A few weeks ago I read on my friend Gladys’ blog that the informal, inter-faith Northern Ireland Thomas Merton Society was holding a one day retreat in Knockayd, a centre in the Glens of Antrim run by the Corrymeela Community. Since I have, for more or less as long as I can remember, been reading and cherishing the works of Merton, and knew very little about Corrymeela except that it was a Good Thing, I resolved to try to attend. This proved slightly more tricky in the execution than the intention, as although participants were travelling from across the north of Ireland, none were coming from our particular south-west corner of the north and Ulsterbus can’t envisage the possibility of anyone wanting to get to Belfast before eleven o’clock on a Saturday morning. The expedition seemed entirely stymied until M, cutting through the Gordian knot with his customary panache, suggested that I stay in a nearby B&B on the Friday evening.
Eureka! The B&B (in Ballycastle) was booked, Translink (Northern Ireland’s integrated (pause for slightly hollow laugh)public transport network)’s website extensively consulted and a fellow Mertonite delegated to ferry me the few miles to Knockayd. As the trip to Ballycastle appeared to involve at least three buses and/or trains, I decided to make a few book-hunting stops en route. This was faciliated by a form of bus ticket which used to be called, rather grandly, the Freedom of Northern Ireland, which sounds more like the kind of thing Mo Mowlam might have been awarded than a small blue piece of flimsy paper permitting one to travel, at no extra cost, all the way from Belleek to Bangor. It turned out, however, that the FONI (probably best not pronounced aloud) has been replaced by a natty little smartcard called the iLink which, once purchased, is rechargeable for a day’s travel at less than the usual day return fare to Belfast. Jolly well done, Translink.
The operation of the iLink is most exciting. You merely place it on a piece of plastic nothingness on the bus, the sort of grey panel that, on a car dashboard, indicates that this is the economy model, without the integral DVD player-cum-chopstick holder, and miraculously a ticket splurges out from the machine beneath it. The drivers seem pretty thrilled about it, too. ‘For my next trick…’ said one, which, for Dungannon on a grey February morning, is pretty much Perrier award stuff. So, the journey:
Fit the First: Enniskillen to Dungannon.
Having taken an extraordinary leap of technological faith and brought no printed books whatsoever with me (rather akin to a Swedish alcoholic setting off on a Sunday without an emergency stash of vodka) I started reading some of the free sample chapters downloaded onto my Kindle. The first was a book called Victory of Reason by Rodney Stark, which has been repeatedly recommended by one of the more conservative commentators on Gladys’ blog. I might have been warned by the subtitle, which is How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism and Western Success or by the fact that another of this gentleman’s voluminous outpourings is entitled God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades. Undeterred (or, to be honest, slightly deterred but feeling that I should give the thing a fair hearing) I read that China had no science, Islam no theologians, and (obviously) that unfettered capitalism was Good for Everyone before reaching the end of the sample and declining Amazon’s kind invitation to download the rest. Janet Street-Porter’s memoirs, Why My Parents Were Awful and Why I Dumped My Friends (or words to that effect) were similarly sampled and despatched to whatever a Kindle has in place of a wastepaper basket.
There isn’t much to say about Dungannon except that the main street, which runs from the bus station up to the library, is steep. I marched up it, bought a vintage Hardy Boys mystery and copy of Frost At Christmas (which I’d recently listened to on my iPod without managing to turn off the Shuffle feature and in consequence knew most of what happened but not, as Eric Morecambe so cogently put it, necessarily in the right order) and marched down again. At this point I imagined that I had time to pop into Tesco to buy a packet of biscuits and can of wine (I know) for my supper. What I hadn’t factored in was the number of elderly ladies before me at the checkouts who had just received money-off vouchers for a range of precisely delineated grocery items. On the positive side, it was encouraging to discover that I can still run, albeit a matter of yards, and succeeded in boarding the next bus.
Fit the Second: Dungannon to Belfast
If there was very little to say about Dungannon, there is even less to note about the journey from thence to Belfast, most of which took place on a grey motorway under a sky of a slightly paler grey. But I now know in what order Inspector Frost’s bodies were found.
My standard dash from the bus station (behind the Europa hotel, famed for being the most bombed in the world shortly before we spent part of our honeymoon there) down Botanic Avenue (please feel free to adapt the Eddy Grant song and sing along at this point), honed over the past five years, was dramatically arrested by the appearance of a large new charity bookshop on Victoria Street. Once I’d perused the well-stocked, if less than meticulously classified, shelves, I only had time for a quick sprint (well, shuffle) to the War on Want shop and an apologetic nod towards Oxfam before getting back to the Europa for Bus Number Three.
