Killeter Camino in the Sperrins-Killeter Walking Festival
For the first time in a long time today I resisted taking out my camera. Speccing the path of the ‘Killeter Camino’ for this weekend’s Walking Festival I came across a house very much like one in my imagination, or in my childhood holidays in the west of Ireland, that I thought didn’t exist anymore.
The elderly man who lives in the house lives on his own, in a remote rural area, in basic conditions by today’s standards, a throw-back to an Ireland mainly long gone. ‘Hello!’ I called out from my mountain bike. ‘Hello there’ came the response and the paper was set down and he appeared.
I got the feeling when I was looking back on our meeting how impossible it is to sum up anything with a photograph, let alone capture a person. I thought of the old pictures of the ‘native americans’, the old belief that a photograph steals your soul, how photographs on social media almost run our lives now, and how I wasn’t going to ask my new-found friend for a pic no matter how much I wanted to try and capture his essence.
‘I hope you don’t mind me coming across your land?’ I start off.
‘Not at all,’ he parries.
‘Hope I’m not disturbing you just arriving like this?’
‘Ah, no I saw you coming over the hill’ he replies.
He has eyes on the back of his head apparently or the paper was a ruse.
Our conversation rolls along nicely, and it becomes plain he is relishing the chance to chat, and I’m relishing his language, expressions, stories and sheer resilience. I learn of his family, all long gone, his neighbours, also long gone, and that the route I’m speccing out is an old smuggling route across the border.
‘What better way to weave a way along my pilgrim path’, I think, ‘than in this space that is almost gone, but still here, in this old man’s memory and imagination.’
‘And what about music?’ I ask almost impulsively- thinking of the long evenings in this quiet place.
‘My father was good on the accordion’, he countered, ‘he used to play. My mother used to pick it up as well. He had an old bike and the cross bar broke on it. He took it to a man in Killen to fix up. The man fixed it up alright. He came up to the house to get paid and he had his daughter with him. She saw the accordion and that was that.’
What could I say? I head the missing notes, the years of lost music and just hoped that accordion enlivened the little girl’s life in Killen.
I don’t know how we started talking about the stairs, but we did. I had seen them over his shoulder through the doorway but resisted the urge to ask to step inside, into his domain.
‘They are carved out of solid rock’ he continued. We talk of the art and skill of stone splitting- I had seen it a lot travelling in India where it is a feature of many rural women’s daily lives. ‘Nagging’ he calls it. ‘I wasn’t that good at it in my day, I split the stones a bit too small’.
‘Many people have come to photograph the stairs’, he says. I leap at the chance and excuse myself, knowing that my sister- an erstwhile stone mason- wouldn’t forgive me if I didn’t.
He likes it that I include the chair and we talk about the chair in the photo looking like the chair in reality- but not in a stupid way- in a way that helps us communicate across the years.
I make to go. He asks me my name. ‘Lawrence’, I says. ‘What’s your first name?’ he shoots back at me. ‘Lawrence’ I repeat. I’m not sure he believes me. ‘Lawrence McBride’.
‘What’s yours?’ I ask. ‘Patrick Jim McGrath’ he smiles devilishly and the handshake is a crusher.