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When I was in my early thirties and entering a bad period of my life, I was living in London on my own, working as a television producer with the
BBC. The man who had absorbed me for ten years, and whom I had once been going to marry, had finally left. I came home one day to the flat in
Islington, and there was a note on the table saying Back Tuesday. I knew he wouldn't come back, and he didn't. I didn't really want him to. We
were exhausted. But still, I didn't know what to do. I used to sit in my chair every night and read and drink a lot of cheap white wine. I'd say
"hello" to the fridge when its motor turned itself on. One New Year's Eve I wished the announcer on Radio Three "A Happy New Year to you,
too." I was very depressed. I asked the doctor to send me to a psychiatrist.
The psychiatrist was in an office in a hospital. "Well, now, let's get your name right to begin with," he said cheerfully. "What is your name?" "My
name is ... my name is ..." I could not say my name. I cried, as from an ocean of tears, for the rest of the hour. My self was too sorrowful to speak.
And I was in the wrong place, in England. My name was a burden to me.
Not that the psychiatrist saw it like that. I only went to him once more, but I did manage to get out a bit about my background and about the way I
was living. Eventually he said something that lifted a corner of the fog of unconsciousness. "You are going to great trouble," he said, "and flying in
the face of the facts of your life, to re-create your mother's life." Once he said this, I could see it was true. Mammy sat in her chair in a flat in
Dublin and read and drank. Before she sat in the chair she was in bed. She might venture shakily down to the pub. Then she would totter home
and sit in her chair. Then she went to bed. She had had to work the treadmill of feeding and clothing and cleaning child after child for decades.
Now all but one of the nine had gone. My father had moved himself and her and that last one to a flat, and she sat there. She had the money he
gave her (never enough to slake her anxieties). She had nothing to do, and there was nothing she wanted to do, except drink and read.
And there was I--half her age, not dependent on anyone, not tired or trapped, with an interesting, well-paid job, with freedom and health and
occasional good looks. Yet I was loyally recreating her wasteland around myself.
One of the stories of my life has been the working out in it of her powerful and damaging example--in everything. Nothing matters except passion,
she indicated. It was what had mattered to her, and she more or less sustained a myth of passionate happiness for the first ten years of her
marriage. She didn't value any other kind of relationship. She wasn't interested in friendship. If she had thoughts or ideas, she never mentioned
them. She was more like a shy animal on the outskirts of the human settlement than a person within it. She read all the time, not to feed reflection
but as part of her utter determination to avoid reflection.
What made her? Her father--my grandad--wrote his memoirs, a few pages in pencil, in a lined copybook. He was one of fourteen children on a
smallholding, and perhaps because, like his brothers and sisters, he had had to emigrate when he was a boy and there was never a family again, he
remembered his childhood home with an abundance of sentiment. "I will try and give you a typical family scene as I saw it in the beginning of the
1890s," he wrote:
Father would enter the kitchen after dark and would start making and mending--a chair, a basket, or some harness. He would always
sing at his work, he having a great variety of songs in both English and Irish. The babies would be asleep and the next elders would
have their feet washed in a wooden vessel, then follow. After the rosary was said the next elders would retire. Mother would be
putting the last thread in her needle. An oil lamp hung before the window and a turf fire in the hearth would be supplemented by a
piece of bog deal which cast a light on the dresser so that the jugs and other ware would gleam as if alight. Sometimes, when not
engaged in work, Father would pull down the weekly paper and read aloud, mostly the political news--stopping now and then to put
his own interpretation on it. Mother, near at hand, would be an eager listener.
My mother, the granddaughter of this ideal pair, was anything but an eager listener. I don't know what happened, down the generations. I don't
suppose that history explains it--that the individual person comes out of a vessel into which two jugs called Heredity and Environment have been
poured. But perhaps emigration did something to the relationship between women and children. Children were toughened early, sent out into the
world with their cardboard suitcases--one minute warm in the tribe, the next minute walking down the steps of some distant railway station into a
world they must handle on their own. Under the surface competence, they must have been infantile. Somewhere in the years that fed down into my
mother, there were too many children and too few resources. She was the most motherless of women, herself.