Fit the Third: Belfast to Ballymena
This was uncharted territory, but sadly all I can recall of the journey is the very large lady who sat next to me as far as Antrim and seemed under the impression that my nose and shoulder were Ulsterbus-supplied armrests, and the hyperactive bus driver who, when he wasn’t engaged in criticising the driving of his fellow road-users, or in drumming complex rhythms on his dashboard, whistled, slightly sharp, Lord of All Hopefulness, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, All Things Bright and Beautiful and Daisy, Daisy. The Battle Hymn of the Republic seemed to be his favourite; I suppose he imagined himself trampling the driver of the small blue car who had the temerity to try reversing into a parking space within fifty yards of us.
Ballymena has trains, upon which I could have used my iLink card if I’d known in advance. As it was, this transport of delight must await another occasion. It also has charity shops with a large proportion of comedy books in them. I shall take the optimistic view that the residents of Ballymena are merry, light-hearted folk who enjoy laughing and enjoy providing their fellows with matter for laughter rather than that they take one look at their unwrapped Christmas presents, say, “Bah humbug, bloody Welsh/American* comedians” and order their underpaid clerks to dispatch the same immediately to Oxfam. No, no. Ballymena was a nice place, with a particularly fine, furniture-themed Red Cross shop and doubtless a very good reason for flying the Union flag from the shopping centre.
(*as they were, as shall be seen)
Before leaving the bus-and-train station, which is some distance from the town centre, I had double-checked the time of Bus Number Four, to Ballycastle and confirmed that it would leave at 3.45. This would give me plenty of time to mooch about the shops until half-past three before wandering back. Foolish woman. As the mother of two current teenagers, I really should have known better. As I approached the bus station at twenty to four, the previously empty, echoing shelters were teeming with hundreds of multicoloured blazers (I mean, obviously, many different colours of blazer, not that the secondary schools of Ballymena have adopted a Joseph and his Dreamcoat theme for their uniforms). By the time I had squeezed my way through these to the approximate location of the Ballycastle stop, the bus had long departed. There was another one scheduled for a quarter to six, but having surveyed the range of leisure activities offered within the vicinity (sitting on a metal chair, sitting on a different metal chair, buying a Mars bar, buying a packet of crisps) I decided to enquire further.
The enquiry office, conveniently located round a hidden corner and halfway down a darkened alley, had, oddly enough, few enquirers. Me, in fact, outnumbered two-to-one by enquirees. These, a friendly man and woman, obviously appreciative of human contact after many decades of isolation, kindly consulted a range of timetables on my behalf before concluding that I could recover one of my lost hours by catching the bus to Ballymoney and thence to Ballycastle. For those of you less than familiar with Northern Ireland placenames, whose minds may be spinning slightly at this stage, I’ll briefly recap. Having missed the bus from Ballymena to Ballycastle, I was now going to catch a bus from Ballymena to Ballymoney and thence to Ballycastle. I’m sure that, to a native, it’s no more confusing than Newcastle, Newport and Newhaven in England and Wales, though it’s probably unlikely that anyone without a serious alphabetic compulsion would try to travel between those three by bus on a Friday afternoon. There was a danger, I was warned, that the tricky change at Ballymoney Town Hall might come unstuck, only five minutes being allowed for the passing of the baton, but it was a risk I was prepared to take, fortified by my iLink card, which meant that I wouldn’t have to pay any more, and the fact that there was another, albeit final, Ballymoney-Ballycastle bus an hour later.
Fit the Fourth: Ballymena to Ballymoney
We were on the country buses now, the ones that say Ulsterbus instead of Goldline on the side and where you have to take your luggage with you rather than stowing it in the special compartment. Connoisseurs of Irish bus travel, by the way, will be aware that in the North you have to open the luggage compartment yourself, with much consequent hand engrimement, whereas in the Republic Bus Eireann coaches have an automatic mechanism accompanied by a disembodied voice, no doubt one of the supporting cast from Father Ted, who intones ‘Stand clear, luggage doors operate’ throughout the entire process. There are those who claim to be able to hear a final ‘ing’ at the end of the ‘operate’, thus rendering the statement intelligible and almost grammatical, though I’ve never managed to discern it myself. Just one of the ways in which the tragedy of a divided Ireland manifests itself even in these peaceful times. During the wait at Ballymena station I’d started reading Keith Barret’s Making Divorce Work: In 9 Easy Steps ,Keith Barret, being, for those who get out too much, Rob Brydon, and the book a slightly padded-out version of his very funny stage show.
Grown older and wiser during the day’s earlier time-scrambles (as we chess players call them) I resisted the temptation to employ my six minutes (yes, the bus arrived early) in Ballymoney in any extensive exploration of the metropolis, contenting myself instead with photographing the Town Hall and shivering. Several teenagers used me as a windbreak (memo: should perhaps have resisted the chocolate bar at Ballymena) providing further anecdotal evidence of the negative magnetism between persons of 12-24 years and the molecules comprising a coat.
