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7 October 2020updated 30 Jul 2021 10:32am

Time seems to move at a different pace in rural Northern Ireland – and even the cats seem to sense it

When I told my friends that I was visiting my in-laws for a month they winced, but it was four weeks of unexpected joy.

By Pippa Bailey

Stereotypes are bad, this much we know – they quash diversity, encourage prejudice… But there is one that, from the month I spent living with my in-laws in the outskirts of Belfast, I now know to be true: Northern Irish people really do love potatoes. (Admittedly my sample group of two is not statistically significant, and shouldn’t be held up as indicative of an entire country.) Few days passed that a pot of potatoes didn’t sit steaming on the Aga. One evening, while everyone else had bolognese for dinner, my boyfriend’s father tucked into a plate of “champ” – mashed potato with spring onions, for the English among us (though the Northern Irish would insist I call them scallions) – without accompaniment or apology.

Before August, I thought it odd that my boyfriend’s family have a caravan an hour’s drive from their house. If I had a holiday home an hour’s drive from my flat in London it would be not only a financial marvel, but also still in London. It turns out that time behaves differently on the North Coast; a weekend spent there is categorically longer than one in the city. Sunday night rolls in slowly and gently after a Saturday afternoon spent following a pod of porpoises along the shore.

In rural Northern Ireland, I found new novelty in the ordinary things, in simply staring at a different set of four walls all day. In work calls interrupted by the noise of braying donkeys or tractors making silage, or by a parent delivering an ill-timed cup of tea. In never knowing what creature – human or otherwise – you’d find downstairs when you ventured away from your laptop (there was one particular cat who became so comfortable with me she would help herself to the glass of water on my desk).

A new-normal Monday night in London usually involves numbing my mind with episode after episode of Modern Family until Netflix asks if I’m still watching. One week in Northern Ireland, it involved a “driving refresher lesson” conducted in a car that had sat unused long enough for plants to be growing from the wheel arches. Unsurprisingly, for someone who hasn’t driven in ten years, I made it halfway across a field before stalling; the resulting caper involved a van, a Jeep, jump leads, a tow rope and some very hairy turns.

I have felt grateful for much over the past six months: that I have kept my job, and am able to do it from home; that no one I love has become seriously ill; that Bonne Maman blackcurrant mousses have regularly been on discount in Sainsbury’s. But one thing I did not expect to feel grateful for was the time it has given me with my in-laws: time to move past the tentative, polite stage; to share knowing smiles; to learn where everything belongs in the kitchen. One evening, inspired by some old family photographs, my boyfriend’s mother showed me her wedding dress, which had languished in a cupboard for 35 years, unappreciated by her sons, and shone as I admired it.

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On my return to London, friends asked, “So, how was it?” with a standard slightly pained, empathetic expression, ready to react to the imagined stories of overbearing parents and a boyfriend who’d regressed to a teenager on entering his childhood home. A quick rearrangement of the face was required when they heard my answer – that it was a warm, daft, chaotic joy.

There are the things we intend to do in life – usually conventional and derivative, our imagination so limited by our experiences that we each produced the same trite lists of lockdown goals: learn a language, develop abs. (Studying the intimate details of my boyfriend’s family tree certainly never featured on mine.) And then there are the things that simply happen, and are unfailingly stranger and more lovely than we could design. I don’t think everything happens for a reason: sometimes life is simply full of pain and devoid of reason and logic. But it also contains small, unplanned delights, which are amplified by the tragedy that now surrounds us. And there’s a comfort in knowing that, on the other side of the Irish Sea, there’s always a pot of steamed potatoes waiting.

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This article appears in the 07 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Long Covid