Larne: County Antrim, Northern Ireland.
Not the most famous town on the planet, not the prettiest, not the most industrious. It isn’t famed for the birthplace of a US president, like seemingly every other parish in Ireland is (although it does claim a few tenuous grandparental links to some in the Oval Office) nor has it a claim to fame for having the tallest building or the highest mountain. Nope, none of that. It is just a little port-town on the north-east coast of the north of Ireland. It is also the town where I grew up. Regardless that I have been away from her almost twice as long as I lived there she is still my hometown. I have family, friends and, I suppose most importantly, my roots deeply embedded there. The sights and sounds and smells of my formative years are in that place. It will always be that way and I have always gone back to visit as the years and now decades have passed by.
As for the title of this blog and what did it do for me? It provided me a playground as big as my imagination, a green outside my front door, trees to climb and relax in, football pitches on every street, hills to ride bikes down and steeper hills to push them back up, a primary school I could walk to, local plays and pageants and festivals, my first fireworks display, the love of seascapes and a yearning for hills. A knowledge that nowhere, ever, will have a landscape as green. A memory of going to the “pictures” and the freedom of being able to wander home afterwards. It gave me an education (that mostly I chose to ignore) but nonetheless it set me up for later life. It gave me that intimate feeling of acknowledging people in the main street who knew you and your name and you knew theirs. Of walking into shops and having a laugh and a joke. Of talking to people who all (mostly) spoke the same way as you did (a Larne accent is a thing of… well, it’s a thing). It gave me the awkward moment of having a Great-Aunt catching me smoking whilst walking home. She promised that she wouldn’t “tell on me” (and actually told everyone but promised them to secrecy). And if all of that sounds idyllic, it was. Well, it was in the way memory makes it idyllic. To be fair, it also gave me unemployment, a time when going out was not that safe. A time when you couldn’t park your car in that main street and leave it unattended. It gave me night time foot patrols by soldiers and armed police. It gave me the noise of helicopters overhead, the memory of a cousin shot dead and a casual proximity to violence being visited on others. But despite those negatives, Larne was relatively unscathed in the “Troubles” and so on balance the town was a fantastic place to grow up. It almost existed in a small bubble, 20 miles from Belfast but somehow a world apart. Almost. I do know that in the intervening years I (and I suspect others) try to forget the bad and focus on the good. That is surely just natural.
What it leaves me with is that I still love my hometown for it gave me my childhood, my friends and my memories. Enough that when I was putting together the minor characters for the novel “A Time To Every Purpose” I included an engineer called Jerome Mills and made him a native of Larne. His local knowledge of the Irish and Scottish coasts came in quite handy when the plot called for chasing down a murder suspect. It also made me happy to give the hometown a mention. I intend to include a “Larne yin” in all my books.
But as I alluded to, I am not totally blinded to the place by the light of nostalgia. It did, does and no doubt will always have faults. Yet there is just something about it that makes it a “great wee town”. Part of it is the stunning geography. Larne sits with the water at her feet and the enveloping shawl of the Antrim hills about her shoulders.
The arching arm of Islandmagee (not an island but a peninsula) sweeps out in a protective curve to shelter the harbour and tranquil lough. The outline of the Scottish coast, so clear on the horizon, is kept tantalisingly far away by the power of the the Irish Sea’s North Channel laid between. The background noise of waves and the nearness of the sea are constants. It’s hard for even those who live there not to stop and stare at times. But whilst all of that would be good enough to fill an album of photos on its own, it says nothing for the environs surrounding the town. Serene, beautiful, stunning and majestic are pale, shadow words to describe the world-rivelling beauty of the small villages, the coast road and the glens that Larne is the gateway to.
You’ll find waterfalls, lakes, open moors, the oldest inhabited building in the north, beaches, headlands, myths, lore, ancient standing stones, great food, marvellous traditional music and once you’ve found all of that you still won’t be more than 10 miles from the town. There is no doubt why Larne, at the dawning of modern tourism in the early 20th Century, was the biggest and most thriving tourist gateway in the north of Ireland for decades. And then it wasn’t.
