a week than he managed over my lifetime. (If that sounds macabre or triumphant, I would gently point out that you never had to travel with him.)
The kids’ happy memories hopefully include our visit to the astonishing array known as the Caves of Keash, which perforate a limestone cliff high above a farm near Sligo. We took dozens of photos inside and out, the kids with their little cardboard cameras, me with my professional kit. Outside the first and largest cave we found a small tin flute lying by the entrance. I insisted that the only reasonable explanation was that it has been left by a leprechaun and of all the tall tales I told over the week, this was the one that came closest to being believed.
That night, I took time to make my signature lamb bolognese from scratch, making a mess of the kitchen but trying my best to show the kids that I could pretend-parent with the best of them. It was almost 10pm before it was on the table, but there were as many complaints as there were leftovers: none.
We eventually reached the gorgeous green coast of Galway where we all wished we’d had a bit more time, but the comparatively bland trip across Ireland to reach Dublin had to be tackled to make the ferry home. We could have spent longer crossing the country’s pastoral heart, but I’ve always had a soft-spot for Dublin and it seemed daft to drive directly to the ferry terminal without letting the kids visit it at all.
On arriving in the capital I quickly saw that the motorhome was too large to fit in any of the multi-storey carparks. Instead I searched the streets until I found a double space on the very banks of the River Liffey. It could hardly have been more central so, having checked that everything was locked, we headed into the city.
I think did a good job of hiding the week’s first landmine from the children, but they were unavoidably witness to the second: while we were away, four men violently broke-in and stole all of my camera equipment, as well as Isabel’s phone and her study laptop, just a few weeks before her first ever meaningful exams.
Virtually my entire livelihood had been taken, but the most nauseating aspect was the photos from six sunny, smile-filled days. The Garda were sympathetic and friendly and competent, but they had no hope of our belongings being recovered. As I gave my statement and bit the inside of my lip, I noticed that the disposable cameras had at least been untouched.
Before long were heading to the ferry, Dublin seeming like a less fair city than the songs would have you believe. It was hard to keep upbeat under the circumstances; harder still not to put my fist through a wall when I thought of the squalid fate of the memories stolen from us. But the kids were upset enough without me throwing a tantrum, so I bought us fish and chips and lied that I was confident my insurance policy would look after us.
We docked a little after 5am and started heading towards Buxton in Derbyshire where we were to meet my cousin before I returned the motorhome to the Swift depot in Stockport. As we pulled onto the motorway, a pink dawn rose and blossomed ahead of us.
“Look at that,” said Isabel having finally reclaimed the front seat from her siblings, “it’s beautiful.”
“It certainly is,” I said. “Perhaps things aren’t so bad after all.” And then I started trying to believe it.
A version of this piece was published in the Telegraph in August 2019.