Her own mother, in the little account anyone ever gave of her, was angry and energetic, running a tailoress operation in the front room of the
red-brick terraced house in Clonliffe Road in Dublin, sewing shrouds late at night for the dead of the parish. Tuberculosis makes you feverish, and
she was slowly dying of TB. "She threw a red-hot iron at me," was all my mother ever said--sulkily--about her. "She said I always had my head
stuck in a book." But then, one child had already died. One grown-up daughter was dying of TB along with the mother. There were seven more
being reared for emigration. It was an ordinary respectable Irish household of the time. The woman of the house never went out, never had money,
never stopped having children. My own mother held herself at arm's length from this reality. She grew up with no skills. She didn't know how to
make small-talk or cook a breakfast or tie up a parcel or name a tree or flower.
When I knew my grandfather he had long been a widower. He dreamt of champion greyhounds and hobbled up Clonliffe Road to a public bench,
where he talked slowly with other patriarchs, other countrymen displaced. I didn't know why my mother feared him. He ate bull's-eyes and read
The Saint thrillers. He would say to me from his frosty bed, "Hand me over those trousers." He'd fumble in the pocket and give me pennies. He
sat on the upright chair to put on his long johns, and his penis was like some purply barnacled mineral thing, found on the seabed. He expected his
tea and bread-and-butter brought to his chair. He would certainly have denied that the fact that three of his children were ferocious alcoholics had
anything to do with him. No one takes responsibility for the big Irish families that in generation after generation are ravaged by alcoholism.
My mother didn't want anything to do with child-rearing or housework. But she had to do it. Because she fell in love with my father, and they
married, she was condemned to spend her life as a mother and a homemaker. She was in the wrong job. Sometimes I meet women who remind
me of her when I stay in bed-and-breakfasts around the country. They throw sugar on the fire, to get it to light, and wipe surfaces with an old rag
that smells, and they are forever sending children to the shops. They question me, half censorious, half wistful: "And did you never want to get
The one thing my mother knew definitely existed was her body. She was sent home from convent boarding-school because of dancing too close to
the girl she adored. She was baffled by the punishment, never having heard of lesbianism. I remember a Henry Green novel which passed through
the house when I was a child, whose cover had a sketch of girls in white dresses waltzing together in the half-dark. Mammy blossomed for a
moment, seeing it. "That's exactly what it was like! In the big hall in school! The night I danced with her!" Decades later, not long before my mother
died, a bright-eyed middle-aged lady came up to me at a reception. It was in the offices of the then Council for the Status of Women, as it
happens. "How is your mother?" she asked. She, it turned out, was the other girl, the love-object. I didn't dare ask her what had really happened.
Anyway, by then what mattered was the contrast between this spry woman, obviously someone who knew what status was, and the wreck of my
poor innocent and ignorant mother, out in the little flat, making her way through days of shakiness and gagged-on gin, while her husband blandly
went about his business and the last of her children--a schoolgirl, then--brought herself up.
This was where grand passion had left her.
Her foremothers knew how the tribe expected women to behave and how it would protect them in return. But when my grandfather came back
from exile in London to work in the General Post Office in Dublin around 1910, and the link with Kerry was broken, no one belonged to a tribe.
My mother was on her own. But without hope of independence. Nowadays she could have stayed in the civil service, even after she became
pregnant. But 1940s Ireland was a living tomb for women.
For men like my father, out and about in Dublin, the opposite was true. Broadcasting and journalism were beginning to open up. He had begun as
a teacher, in the 1930s, and if he had stayed in teaching--coming home in the afternoons every day, and free in the summer--his children would
have had a wonderful father. But he had many gifts and ambitions: He was a traveler in Europe in the summers, and a linguist and a sportsman,
and a happy, proud patriot. And handsome as anything.
There are photos of himself and my mother on the beach at Ballybunnion, all white teeth and strong limbs. She was blissfully happy with how he
made her feel about herself. They were mad about each other from the start. They hiked over Howth Head and Bray Head and up the Dublin
mountains and made love in the heather. He bought her a hot port one chilly evening, her first drink ever. They married very early on a January
morning because my sister Grainne was a little bump under Mammy's dress. The Second World War started. He joined the Irish Defense Forces
in 1939 and loved army life. Not long after my mother was pregnant again; he cycled up from the Curragh Camp to the Rotunda Hospital to greet
me. But I spent my infancy in Donegal, because the Army brought my father there. The first few pages of a letter from him to my mother arranging
the move survive. She was pregnant again.
