Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Eden re-visited

Sometimes going back to the the green, green grass of home is disturbing - especially if the grass has been covered in tarmac and concrete since. But unexpected reminders here and there can help you understand how much those lost ingredients shaped you way back then.

The 'bowl I was baked in' was the small village of Boneybefore in east Antrim. It had been by-passed by the new main road from Carrick to Larne, and so the world largely passed us by too. But just a short dander to the east loomed the next, slightly larger, village of Eden. Until we came into our teens, we 'Boney-boys' held Eden in awe - it had a pub, and everything else that was taboo. But it had better things too: a wide street and two-story houses (none of which were thatched), and a Post Office (with the only telephone box in the country outside).

There was a large house beside Eden Primary School with an orchard in its garden. Naturally, this was a big temptation and it became the crime scene of many a raid for apples, when lessons were done.

I went past the site recently and smiled to see that it has been re-developed for modern housing and re-named the 'Garden of Eden'.

Not only did I go to Eden Primary School on weekdays, but to the sweetie shops there on Saturdays - and even to a terrace house on the street there for my seasonal hair-cut. There was no barber's pole or sign, and the only way of knowing you were at the right house was a set of buffalo horns hanging in the porch inside the front door.

Eden Mission Hall was opposite the school, and when I was about 9 or 10 years old (in the 1950s) it was also used by the school as an overflow classroom. But from as early as I have memory of, Eden Mission Hall was also where I was taken twice on Sundays. Sunday-School was in the afternoon, and the church 'meeting' at 7 o'clock at night. I can still picture every nook and cranny, board and crack in that hall.

None of this involved any choices on my part - it's what I thought the entire human race's life experience was, and it was what everybody did as part of family life. I can't remember having any awareness that there were any other types of schooling or of churching.

But the 'Boney-boys' began to explore that outside world. I could get out of the Sunday night 'meeting' by going with five or six other escapees to a big church on Sunday morning. The 'big' church in question was a Presbyterian Church in the Scotch Quarter of Carrickfergus. It was a bit like going to a big football match when you had no real interest in, or understanding of, the sport. Six of us would squeeze into a pew in the gallery built for four. I remember little more, other than the occasional clutch of good-looking girls sitting opposite with straw hats on, and the walking there and home - about three miles round trip. In every sense (from a Boneybefore perspective), Carrick was way out west and on the other side of the world to Eden.

There were no 'big' churches in Eden, but another mission hall. It was called the 'Wilson Memorial Gospel Hall', and was a bit of a mystery. These Gospel Halls ran 'children's meetings' on a Tuesday night, and they were different. We Boney boys went there spasmodically of our own free will. Much foot-stamping choruses and sweeties thrown into whichever section of the crowd could find a bible passage first. I remember one evening there was a projector showing slides of a mission in Africa. One of the white missionaries had enormous swelling of the legs which the man said was 'ellyphantitus'. To me, then, I thought I could look across Belfast Lough from the shore at Boneybefore and see Africa on the other side. Now that I live across there in county Down, I can testify that there are no elephants spreading disease today on either side of Belfast Lough.

Running down alongside the Wilson Hall was a river at the far, eastern end of the village. This was the Copeland Water, which marked the boundary of the old medieval county of Carrickfergus. Parallel to the Copeland Water and just about 500 yards to the east, is the Kilroot River which runs from near Ballycarry, past Dalway's Bawn and Castle Dobbs (where it is known as the 'Muttonburn Stream') and out to the sea near the old house Dean Swift (author of Gulliver's Travels) is supposed to have lived.

East of Eden was a different country, as the folk song 'The Muttonburn Stream' hints.