Fit the Fifth: Ballymoney to Ballycastle
A real country bus now, heading through real countryside towards the sea. Hooray! I was slightly disconcerted when the remaining other passengers all got off before Ballycastle, leaving me and the driver alone as the bus plunged and rose, apparently at random, along seaside streets. I hoped that he wasn’t expecting me to ring the bell before the final stop, Marine Corner, as I had no idea when we were likely to be there. I imagined him absent-mindedly taking me, along with the bus, home with him for tea, and my having my usual problems understanding when Ulster people ask whether I want butter on my sandwiches. Fortunately, however, we stopped at last, at the sort of concrete turning circle on the seafront that I remembered from long-ago bus trips to Scarborough, and the convenient confirmation of the Marine Hotel beside us.
By some fluke of Fate, or Google, if the two entities are still functionally separate, I had chosen a B&B only few yards uphill from the Marine Hotel. Up, however, was certainly the apposite adjective, and I was a little out of breath by the time the landlord opened the door to me. The Ardaghmore is, I’m virtually certain, the nicest B&B I’ve ever stayed in, even better than the excellent one in Pitlochry whose name I’ve forgotten, and certainly than the slightly odd one with the cross-examining landlady ‘Where have you been? Where did you eat? Which fish and chip shop?’ we stayed in last time we visited the Antrim coast and the name of which I wouldn’t tell you even if I could remember it. The Ardaghmore, however was lovely: spacious room with interesting but not tricksy furniture, stunning view of the sea and the ferry to Rathlin Island, delightful owners, friendly and very helpful without being in the slightest intrusive and lots of thoughtful bits and pieces like fresh milk, a powerful hairdryer and binoculars on the windowsill. Not that I availed myself of the latter: the sky, grey all day, was growing steadily darker and mistier, and the biting little breeze I’d encountered in Bally -er- money was working its way up into something distinctly galeish. I abandoned any thoughts of further exploration and hunkered down with my hard-won cheesy biscuits, discounted fruit salad and a Dilbert cartoon book. Later in the evening the Dilbert, completed, was exchanged for Mark Watson’s excellent Crap at the Environment(see what I mean about the Welsh thing?) and, gratefully, sleep.
Incidentally, according to the AA, the most direct route from Enniskillen to Ballycastle is 104 miles. Going via Dungannon, Belfast, Ballymena and Ballymoney the journey is 146 miles. I calculate, therefore, that travelling by bus and using my magic iLink card granted me a free 42 miles, coincidentally, of course, the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything. If that’s not a clinching argument for not having a car . . .
Next morning looked optimistic from the start, with a narrow sliver of blue in the white sky which gradually widened to allow an extravagant and unseasonable outpouring of sunshine. After an excellent vegetarian breakfast, complete with scones and an interesting chat with a birdwatching couple from Southampton, I made a brief survey of the Irish Sea before being collected by Una, a fellow retreat attendee and associate member of the Corrymeela Community. My vague idea of walking to Knocklayd if a lift had not been easily forthcoming was revealed not to have the brightest I’ve ever had, especially accompanied by a suitcase of books, not least because Knocklayd is a mountain. Well, a mountain in Irish terms; it’s 514m, which, I appreciate, is barely a pimple to a Himalayan. It’s an extremely pretty small mountain (all right, hill) though, and the Knocklayd centre is fetchingly perched halfway up, surrounded by grazing sheep and interesting bumps in the ground which I’m sure would mean all sorts of exciting things to a geologist.
There were twelve of us at the retreat, including Scott Peddie, the organiser, who is a Non-Subscribing Presbyterian minister (which means, I gather, that they don’t have to sign up to certain doctrinal statements rather than that they don’t put anything in the collection plate), monks of the Cistercian and Buddhist varieties and an eclectic and interesting group of lay people. After coffee and more scones (the residents of Ballycastle must have wills of iron not to end up like barrage balloons) we watched, if watched is exactly the word, maybe experienced, a meditative presentation prepared by Scott using Cistercian chant, photographs of the natural world and quotations from Merton’s works. It was a perfect opening. Afterwards came an open discussion, on contemplation, prayer, meditation, surrender, the life and works of Merton and the necessity of feeding cattle. I think everyone contributed, and each with humility, honesty and humour – I’ve rarely received so much richness and depth from a group conversation.
As the weather was by now unseasonably stunning, we went outside, walking alone or in small groups, talking, listening, looking and simply being. The transparency of the world, and God shining through, about which Merton wrote, could not have been better illustrated. The rest of the day continued in the same way, a balance of talk and prayer, ending with a meditation led by the Buddhist monk, wishing good and freedom from suffering for all our brothers and sisters and the sentient creatures of the earth. I thought of Robbie, our border terrier and promised to be less impatient with him (a resolution, by the way, that I have already broken, as he dripped milk across the floor this morning).
At the close of the retreat two of the members kindly gave me lifts down to Belfast and I caught the bus (with sad lack of enterprise just one bus this time) back home to Enniskillen. I finished the Mark Watson on the way and began the last of my Ballymena comedy hoard, A. J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but it was a good two days.