"A chroidhe dhil," he begins. For years I could not read this letter. "Beloved heart," when they ended so badly! He is writing from Fort Dunree, up
on the Inishowen peninsula. He has found a little house for the family--he encloses a sketch and continues:
For Grainne and Nuala there is quiet, air, sun and sea, chickens for Grainne not to mention an occasional bo. For you there are these
things, plus me, plus an odd weekend trip to Derry and evenings in Buncrana. As regards books, Father Dolan has a pile of great
stuff, which I know he will lend to you. There are other things--eggs, milk, potatoes straight from their cradles. And even though coal
will play second-fiddle to turf, there will be no pennies in the gas. The reek is about twenty yards of a walk--no trouble to an
enthusiastic husband.... Today is Wednesday--and I find I will not be paid my 6/2d until tomorrow--but I am borrowing money for a
stamp. Almost a week now since I saw you last and it feels like a month. I am counting the days till we all get together again in the
lovely sunshine. Today the sun shone for twelve hours, and all the day, from 9 a.m. till 6 p.m., I was on duty on a grass-topped cliff,
giving a hand to recruits who were engaged in rifle practice.
His letter is overtaken by one from her. He went on:
Your letters usually make me feel bloody awful, but this one was not too bad! I notice that I have influenced you to the extent that
you say "a bit difficult" when you mean "quite desperate." Good Girl.
"Ah so!" I say. "She was already provoking him with her despair." But then--three children in four years! The end of the letter is missing, so the
taboo on a parent's intimate life was not breached, if there were intimacies there.
He treats my mother as a partner in this letter. He's doing freelance journalism, and she's helping him. But when I knew them, he went out; she
stayed home. Nobody treated her as a partner. When she died, a few years after him, this letter was found in the old tin biscuit box that was her
only possession, apart from clothes. She didn't own a single thing in the little flat--not a book, not a record. In the biscuit tin there were the
scrawled pages of book reviews she had written, in pencil and ballpoint pen. They had moved house at least a dozen times. She had gone to great
trouble, then, to keep this letter and the reviews. A few of her book reviews were published in the paper. That was the only money she ever
earned for herself, apart from the children's allowance. That was what she talked about--the money. But it wasn't for the money that she kept the
crumpled drafts in the biscuit tin, when she had nothing else. She could have been respected, if things had been different. She could have done
something other than be the drudge she was.
* * *
It seems that very early in the marriage she was overwhelmed. She foundered, and either he didn't see it or he saw it but couldn't help. It must have
happened quickly. A woman who worked for my parents when they came back from Donegal told me Grainne and I were always identically
dressed in pretty clothes. What I remember, from only three or four years later, is the teacher in Miss Ahern's school in Malahide calling me in to
her office and fingering my dirty cardigan. "Couldn't your mother find anything better to send you to school in?"
She was to have thirteen pregnancies altogether: nine living children. She never had enough money. She did her best for years. She made
crab-apple jam. She gave us jam sandwiches and a milk-of-magnesia bottle full of milk for our picnic. She bought us Wellington boots for the
winter. She fine-combed our hair, us kneeling before her, bent into the newspaper on her lap. Think of all the clothes she must have bought,
washed, dried, sorted out, put on our backs.... We lived in a rented bungalow meant for a farm labourer, on a gentry estate in north County
Dublin. The bungalow was surrounded by fields with ditches and hawthorn hedges in what was an isolated landscape, then. The railway line from
Dublin passed the other side of a turnip field. Sometimes Daddy jumped from the train and rolled down the embankment as a shortcut home. But
he began not to come home. He was a clerk in the Irish Tourist Board after the Army, but then he began to get work in Radio Eireann, and to get
jobs--like doing the commentary on the "Radio Train" to Killarney--that took him away. His life became more exciting all the time. He brought his
joie de vivre home with him when he came striding across the field to where we were playing--making "houses" and "shops" from stones and
mud--around the house. We would hear the bright whistle of "Beidh Aonach Amarach" or some other Irish tune, and we'd run to jump up on the
fence to see him. "Daddy's home! He's home!"
