There she was, an American in the arrivals hall at Belfast airport. Nothing special about that, except she was young blonde and waiting for me.
‘I’m Coco’, she said, ‘and I’m stark raving bonkers I replied without thinking’, which brought us both into fits of laughter; still the ice was broken.
As I lifted her two designer travel bags I noticed the CC clear on the baggage tags. Out at the car, I opened the front hood, the bit where the engine normally would be and they both fitted in. She carried her camera bag and I opened the rear boot and placed it beside mine. Forgetting my manners I went to the driver’s side and slid in, and watched her skirt ride up revealing even more of her long slim tanned gorgeous legs and she sat back in the Boxster passenger seat. Before I turned the key to start the engine I just checked, afraid that I might have the wrong person in my car.
I introduced myself and she confirmed. “Colombine Connaught” pleased to meet you. Two days before I had a text from her dad saying simply ~ Coco arrives on 6.00 am flight from Shannon Thursday, look after her for a few days, Conn.
As we headed out of the airport she handed me a scribbled page of the places to visit in the North of Ireland; all the usual places, topped by the Giants Causeway. As we went into the countryside towards the Antrim Coast road which would take us that direction, she was admiring the sights and I was admiring the view down to my left, just about keeping my eyes on the road between glances down at the prettiest legs I had seen in a long while. Jeans would probably been better attire for some of the places we were going to visit, but who am I to argue with those legs alongside me.
Coco sifted through my CDs in the side pocket, Van Morrison Sense of wonder, and Poetic Champions, and Astral weeks; Bruce Springsteen’s the Rising, Amy Winehouse Back to Black, and others by Avril Lavinge, Hayley Westenra, Dido, Dire Straits, Mark Knopfler, Norah Jones and Andrea Bochelli. With all but the last one seeming to ring bells and put a wry smile on her face. I reached across and pulled my IPod Nano out of the glove box and she scrutinised it to find enough to keep her busy.
I apologised for us being in a Boxster rather than on the back of my Fireblade, but she seemed content with what she kept calling the Boxty. Boxty young lady is a traditional Irish potato pancake.
Boxty on the griddle,
Boxty in the pan,
If you can’t make boxty,
You’ll never get a man.
A Boxster is a classic German roadster, there is a certain distinction I said in my best authorative voice. ‘Fine, thank you, but if you don’t mind I’ll still call it a boxty! James Dean used to drive one of those didn’t he’. She wasn’t too far off the mark, so this time I didn’t attempt to correct her.
We swept along the coast road through the quiet but picturesque coastal villages of Glenarm, Carnlough, Cushendall and Cushendun pausing occasionally to take a few photos as we headed toward Ballycastle enroute to the Giants Causeway.
Conn her dad and I were best mates for years and monks (but we’ll get to that bit later). Together with Tim ‘shotgun’ Nolan we were involved with installations for Genie (General Engineering Ireland) firstly in Canada, then Columbia, then Chile and finally in China. Conn had now settled in St. Maarten in the Eastern Caribbean; and had ensured his only daughter would get the best of education he could afford in an Ivy League college in the USA. I had returned to Ireland. Nolan sadly was now departed from this life leaving two young thirteen year-olds Anthony and Eimear back in Ennis unbeknowingly as yet with perhaps one of the finest collection of classic guns in the whole of Europe.
Dunluce Castle sited dramatically close to the edge of a headland, along the North Antrim coast was our first main stop. Coco was impressed as she was surrounded on three sides by jaw dropping coastal scenery as we walked down towards this medieval castle stands where an early Irish fort was once built. As we walked across the bridge into the castle courtyard Coco had lots of questions for me about her dad, her late mom Sherry (the prettiest of colleens that ever came out of Galway and even all of Ireland Cassie O’Shea Sheridan; who would become Mrs. Conn Connaught for a short while. And she was most interested in how Tim Nolan was always called ‘shotgun’.
I assured her that we would have plenty of time to delve into the past of three Irishmen in the Americas and of the heritage and history of these Irish castles and causeways as well, but for now to ensure we got the best of the morning light on the Giants Causeway we’d better move on up the road before the hordes of daily visitors would descend on it.
