February 2014


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Several months ago, before I had any idea I’d have the opportunity to visit Northern Ireland, I went to see the film, Philomena. Though it is ultimately a tragic and sad story, I laughed a lot through it. There were many moments of humor, brought on usually by the culture and socioeconomic clashes between the British Oxbridge-educated journalist Martin Sixsmith in his travels with Irish working-class Philomena Lee as together they searched for her lost son.  Seeing the beautiful cinematography and lush Irish scenery, though the story takes place in the Republic of Ireland, did make me yearn for a visit to the North, where my mother grew up.

This past Friday when I was there in Newcastle, I decided to try to find my grandparents’ grave. I’d been there once before but probably at least 2 decades ago and wasn’t exactly sure if I’d remember where it was. I’d asked Mum before I left  to remind me of its location and thought I was clear on the directions. I walked around the corner from where Granny used to live and proceeded up a steep hill leading to the base of the Mourne Mountains. But as I got to the end of that road, which was populated by homes on either side, it turned into a dead-end and I knew I’d gone too far.

I was confident that I was looking for a church in the area but there was no one else walking on the quiet residential streets that I could ask.  I re-traced my steps and while I didn’t remember the street name where the church might be, I veered to the left and wandered in the direction I recall going all those years ago. Tucked away between the roofs of the modest 2 story homes, I glimpsed what looked like a steeple. I proceeded along and came upon a small Church of Ireland (what the Anglican church is known as in this country), which wasn’t open. Apparently Protestant churches in the North only open on Sundays for services and are closed during the week. But the gate leading into the compound was ajar and I saw an evergreen tree-lined road leading to a small cemetery which was familiar from my previous visit.

Though I had in my  mind’s eye what the headstone looked like, and I believed it was on the right, I couldn’t find it. I wandered through rows of  Magee’s, McNerney’s, Mc Graw’s and Kennedy’s, but there was none for the James’s. Not trusting my memory, I crossed over the left and continued walking, trying to scan each headstone systematically. When I got to the end of that section to no avail, I began again at the back, this time on the right. By this point, I was trying not to get discouraged. I was convinced my grandparents were buried here; I just couldn’t find the exact spot. Grandpa was laid to rest first in the sixties and then almost 20 years later, Granny’s coffin was added on top and the headstone carved up again to reflect their shared resting place.

Just when I was beginning to feel a bit queasy about all the graves I was trying not to trample on, and the wind was picking up so I began to imagine the movement of the dead around me, there it was – as I’d remembered it. My sleuthing and persistence had paid off.

I spent a few moments taking it all in – the double grave nestled in the shadow of the mountains, minutes from where Granny had lived for many, many years. Then I took photos and left – without running into even one other person – both grateful and amazed to have had my own ‘Philomena’ moment.

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picture of Granny & Grandpa

I never had the chance of knowing my Northern Irish grandfather. He died suddenly from a heart attack at age 74 when I was just 2. At the time, my parents were considering a trip to visit he and Granny which never happened.

Granny once told me Grandpa had passed away 2 weeks after their 50th wedding anniversary – she went onto outlive him by 19 years. But I’d never heard about his last conversation, nor thought much about it.  That is, until this weekend, when Auntie P, who’d become good friends with Granny shared this story with me.

Grandpa, originally from  Scotland by way of the Republic of Ireland, was co-owner of a modest hardware store in Rathfriland. He’d been a hard worker and had done his best to build up the business, eventually buying out his partner. He was also a staunch Methodist and regular church goer. According to Auntie P, one evening in late 1966, he admitted to Granny that he was having difficulty breathing and asked her to open the window. He then said “I think we should pray together. It’s been a long time since we prayed together. We’ve grown cold.” So for the first time in a while, they prayed. During that session, he prayed for the whole family including for my mother and us in Nigeria.

A few hours later, Granny discovered that he’d passed away in his sleep.

Auntie P repeated this story to me several times and was eager to convey to me that one of Grandpa’s final acts was to pray for his family. She feels this is significant and that God has answered that prayer by drawing some of us to himself. I don’t believe this is the end of that story. My prayer is that he will call many more of us to love, live with, and enjoy him too.

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Mum had one brother, E, who was 13 years older than her. He married young and she married later in life and the result is that Uncle E’s 5 children, our cousins, (including a pair of identical twin boys, who’re now men), are practically a generation older than me and my siblings. Thus it is that G @ 71 – who also married young – has been with his wife for 50 years. I’d not seen G in over a decade (11 years to be exact) and since Uncle E died 10 years ago, and his house was sold, only one of us Brown-Petersides had been back since.

To make up for our lengthy absence and to re-connect with the Irish side of the family, I decided – somewhat last minute – to go to the anniversary event to represent Mum. My brother Ian, now living in London, joined me. So it was that we turned up at the Burrendale Hotel (www.burrendale.com) in Newcastle on Friday night to celebrate with G and his wife D. It was a huge family reunion! Their kids and 8 grandchildren were there; his 4 siblings were there; the 2 spouses came too; her sister and husband was there; at least 5 nieces/nephews were present; as well several very close friends. Though G had insisted it was only going to be a dinner, it turned into a party, as well it should have. There was a fabulous cake – a huge surprise which G and D ceremoniously cut together after giving us all a kiss, golden balloons decorating the tables, a printed menu offering a choice of 6 starters and main courses, a humorous speech by G – where he reminded us of the importance of saying “I’m sorry” in marriages that last, at least one video camera making the rounds, and countless photos taken in all sorts of family combinations.

