It was ever thus before the birth of The Daughter and, now that she's flown the nest, we are reverting to type by taking our annual holiday in September. It seems apt now that we're in the late summer of our days.
There are fewer white touring Plastic Fantastics on the roads of Ireland than there are in France, but then the weather's less inviting. We went on holiday with low expectations in that respect. The Good Wife's all-seeing phone suggested rain, rain and more rain. It was raining when we arrived late in the evening at Cork airport and it was raining spitefully the next day when we drove to Dingle on the first leg of our Tour d'Irelande. We picked up a pair of bedraggled young Finnish hitchhikers at Killarney, who'd missed by a minute their bus to Dingle. When we dropped them off in the town centre, we imagined their day and felt rather apologetic (although Finnish summers apparently also leave much to be desired).
The rain cleared overnight, giving us the mountains of Kerry with our breakfast at Mrs. O'Whatsit's guest house. She persuaded us to drive around the stunning headland as a prologue to our epic haul to Donegal. The sun stayed with us off and on for the 400 kilometres or so to the wild north west. Since we had little time or desire to visit the latest bizarre tourist attraction of 'Famine Cottages', there was nothing much to see inland until Sligo. There the table-top mountain of Benbulben dominates 'Yeats Country', as featured in the second film of Michael McDonagh's 'suicide trilogy', the bleakly bleak Calvary.
It then rained bitterly the day after our overnight stay in Ardara, County Donegal, in one of the tiniest rooms ever offered for Air B&B. I spent a holiday near there as a child, when I ate myself to a standstill in a hotel that burnt down a few years back. In the rain, the beach did not look as inviting as I remembered, and banal new bungalows now pimple the erstwhile virgin land. Clearly the Irish and/or the Americans have discovered Donegal since the so-called Celtic Tiger sprung briefly into life during the '90s.
Beautiful as the coast is, driving across the barren windswept heartland of the county made me wonder why anyone would choose to settle there – but hey, each to his or her own. In Letterkenny we stopped for a half-way decent coffee in a café decorated throughout in apophthegms. Many a maxim makes Mark a muddled man. One thought for the day is OK, but 60 more will only bore. Quite a few were jokey sentiments about the uselessness of husbands. My wife, who tends to stand up for men (sweet innocent that she is), observed that had they been derogatory comments about women, the perpetrators would have been dragged off by the thought-police. On leaving, I asked the woman at the counter roughly how long it was to Derry. 'Oh, about 40 minutes. Is that OK for you?' On the road to Derry, we speculated about what she could have done for us had it not been.
From (London)derry, we pushed on, ever onwards, to the north coast. In Coleraine, it was surprising after so long in France to see school children in uniform. Just another reason perhaps for feeling instantly at home again, even though I only spent 12 years of my life in the province. Roots I guess are what make people return to, say, the inhospitable heartland of Donegal. Roots are what stir your emotions for no sensible reason. Walking along the great sweeping strand at Portstewart, with the dunes to our left and the north Atlantic to our right and far off in the distance obscured by drizzle, Malin Head, Ireland's most northerly point, it was all I could do to stop myself from skipping like a wee child across the sand.
And it's the roots that make you want to hug your host for the night for lighting a wood fire, showing off his rock-solid triceps from 'years of lifting beer kegs', giving us the run of his extensive bungalow and generally reminding you of just how welcoming, big-hearted, voluble and funny the Norn Irish people are. Nothing was too much trouble for Michael, a big softly-spoken man who re-acquainted me with some of the indigenous grammatical quirks: 'Now go youse to the end of the road and turn right onto the main road. Then go youse straight over the wee roundabout and keep going straight, straight, straight till youse see a Tesco there on your right. D'youse know Tesco?'
We knew indeed Tesco, even though the supermarket hadn't penetrated this far in my day. At Michael's insistence we picked some pink ladies off his apple tree to take with us the next day for our trip along the north coast. And behold, they were as good as yer man proclaimed. Behold, too, the coast was every bit as beautiful as they say: the White Rocks, White Park Bay, the miniature harbour at Balintoy, the ruined castle at Dunluce hanging on precariously to the edge of the cliff... If anything, the miraculous Giant's Causeway was the biggest disappointment – simply because of the number of tourists swarming over the pillars of basalt. When I went there for the first time around 30 years ago, I was about the only person there and this wonder of the world exuded the kind of mysterious power diluted this time by so many people. A young married couple posed for the telephoto lens of a photographer, striking the kind of Hello! attitudes that would register their brief time in the limelight and leave us with a sickly taste of Facebook.