Our run up the road was still pretty much traffic free and we did indeed reach the Causeway to find it at its best. A project in Canada installing some Irish engineering brought Tim, Conn and I together. Conn and I knew each other already and we met up with Tim a native of Ennis shortly before we boarded the Toronto bound flight. A year in Canada found us working well as a team, and Corlett our fixer back in Dublin soon found us a new contract in Bogotá Colombia.
The República de Colombia located in the northwestern region of South America is bordered to the east by Venezuela and Brazil; and to the south by Ecuador and Peru; and to the North by the Atlantic Ocean, through the Caribbean Sea; to the north-west by Panama; and to the west by the Pacific Ocean. That was the geography, but the history and culture was something entirely different.
Whilst working in Bogotá we were fortunate to keep our heads down and concentrate on getting our specialist contract completed and getting on somewhere else, but it was difficult to escape the attention of FARC guerrillas and the drug cartels.
We of course kept our noses clean as far as the drugs trade was concerned but we did fall into the hands of a drug cartel leader interested in contacts. Their hospitality at first was generous if not frightening, and he was interested in us far from home Irishmen.
‘We’re monks’ came the reply from Conn. This brought a mix of consternation, laughter and further inquisitiveness from the leader and the gang members present. Some monks take a vow of silence, and a vow of celibacy, we took a vow of work.
You see Senor, we are from a poor monastery near the middle of Ireland, giving first an unpronounceable name, and our number is small and our buildings need much work to be done to keep the monastery in existence. So we took a vow of work, and any able-bodied monks vowed for a year to go overseas and find work and earn money to send home.
At this point, Coco was fascinated, probably disbelieving but nevertheless caught up in the tale, knowing it was just the sort of thing her dad might come up with in a jam. The leader turned to his men laughing. Monks don’t ride horses, don’t ride women, don’t cuss, they work! As he laughed they laughed, and we in turn, not wanted to disturb the spontaneity of frivolity laughed not just at ourselves but at the very thought of it. He looked into my eyes, ‘you look like a monk’ he said pointing.
Then he turned to your dad Coco, ‘you maybe too’; but then he walked over to ‘shotgun’ and walked around Tim. Instead of freezing Nolan turned angry and starting cussing in Irish. Conn turned to him, silence my brother, remember we are guests and don’t want to upset our host. The leader again spoke so why do you call him ‘shotgun’, as quick on his feet as ever Conn replied Senor, ‘we all have a past’.
‘Right you are Irish, guns we understand, and the Irish we understand’. This brought a respect. ‘And what would be your prior need’. ‘Windows I replied, gazing out of the window where we were held hoping for freedom’. ‘Yes, windows’ Conn confirmed. ‘The main part of the monastery where we worship urgently needs windows senor’. ‘And exactly how much the Colombian enquired’?
‘About five thousand pounds, how much is that in dollars’. Tim joined in the conversation. ‘That’s about ten thousand dollars US’. The leader called over another guy, more of the financial type. And that’s how this monastery in Ireland within a month found a mystery donation of ten thousand dollars heading its way; and we were left alone for the rest of our time in Colombia. Monks don’t ride horses, don’t ride women ….. they work!
‘And we worked as fast as we could, to get out of there’. ‘Did my mum ever visit you lot in Colombia’. ‘Yes’ I admitted, ‘we were always working hard, and no time for others if you know what I mean, but one weekend for just over night, your Dad had heard about a property in St Maarten going at a good price and she had the papers she needed your dad to sign’.
‘Just how long ago was that?’ Coco enquired’? The date I guessed was about twenty-one years before. ‘So that’s how I came to be Colombine’ she asked. ‘I guess so’, I said, quickly changing the subject and directing over toward the seat of Finn McCool with the purpose of taking some photographs.
The Giants Causeway was named after a gentle giant called Finn MacCool. At fifty two feet six inches, he was a relatively small giant. But across the sea in Scotland there was a rival giant called Benandonner. The two Giants hollered at each other across the sea of Moyle, each demanding a trial of strength.
This was agreed, and the hospitable Finn offered to make the contest possible by building a rocky causeway between the two countries which explains how Finn had built a path across the sea from County Antrim to Benandonner’s lair – Fingal’s cave on the island of Staffa. But the work was so laborious and tiring on completion that Finn fell asleep with exhaustion.
