Saturday 3 December 2016

'When I think of heaven, I think of summers on Rathlin Island'

Singer Frances Black grew up in a city tenement but loved the freedom of childhood holidays to her dad's homeplace

Published 21/07/2016 | 02:30

Frances Black
Frances Black

At 10 years of age, I was a very shy child who didn't mix well. I also really struggled with learning, and one nun at school used to call me stupid, which had a huge impact on me. When summer came, it was like being freed from prison, as I could escape that horrible feeling of being inadequate.

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We lived in a tenement house on Charlemont Street in Dublin, which we shared with other families. It was very working-class with an outside toilet, and while my mother Patty came from the Liberties, my dad Kevin was from Rathlin Island, off the coast of Antrim. We went up there for around six weeks every summer, and we absolutely loved it. That particular summer in 1970 was the first year my dad was able to come with us, because he usually had to stay behind to work as a plasterer. I remember the excitement of packing our cases and getting a taxi to Connolly station. I was the youngest, and Daddy wanted me to pretend I was younger to get a reduced price train ticket, and I was mortified.

When we got to Belfast, I saw all the soldiers with guns, and that seemed so odd. We took two buses to Ballycastle, and while my brothers Shay and Michael and sister Mary were excited, myself and Martin - who comes next to me - were the most excited. Mam and Dad brought us in for chips, and we watched the boats coming in. As soon as we saw Paddy McQuilkin's smiling face in his boat, it all became a reality.

The boat trip was scary stuff with big waves going up and down, but really exciting for a child. My dad's older brother Michael and sister Mary lived in the family home, and they arranged for someone to pick us up from the boat. Mam and Dad sat in the car and the kids and bags were in the trailer. The roads were in terrible condition, so it was a rocky drive, but we laughed our heads off bouncing up and down and being flung around.

There was no electricity on the island then, but when we walked in the smell of freshly baked bread and food hit us, and the farmhouse was really cosy and warm. Aunty Mary and Uncle Michael were in their 70s when I was 10, and they had come back to Rathlin to help with the farm when my grandmother got sick.

To me, Auntie Mary was just beautiful, and I loved her. She had previously been a teacher and gave me lots of her time, which I loved, as my mother was often too busy with all of us and cleaning houses and all the chaos. Aunty Mary had a little shop on the island that sold food.

What I noticed that summer was that Daddy was in great form because he was home among his own people. His accent became much stronger, and he used local expressions that he would never use at home. He had come to Dublin in 1932 for work, because there was no real work in the North for Catholics at that point. Up on Rathlin, he chatted away to everyone and told stories and was really animated, whereas he would just come in from work and read the paper or watch TV at home.

At home there was always stress about money and work, but that lifted from my parents in Rathlin, and there was a lovely atmosphere. The food was amazing, with gorgeous potatoes from the farm and soda bread with butter that my aunt made herself. We had roast chicken, although little did I know that the chickens came from the farm. I loved the animals and all the calves were my friends; I hadn't a clue at that age about them being sold off or slaughtered.

Because it was a farm, there was a lot of work to do, and we were up at 7am milking the cows. If I was to close my eyes and think of heaven, I'd picture us running through the fields on a hot summer's day, and the smell of the hay and the animals. There was no expectation or pressure, and we just had fun and were part of a happy community.

Going to Rathlin really taught me about connection - connecting with people and the land. I think I learned about community, because if somebody was going to do the hay, everyone would come along and pitch in. We went to church every Sunday, and were warmly welcomed by the islanders, and everyone loved to see Daddy home. Protestants and Catholics on Rathlin got on great together.

We went to the céilís on Sunday night and my mother spent hours every Saturday night polishing everyone's shoes. Mammy loved to sing and she would always be called on for a song. My father used to play banjo and mandolin and he was a great singer too, so music was just part of who we were.

When it came time to go home, we were all really sad and I dreaded it, but it was terrible for Daddy. Cathie Ryan has a great song called 'Rathlin Island' about people emigrating, and there's a line, "Turn a blue eye back on Rathlin", which reminds me of my father. He had very striking blue eyes, and I could see the sadness in them as we sailed away and he looked back at this amazing place where we'd been so happy.

- In conversation with Andrea Smith

Frances Black performs at John's Lane Church, Dublin 8, on Saturday July 23 as part of the Liberties Festival

Irish Independent

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