I was acknowledged for coming to the party from the furthest distance away. My cousin V was the history maker. She produced photos of us when Ian was 4 months old and I was 7 1/2. She also had a photo of when Granny visited us – before Ian was even born. Amazing! Ian got the award for having stayed away the longest. As much traveling as he’s done especially across Asia and the Middle East, he was last in Newcastle – gulp – 30 years ago. All that to say, many of our cousins didn’t even remember him and none of their grandchildren (our 3rd cousins) had ever even met him. But that didn’t matter, by the end of the evening or should I say by the wee hours of the following morning, we’d both been enfolded back into the Irish side of the family once again.

A golden wedding anniversary party to savor and remember!

george pixie & pbp

This trip to Newcastle was quite unexpected and pulled together in just a few days. I’d been wanting to visit Auntie P for some time now, ever since I learned she’d got married for the first time late in life and was now caring for her frail husband. But I couldn’t quite figure out how to get myself to Northern Ireland because other travel plans always seemed to take priority. Then, about 3 weeks ago, when I learned my cousin G was planning a celebration for his 50th wedding anniversary (!), and the event was to be in Newcastle – even though he and his wife live in Rathfriland some miles away – I realized I could see Auntie P and celebrate with G. And this being the year I’ll turn 50, it seemed a fitting way to be a bit extravagant, by connecting with old friends and family. As if it was meant to be, I  was able to find a direct flight from Newark to Belfast, especially since I didn’t want to risk getting stuck in an airport somewhere, given the unusually cold and snowy winter we’ve been having.

 In the few days I spent in Newcastle, I was able to share 3 meals and another evening having tea with Auntie P and her husband of 10 years, Dr. G. They both worked for the same mission agency and knew of each other in their university days at Queen’s in Belfast, but G was a little older. He spent most of his years in Nigeria at a 32 bed hospital in Unguru, in the northeast, 5 miles south of the border with Niger. He married a British nurse some years older than him, had 3 children, and returned to Northern Ireland in the early seventies. After many years at home in general practice and only after his first wife died, did he and Auntie P connect in a romantic way.

 I didn’t manage to nail down the specifics re: their courtship but Auntie P was engaged at 76 and married at 77!  Dr. G is delightful. Though with limited eye sight now – he has macular degeneration – and is hard of hearing – he’s managing without hearing aids until an appointment in early March, he regaled me with stories of his days in Nigeria, including a time when he removed a 44 pound tumor from a woman’s abdomen! She left the hospital 10 days later, dancing, and looking 20 years younger.

 What an incredibly special treat it was to spend time with them, meet their care givers – Auntie P has several delightful women who rotate in through the day to help her with her husband – and hear about the rich, full lives they’ve lived. That alone was well worth the trip across the Atlantic, even if I hadn’t also had the great fun of being @ G’s Golden Wedding Anniversary dinner.

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This weekend I had the privilege of being in Northern Ireland to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of my cousin G (that’s a different post). I was also extremely fortunate to share a few meals with Auntie P and her husband of 10 years, Dr. G. Auntie P, like my mother, is from Northern Ireland, and her mother, like my grandmother, owned a house in Newcastle, a large village of 8,000 on the northeastern coast. Newcastle, now a popular summer beach destination, in some circles was made famous by songwriter Percy French as the spot “where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea.” The wet rainy Irish weather not withstanding, Newcastle is a beautiful place that we visited a few times as children.

Auntie P, like my mother, spent over 30 years in northern Nigeria, mostly teaching at a boy’s mission school in Gindri, an hour or so from Jos, my hometown. She spoke Hausa, the language of the north fluently, and later had a particular heart for Fulani’s, an ethnic group, many whom make their living as cattle herders spread all over the Sahel. As it turns out, my Nigerian grandmother was a Fulani too. After fleeing what was to be an arranged marriage, she fled to Jos where she met my grandfather who was a school teacher there. Sadly, she died before my father met my mother so we never had the joy of knowing her.

As for my Irish grandmother, Auntie P met her in the early ’70s in Newcastle. Granny had put her hand out for a lift (a ride) to the bus stop and Auntie P stopped to pick her up. Apparently that was the first time Granny had done that. Being the outspoken, strong person that she was, Granny told Auntie P, she’d never seen her before. Auntie P explained that she was home to see her mother, but that she was a missionary based in Nigeria.

“I’ve got family in Nigeria,” Granny exclaimed, “and I’ve just come back from visiting them.” (Now what are the chances of that happening?) As the conversation progressed, Granny shared that she was glad her grandchildren were attending a Christian school in Jos. Well, it so happened that Auntie P had a British teacher-friend from Hillcrest, that same school, coming over to Ireland to visit the next day to give a talk at a church in Banbridge, a nearby town. Auntie P invited Granny to come – which she did – and during that event, the teacher showed slides of Hillcrest, some of which included us – her grandchildren!

From time to time, we would see Auntie P in Jos, but the last time I recall seeing her was in Newcastle. She’d come home for an extended stay to care for her aging mother. Following a stroke Auntie P nursed her to the end which came in 1980. Since I was in Newcastle in 1979, our last in person connection was 35 years ago (!). I’ve been to Newcastle a few times since then – my most recent time was in 2003 with my Mum, but clearly a visit there was long, long overdue. And it did not disappoint.