Oonagh was Finn’s wife a giantess herself, and she woke up early the next morning to find Finn sound asleep. Then she heard the sound of thunderous footsteps and saw the mighty Benandonner approaching. He was truly gigantic. Finn would be no match against this Scottish giant.
The quick thinking Oonagh covered the sleeping Finn with a nightgown and bonnet. “Where’s Finn?” bellowed Benandonner, “Where is the coward hiding?” He peered at the sleeping Finn. “Be quiet,” Oonagh warned Benandonner, “or you’ll waken the bairn!” Benandonner panicked. If the baby child was this big, how much bigger might Finn be? He did not stay to find out… He hastily retreated across the causeway, destroying it in his wake.
We spent most the day around the Giants Causeway the structures of which having been subject to several million years of weathering, objects such as the Organ and Giant’s Boot structures and the many reddish weathered low columns known as Giants Eyes, created by the displacement of basalt boulders; the day spent photographing the Shepherd’s Steps; the Honeycomb; the Giant’s Harp; the Chimney Stacks; the Giant’s Gate and the Camel’s Hump, and I took one or two of a blonde beauty intensely enthralled by the structures and heritage of the area.
This I explained to Coco was where we were now, and I’m still not sure as to whether she believed this tale of the three giants to be any more true than the earlier piece of information, that Conn, Tim and I and been able to convince that drugs gang that we were monks.
Then on to the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge where an unsteady walk across to the little islet ended in fun and laughter after some initial trepidation, before heading into Portrush for an early evening meal at the Harbour bar. We later headed down onto Portstewart Strand and drove the beach to watch the sun go down, the same strand where forty years before I had been with another blonde in another convertible. We caught the last ferry from Magiligan Strand over to Greencastle and the Inishowen peninsula of Donegal.
After spending the next delightful day and evening around beautiful Donegal we enjoyed conversation and closeness with a romantic meal in 22 Main Street Killybegs, where we seemed to strike up more of an accord. ‘You do know where to find good places to eat and entertain a young lady’ she assured me. Afterwards we went to a singing pub, and enjoyed a drink or two to some fine Irish music and song.
Teelin was a very pretty place, pretty isolated, pretty quiet with some pretty spectacular cliffs on the approach and down to a beach for a wonderful end to an evening. On the beach we spent time walking and talking and then the night passed by in an old Irish cottage in the tiny but tremendously inspiring Teelin. Footprints in the sand were the legacy left to this tiny hamlet of an Irish village.
The following morn we crossed over at Belleek and headed for the evening stop at Enniskillen’s Killyhevlin Hotel and took abode in a lodge by the lake. As the sun went down Coco’s concern and conversation turned from her father to her mother who had died when Coco was quite young.
[Ireland has historically been divided into four provinces, although the Irish-language word for this territorial division, cúige (literally: “fifth part”), indicates that there were once five – Meath (now incorporated into Leinster), being the fifth, the four provinces today being Leinster (capital being Dublin) to the east; Munster (Cork) in the south; Ulster (Belfast) in the north; and Connaught or Connacht (Galway) in the west of Ireland.]
Conn wasn’t always Connor Connaught, he was born Michael Connor Geraghty, and in order to get a visa and work permit for the US was renamed after the province Connacht he originally came from. When we could wherever we were we would get down to New York, and there he met Sherry and as the song says:
Well, I took a stroll on the old long walk
Of a day -I-ay-I-ay
I met a little girl and we stopped to talk
Of a fine soft day -I-ay-I-ay
And I ask you, friend, what’s a fella to do
‘Cause her hair was black and her eyes were blue
And I knew right then I’d be takin’ a whirl
’Round the Salthill Prom with a Galway girl
We were halfway there when the rain came down
Of a day -I-ay-I-ay
And she asked me up to her flat downtown
Of a fine soft day -I-ay-I-ay
And I ask you, friend, what’s a fella to do
’Cause her hair was black and her eyes were blue
So I took her hand and I gave her a twirl
And I lost my heart to a Galway girl
When I woke up I was all alone
With a broken heart and a ticket home
And I ask you now, tell me what would you do
If her hair was black and her eyes were blue
I’ve traveled around I’ve been all over this world
Boys I ain’t never seen nothing like a Galway girl.
