Séamas O’Reilly: ‘I fall deeply, into unrequited love with 85 per cent of the girls I meet’
Writing for the upcoming Art of Adventure issue of Irish Tatler magazine, the Derry author looks back on holidaying with 12 siblings and the first tastes of teenage freedom
June 1992, Spain
I am leaving Ireland for the first time, to visit Spain to see my auntie, Aileen. My ten siblings and I travel with my dad on a week-long, 1,700 mile trip in a white minibus, trailing behind us a 24-foot caravan.
The journey involves sampling weird breads in foreign supermarkets, overnight stays in French campsites filled with weird insects and French people, and a few, nail-biting hours threading through the Pyrenees in an object roughly the length of Roscommon.
We bypass Paris for traffic but are woken with drowsy nudges to see it in the far distance from an autoroute and fall back asleep. We drink cocoa on hot nights, serenaded by crickets which actually make noise like they do in films.
On arrival in Spain, I drink fizzy orange drinks from luxurious glass bottles and eat squid for the first time, marvel at consistent sunshine and my body’s remarkable, even miraculous, capacity for freckling. I have discovered my new, true calling. It is clear to me that I will be a Travelling Man for the rest of my days.
October 1994, Blackpool
Again, the ferry, to catch the Paris of the North West, complete with its superior rendition of the Eiffel Tower and seaside attractions. We are hosted – all 12 of us – at a B&B, for whom we become, as always on family holidays with 11 kids in tow, something of an attraction of our own.
We are exactly what northern English people think all Irish people are like and are treated well because of it. The trip is timed for Halloween, we bob for apples and wear witch outfits made from bin liners, which are good for splash protection, but get hot after a while. On the ferry home I think I see dolphins, but I do not. I am sure that I will cross the waves again many times.
July 2001, North Carolina
It is eight years before I leave the country again and I am 15. My body shrieks with adolescence. This is, I believe, the first time I’ve ever been on a plane, and I’m making up for lost time by being on a flight so long we can watch movies during it.
I am travelling to Greenville, North Carolina as part of the Ulster Project, a charming initiative aimed at getting Northern Irish Catholics and Protestants to team up for a trip to America where we teach our American hosts about The Troubles and they say as little as possible about slavery and native Americans.
It is billed as a cross-community project aimed at promoting better relationships between the two sides of our local community. The fact that any family eager for their child to spend a month going to mixed-religious ceremonies with their political counterparts is likely not one who needs to be reached by such an initiative, is not broached.
Our hosts are the same age as us, but look like Spielberg characters: tall, tanned and white-teethed. I fall deeply, and immediately, into unrequited love with 85 per cent of the girls I meet. They live in huge houses with breakfast islands and front porches. Around half of them have turned sixteen already, and all of them have their own cars, but they have never left America and ask us whether we have electricity, or McDonalds, where we come from. They cannot reliably find any country on a map. Six weeks after we leave, 9/11 happens.
May 2002, Leeds, Liverpool and Loughborough
Three of my sisters graduate from university, all in English cities beginning with L. My dad takes the four of us who still live at home over to see them. We are received in a series of student flats which are variably uncomfortable, all crowded, some bordering on unsanitary, despite very clearly having been primped and preened for our visit, in a pantomime of responsible hosting.
Seeing my sisters’ student lives is likely as awkward for my father as it is spellbinding for us; a glimpse at the potentiality of adulthood. We do things with my sisters’ new home city that they likely don’t do very often. In Loughborough, we eat at an Australian restaurant where I eat kangaroo steak. In Liverpool, I swipe furtive drinks while listening intently to my sisters’ cool friends. In Leeds, we are taken to a folk festival which features music and poetry. An older guy gets up at the end and recites a poem that’s really quite racist indeed. My dad laughs nervously, but my sisters’ friends, all anarchists, are appalled. Everyone looks at their hands.
September 2004, Dublin
I am leaving home, permanently, for the first time. I am shown to halls in college, which appears to be made up exclusively of quite rich Irish and English people, extremely rich foreign students, and a surprisingly huge cohort of broke people from Northern Ireland, since we all have student loans.
I am giddy with independence, and at the feeling that the four-hour bus from Derry has miraculously moved me further away than I’ve ever been. I reinvent myself but only by half, since a combination of my rural upbringing, and the surprisingly large take-up from my hometown this school year, mean I am now living at close quarters with more Derry people than I ever have.
My new English friends have spent gap years base-jumping in Tanzania and doing yoga workshops in Peru. I feel far from home, I miss home, but I am home. So, I tell them the wonders of Spain, Blackpool and Greenville, and let them know just how well-travelled I am.
This article will appear in the print edition of Irish Tatler on Sunday, June 12. Certain articles are made available early online for digital subscribers to read ahead of their publication date.