The tourism stats have been boosted by visitors from all over the world, come to see the locations for Game of Thrones. At Cushendun, another family holiday destination back in the '60s, we stumbled upon some caves that were apparently used in episode x of season y. Tourism has even transformed Belfast – where dozens of gigantic cruise ships tie up annually in order to visit the Titanic museum. Buses and taxis take you to see the ironically-named Peace Wall, as if a relic of a past that's ancient history now. But is it? Catholics and Prods probably mix more these days, but it was an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu I felt while driving down the glorious Antrim Coast Road to pass through villages bedecked by flags flying the red hand of Ulster. Ireland has become a modern European nation in the decades since the Troubles. The omnipotence of the Catholic church has dissipated. Even if the south really wanted a united Ireland, the hard-liners in the north would have nothing much to fear today. I had hoped that they might have grown up and put away their foolish Orange regalia, but I fear not.
Nevertheless, Belfast has changed out of all recognition from the time when we teenagers used to queue up to be frisked by the army at the turnstiles that cordoned off the city centre. It's a lively, swinging urban affair these days. Even the drab little family-run hotel where we spent our first six weeks or so in a new city in the winter of 1961 has been transformed into something bigger and grander. Reputedly the food's good, too. They probably serve something other than meat, cabbage and potatoes now.
We parked opposite in the drizzle for a look at our last house in the city. It has been joined at the hip with the house next door to create a crèche for wee babs. Their strap line states Happy memories of childhood, which was too delicious to miss the opportunity for one of those awful posed photies that should probably end up in the Delete bin. We walked down to my old school, there on its little hill – or monticulo in Latin, according to the fairly absurd school song that we would sing with gusto on public occasions.
After wandering around the Botanic Gardens, inspecting the refurbished hot houses and browsing a fascinating photographic exhibition of The Troubles in the Ulster Museum, our friend Joan drove us through the city centre to the Titanic area. Once it thronged with Harland & Wolff ship-builders; now it throngs with visitors. Time being tight, we decided to forego the attraction, instead visiting the Dock Café for tea and cakes. It has survived for six years as an 'honesty café', where you can spend a whole afternoon if you wish on an old sofa with your laptop and pay what you feel the refreshments are worth. On the whole, Belfast people are kind, honest folk.
That night at our friend's family farmhouse, we went out with a night camera to watch for badgers by the set in their wood. One or two beautiful creatures duly obliged soon after dark, but they knew only too well that we were there. They didn't perform for the camera, so we were only too happy to leave them to the nocturnal cold and retreat indoors to watch the first half of our host's favourite film, the suitably madcap Hotel Splendide.
We left the North after breakfast the next morning, driving the surprisingly empty arterial road down to Dublin. Somewhere around the now indiscernible border, we passed the Belfast-to-Dublin 'express' train. What will they do once our moronic politicians go ahead with their suicidal Brexit? Will they stop the trains so that armed officials can climb on board to check the passengers' passports? And will they pull over tractors on the lanes in Tyrone and Fermanagh that wind back and forth between the two nations?
The M50 that now by-passes Dublin resembles a second-cousin-once-removed to London's M25, but otherwise the journey all the way down to West Cork was long and tedious but easy enough. We spent our last three nights with friends who once ran a gallery in this part of France and now live in a house by the water's edge at the end of a narrow winding lane that menaced the paintwork of our hire-car. The weather was surprisingly benign despite ominous warnings of a full-throttle storm coming in off the Atlantic. Our hosts – like many of the local fish and farming folk – seized the opportunity to bring their boats in for the winter. We witnessed the tricky business of steering a craft onto a tractor-driven trailer early Saturday morning. The Good Wife, it transpires, has always dreamt of having a little vessel. Me, I'm not so keen.
The wind, more of a harbinger than the actual tempête that struck a few days later when we were tucked up tight once more in our own home, turned frisky on returning the car at Cork airport. No scratches this time, mum! Even so, they find a way to add a surcharge or two. On this occasion, it was the second driver whom I had assumed was covered. Never mind, it's the nature of holidays to bleed you dry. The flight was only mildly delayed by the wind and when we swooped down on Bordeaux, lit up like a vast printed circuit board as we banked steeply from the Atlantic coast, it was still 27 degrees at 9pm, a good 13 degrees or so warmer than the mean Irish temperature.
We both loved Ireland and the Irish. If ever circumstances and resources permit, we shall consider spending August there, when it's unconscionably hot in south-west France: two weeks near Balintoy or Cushendall perhaps and two weeks in West Cork. They say that the older you get, the more nostalgic you also get. I'll be zipping up my boots and going back to my roots more frequently now for a dose of the craic.