But her hair wasn’t black, and her eyes weren’t blue in fact she was the image of you. And it wasn’t in Salthill Galway he met her, in fact not even in Ireland but Cassie O’Shea Sheridan was a waitress in New York who knocked Conn Connaught off his feet in the rush to get away from an over amorous customer. Well she would have knocked anyone off their feet, and the overly named Cassie O’Shea Sheridan and Michael Connor Geraghty Connaught met and fell in love.
Your dad worked on with us of course, and she worked on in New York, essentially separate lives. Your mom went back home for a while to Salthill Galway when your Granmom died, but then returned to New York. The person she really had sole interest in was you, when you came along you were her pride and joy. And if you don’t mind me saying so you’ve stolen all her looks and talents.
Your mom never got to a fine college like you have, she’d be so proud of you. I held Coco in my arms as she fell asleep on the shores of Lough Erne, as the last light fell on another wonderful day. From what I had told her I hoped she get more of what her mom and dad had been about.
We spent the next morning cruising on the waters of Lough Erne, and returned to the lodge on the lake late that evening. During the day she had enquired about Tim and the ‘shotgun’ name that seemed to always be attached to him. Was he a gunman she asked?
‘No far from it, your dad always sent his money back to your mom and they arranged some sound investments for your future’. ‘I on the other took an interest in fine cars and bikes and stocks and shares; whilst Tim didn’t have a woman so he fell for a Purdey or two’.
‘What’s a Purdey?’ Coco enquired. ‘Purdey the 190-year- old British gunmaker, James Purdey and Sons Limited makes, entirely by hand, and sells about 100 to 200 shotguns and hunting rifles a year. Two years are required for delivery. Because of their quality, rarity and cost, possession of a Purdy gun is to sportsmen what possession of a fine Rolls-Royce is to car lovers. And as they’re in such short supply and hardly ever used, they became quite an investment.’ ‘So Tim starting investing in these shotguns, and never got to fire them, they’re back held safe in a bank vault in somewhere in Europe now, probably Switzerland or London’.
‘Did Tim never meet anyone?’ ‘Oh yes he did he did, her name was Orlaith Brady. She was a nurse from Ennis and Tim and her ‘cut quite a stride’ in Santiago Chile. Orla worked in the Hospital Clinico at the Universidad de Chile, when Tim had an accident whilst we were working on the Santiago Metro installation, our next big contract after Colombia. Tim and Orlaith married in Santiago after she had nursed him back to health’.
‘Then one day two Chinamen arrived in Santiago. Corlett had negotiated a contract in China with the China Electric Power company. That was the splitting up of the three Irish cowboys. Nolan stayed on in Santiago to finish the contract there then Orla persuaded him to return to Ireland with her and start a family.
A year later two beautiful twins were born. We thought he’d call the girl Purdey and the boy James, but Orla ensured they were named Eimear and Anthony. Sadly Orla and Tim didn’t have too many years together, he was killed in a traffic accident in North Dublin several years later’. Once more a saw a tiny tear in Coco’s eye at the mention of an end of a couple’s affair.
The next day Coco and I left Enniskillen and headed down through Tyrone and Armagh and then on to Newcastle County Down, where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea. The Silent Valley was the scene for much more walking and talking, where Coco found out more about me, and I learnt to know and love her more. And opportunities abound for fine dining and a chance to dress up in the Slieve Donard Hotel.
Our last day together was spent in the kingdom of Down and around the lovely Strangford Lough and some of my most fond haunts before she made her way back to the airport and back home to the USA. She was someone of another generation today’s generation, but someone who also wanted to take time to understand an earlier generation as well; which I’m sure would bode well for her future.
She had brought a little bit of life and adventure to the last week for not only was she excellent company for a man proud to show off a little of his island, but also a girl that you wanted to share your memories with.
In life some days are diamonds, some are disasters, and some are better not discussed and if all the moments in the world were just the moments we wanted then they’d be adventures and affairs.
But every day with Colombine Connaught made me realise there may still a bit more life left in this old dog and there may yet be another blonde chapter.
A book about a boy and blondes from the Belfast of Van Morrison