Her life got harder. The Calor gas cylinder under the two rings she cooked on would run out, and she had no phone or transport. She washed
clothes in the bath, with yellow soap and a washboard. We were no consolation. Once, when my father had gone down the country on a job, she
broke the unwritten rules by daringly going into Dublin, to Kingsbridge station, and surprising him by being at the barrier when he got off the train.
He was with people. He leaned down to aim a kiss at her cheek before hurrying off with them. "He didn't even take the cigarette out of his mouth,"
she told me, not once but over and over again, in years to come.
I imagine her making her lonely way back to us children. She was still in her twenties. She would have taken the bus out to the terminus, then
walked out past the last streetlamp, then down the dark country road to the estate's gate-lodge, then ducked under a fence and followed the path
we'd worn in the tussocky field across to the bungalow.... Nothing there but children. Another time--it was late at night, but I was awake in my
bed because I was counting my Communion money for the twentieth time--I heard him come in and then I heard her shrieking, "That's not my
lipstick!" That would have been near the end of the ten perfect years she always claimed they had. Around then, one of his women (she had a
daughter by him that she called Nuala, ambiguously enough) came out to our place to bargain with my mother. This woman had money. She
offered Mammy a large allowance to let him go with her to Australia. I remember this woman leaving hurriedly along the path through the field, and
my father running after her, and my mother running after him, crying. Then Mammy fell in a heap in the grass. It was a summer's day, and the cattle
were already sitting quietly around the field. She was a rounded shape in the grass, like a small cow.
Soon after, my mother had an affair with my father's friend, though she didn't like him at all. What other weapon did she have? To make my father
notice? But the men took no notice of her. They absorbed her protest; it didn't cause a ripple between them. So then she had nothing left to protest
Unhappiness settled on her gradually. She was gauche. She had a more charming sister who sometimes came home from abroad and brought fun
into our house. This aunt used to seek our company. I learnt to believe that she enjoyed being with us. She was with us when we were packed into
a bulging Ford Prefect with just clothes and dishes. We had been evicted from the bungalow and ended up living in a small town, further away
It was in that grey little town that my mother began to drink by herself. She went out to the pub in the evening. She began to look around to see
where there might be chemist shops where she could get what she wanted to help her to diet. We were living then in a crumbling rectory with
lovely drawing rooms and an overgrown garden with a dog's graveyard behind the apple trees, and stone-flagged sculleries full of spiders. The first
year we were there, the suave American voice of Perry Como was everywhere, singing "Don't let the stars get in your eyes, don't let the moon
make you cry...." And Daddy was in America, too. At Christmas, he brought Mammy home a figure-hugging black dress. "I like you thin," he said.
By now my father had turned into a journalist under the name Terry O'Sullivan. He went away around the country five days a week, now, writing
for the Sunday Press. Her sister, who was more fun than she was, sometimes went with him. There was no question of my mother going; she had
seven children in the house.
"I like you thin." That edict of his echoed in my life, too, and in some of my brothers' and sisters' lives. I went around the chemist shops for my
mother. I internalised her panic at not being able to sleep. I was addicted to sleeping tablets for years. It is hard for children to withhold assent
from their mother--to stand far enough apart to judge that what she is doing is not part of nature.
I once asked my friend, the broadcaster and writer Sean Mac Reamoinn, who knew my father and mother in the 1950s, what class we belonged
to. We had very little money, and home was bleak, compared to the homes of our school friends. But my mother read all the time, and my father
taught us the words of German songs, and we played extracts from Swan Lake on the gramophone, and we put on plays, whereas the other
families we knew did not do those things. "Were we working class?" I asked him. "Because we certainly weren't middle class." "What you were
was bohemian," he said.
But bohemians care about music or literature or art. My parents had no real resource there, any more than they had positive values--actually
believed in the merit of individual freedom or anything else. The values of their own parents seemed to have no meaning for them. They did not
care about respectability--they didn't "know their place." Mammy would send me up the field to the big Georgian house where the landlady lived,
with the rent. She hated paying the rent. "Throw it at her!" she'd snarl at me. They were not practicing Catholics, either. We had to go to Mass,
certainly. But they didn't. Whatever the people they came from had lived by just fell away in their generation. But they didn't have other values, to
replace what they had lost. They were just careless.
It is only in looking back that I detach a narrative about my parents from all the rest. I didn't know much about them, though down on the floor of
the ocean, where I lived in my child world, I could sense disturbances up above on the surface of the water. We used to rock for hours at night:
two children to a bed, one at the bottom, one at the top, arms crossed, rocking and rocking. Nor was I living just in this world. I had another
world. In school, I ruined the nun's Christmas tableau. I was the Archangel Gabriel, and I had to stand behind Joseph and Mary and the Infant
Jesus on a kitchen chair and look down on them piously and hold my arms strapped to great feather contraptions--my wings--over them. But I
saw someone I knew in the audience, and I waved my wing at her. The nun was so angry afterwards that she broke the chair to hit me with a leg
of it. Yet I walked home leaving room between me and the verge of the road, as always, for my Guardian Angel.
Then we went for a while to a different primary school. My mother sometimes didn't get up in the mornings and we had to go out empty-handed,
though she would come down later on the bike she had learned to ride and pass a pudding bowl of potatoes in salad cream through the bars of the
playground. But when we had lunches we put them with everyone else's in a cupboard in the room. Sometimes we'd hear a chomping noise.
"Miss! Miss! The rat is in the cupboard!" The teacher would swing the door open and hit the rat with the shovel she had for the stove. On the way
home from that school, for a long time, I climbed down into a quarry where a pool of water had collected, and there was a rusted barrel on its side
in the water. If I lay down and looked along the surface of the water in the barrel at eye-level, I would see lovely little fairies, with straight partings
in their blond hair and pink ballet skirts. They were about the size of flies.
I knew other places besides home. They sent me to Kerry, to the relations. There were pig hairs in the yellowy skin of the fatty boiled bacon the
lady draped across the cabbage I had to eat. But on Saturday nights a technicolour pudding was installed in the parlour, under a white cloth; we
got that after Sunday Mass. The north Dublin fields where we lived were silent and bleak, so it was like going to New York to be sent to my
great-aunt in Athlone. She was the mistress of a tiny, hardly used pub, Egan's of Connaught Street. Mr. Egan kept a big hoinking pig in the slimy
yard. Myself and Auntie Kit used to go around the public grass of the Battery on our hands and knees, collecting a certain weed for the bristly old
thing with its watery eyes. The shed the pig slept in was full of disintegrating sheet music from when Kit as a young woman had been a pianist
accompanying the silent movies in Listowel. "Me and Jane in a plane/Soaring up in the sky;/No traffic cop/Will ever stop/Me and Jane in a plane."
I loved the streets of Athlone: the lights, the chip shop, Broderick's Bakery a few doors away where a machine sliced the pans. I was even a small
celebrity among the street's boys and girls, being thought to be from Dublin city.
There was the big world, too, presenting us isolated children with puzzles. I went into a shop one day. The woman behind the counter was
showing something--big photos--in a low-voiced, secret way to another women, bent over the counter. I glimpsed the photos. They were of
desperate bony fingers reaching out from under the wooden walls of huts. Fingers like sticks. These were photos from the Holocaust. I saw gas
ovens. Piles of bones. That night our friends came across the field, for us to go down the railway line and rob Williams's orchard as usual. But as
we were going along I told them about the evil in the world, and we all decided to repent. We went home and upended the kitchen chairs to kneel
at and said a very long Rosary. A year later--we were now living in a temporary cottage--the maid, who was never paid and never went out, fell
to the floor and gave birth to a baby. It transpired that the butcher, when he called with the meat, had been having sex with her. The baby went to
the maid's mother. My mother happened to call on that house a few weeks later. The baby was emaciated, immobile, sinking into death. "Sure,
who wants it?" the grandmother said. It did die, as far as I know. It was 1953. Then we were again in a new school. We were assembled in the
concert hall to listen to the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth in Westminster Abbey on the convent radio. "Always remember, girls," the nun said,
"that `God Save the Queen' is the most noble tune ever penned in eight bars."
I started looking at things. We used to come in from the country to visit my nana, my father's mother. I don't know how it was allowed, but when
we got to her house, a bit down Clonliffe Road from my mother's family house, I would go out again and start walking. I could not get enough of
looking at Dublin, which was Joyce's Dublin still, then, brown and dusty and dense with street life.
Later in life, my father told me things about the city. He told me that the sea used to come in at the North Strand, which is why it is called a strand,
and that they reclaimed Fairview Park with the rubble from the ruins of O'Connell Street after the Rising. They laid a rail and a trolley to transport
the rubble out, and the bright young people after a night out would jump on the bogey-car in their gowns and tails and push it off and come
whizzing out from town. But when I walked around Dublin as a child I knew nothing, except what I noted with my own eyes, like a spy behind
enemy lines. I would walk along Summerhill, which was a canyon of Georgian tenements then, with women sitting on the worn and beautiful front
steps all the day long. I'd read the writing on statues. I liked NE PLUS ULTRA on the Parnell one, though I did not know what it meant. I would
go into the Protestant cathedrals and go down the quays, and around behind the distillery in Smithfield, and stop to look at anything: a horse and
cart backing into a yard, a woman calling down from a window, a butcher emptying a basin of pink water into the gutter. No one sees a child
watching. I was never afraid till I went to The Messiah in the Theatre Royal when I was eleven, and a man put his hand up under my skirt and hurt
me with his fingers.
Perhaps that habit of observation helped me to get my job with The Irish Times. I was offered a try at writing a column, as far as I know, because
of a conversation I had, in the late 1980s, about the physical beauty of the seaside places north of Dublin when I was a child. I had this
conversation with Gay Byrne, on his Gay Byrne Radio Show. I was a television producer with RTE then--Radio Telifis Eireann--and I'd read
somewhere that if you watched a year's television only three percent of the human faces you would see would be those of women over, say, fifty
or fifty-five; older women only figure on television in ads and soap operas. So I had made a series of short programmes in which elderly
Irish-women just looked into the camera and told the story of their lives. The women's personalities, and the twists and turns of their lives, and the
compelling effect of a face looking out at the viewer without any intervening interviewer had added up to something strong. The series won a
Jacob's Award, which had been presented the night before, and Gay was interviewing me on his programme as a result.
Gay Byrne reminds me of my father--whom he knew, of course. My father and Eamonn Andrews were doing a kind of "In Town Tonight"
programme on Radio Eireann when Gay was starting out in broadcasting, too. The careers of the three men could have gone any way; that they
ended where each of them did was due as much to chance as to their talents. The three of them shared a kind of impersonal charm--an ability to
stand in a room and be the one others wanted to please, rather than the one to work at pleasing. They each found ways of keeping their dignity
against the flattery of a small town.
Gay evokes for me--not that he means to--my father's mild and decorous childhood home in Clonliffe Road, where no one ever used the front
door, dressed in its striped canvas blind, and down in the basement my grandmother swept the bobbled chenille tablecloth with its own little brush
and pan after the meals--rabbit stews, rice puddings--she served to my granda and my auntie when they came home from their respectable jobs at
dinner hour. Gay's people and my father's people would have been alike, I think. Mass for the women every morning, and First Fridays, Novenas,
the seven churches on Holy Thursday, Tenebrae on Good Friday, Exposition of the Sacred Sacrament, and so on. At Christmas, card games and
the odd bottle of stout and the married sons and the handful of old friends calling. No new kind of people ever coming into the house. No new
opinions or ways of behaving penetrating it. The only fiction, the didactic fable at the back of each copy of the Messenger of the Sacred Heart.
Even history was somewhat frowned upon for showing off. I pressed my grandmother about the Rising. "Oh, yes, there was terrible trouble in
town that year," she said, her face wrinkling up with disapproval. "We could hear it all from here." Then she brightened. "But we got vegetables in
1916 that we never got before or since! The carts from Rush couldn't get into the city with all the trouble. They could only get as far as
Drumcondra--here, at the top of Clonliffe Road--and we'd go up and get the best of vegetables for half nothing!"
Gay and my father both transcended the cautiousness of their backgrounds, though Gay was more committed than my father to the values of that
background. If the two of them walked towards me now, I'd see two dapper, smallish men with attractive voices and quick minds, both using a
natural charm and courtesy to keep other people at a distance from them. Behind Gay I'd see an orderly and consistent life. Behind my father,
But around 1950, in the place Gay and I were talking about that day on the radio--in the pristine countryside to the north of Dublin with its string
of seaside villages--my father and my family were still well. He responded to even that quiet countryside with brisk enjoyment. He took us on
walks through the woods and told us what "Indian file" meant. He planted potatoes and named the ridges after the stations on the Dublin-Belfast
railway line. (Chapter One continues)