The reasons why it declined are the same that you will find reflected in the history of Northern Ireland from the late 60’s onward. Political upheaval, societal breakdown and economic woes. It is hard for a town to keep its tourism and its well-established industrial base when the nation is ripping itself apart from the inside out. It’s even harder for the local Town Council to play its part when it forgets that it’s there for the good of the town and decides instead to concentrate on playing national poilitics. These and more are the same reasons a lot of us left. But whilst we scattered all over the planet, many more stayed. They are the other part of what makes Larne that “great wee town”.
I have tried to think of some suitable “literary” phrase to sum it up and I fear I may end up doing a “McKittrick Ros” (bless her little cotton socks – a resident of the town until her death in 1939) but for me, if the landscape and the environment of a small town is the music then the people are the lyrics. Without the people you have a tune but no song. Without them you have a very nice hill, a pretty river, a majestic coastline. With them you have a community, a vibrancy. Now, Larne’s people are not the best in the world, not the funniest, nor are they the happiest, the prettiest or the most intelligent. BUT, neither are they the worst, the poorest, the saddest, the ugliest or the most stupid. They are just who they are and like all small towns they will tell you that their fellow residents are mostly great and they would be correct. Some of them are a bit weird and some of them are a bit shy and some of them are a bit mad and most of them, the vast majority, are just good people doing their best for their families, their friends and their community. They would have told you (often quite bitterly and on most occasions, quite rightly) about their local politicians and those in national power neglecting the needs of a major industrial port. They knew, long before anyone had to point it out to them that the politicians were getting it wrong. They knew that a modern port facility had to have not good, but world-class, road and rail links.
So they watched their port shrink and become a lesser thing. With the port, the industrial base, with the industrial base, the commercial base and with all of that attendant infrastructure they watched the tourism decline. They went through hard times. But they remained resilient, upbeat and optimistic for the most part. The town was still theirs and the vast majority of that town tried to remain as far removed from the divisions of the wider Northern Ireland. They continued to volunteer their time, they shared the fruits of their labours, they looked after their streets, their houses, their schools. As time moved on they kept old habits (the Drama Circle, the History Club, the youth organisations) and they added new ones. They now staff local radio stations, run local versions of national charity events, play host to paralympians and continue to participate in the social life of the town in the new era of Northern Ireland. They set up websites like Memories of Larne that capture the living history of the townspeople and provide a marvellous social cohesion for locals and ex-pats alike. They have seen the worst and can now see new industrial opportunities being realised, new road links being installed, even HBO have decided to come visit. They are still intensely proud of their town and it wasn’t as if one, single individual could demean a whole community with an odd, off-colour, mean-spirited or misleading remark. That just couldn’t happen. Not without a reaction.
You may, by now, be wondering where all of this is heading? Well, you can probably imagine how impressed and excited I was that on Tuesday 21 October, BBC Northern Ireland featured a documentary called “I Love Larne”. It was a supposedly fly-on-the-wall look at a small town trying to regenerate itself. That bit they did, at least, get right. Larne is trying to regenerate itself. I expected the program to show where it had been, where it had declined to and where it was going now. I expected it to show the positives, the strength of community, the outstanding natural beauty and the vibrancy that a small town needs and Larne has. I expected it to be a forthright view of a town in the “new” Northern Ireland. But I also thought, given it was a BBC program, that it would be fair, balanced, impartial and well crafted. I expected it to capture the spirit of the community in the town.
Perhaps a mention of the pre-history and the 6000BC flint heads that makes Larne one of, if not the oldest, settled sites in Ireland. A look at the traditions that built the town to its pre-world war II days, the tragedy that befell it in 1953, the resilience through “The Troubles”. All of that could have been captured in a 2-minute montage behind the opening trailer. A sweeping panoramic shot of the setting, the importance of the harbour, the location in the world and of the world. Then, as it was called I Love Larne, a series of cameos and interviews with the people who do actually love the town. People who are recognised in the wider community. People who are positioned in the economic, social and (yes unfortunately) political arenas and who influence the direction in which the town is headed. People who the average person living in the town might have actually heard of. Yes, for fairness, maybe one or two interviews with people who do not love the town. But interviews with reasoned individuals who aspire each day to drive it forward by force of deed and strength of character. Finally I looked forward to seeing the beauty and potential it has for a rebirth as the tourist gateway to the North. More so now given that many of the locations viewed across the globe on Game of Thrones are a stone’s throw from the town. I settled down to 40 minutes of an inspiring, uplifting and beautifully crafted documentary. I mean, how could it not be given the natural beauty that surrounds the place.
What I got was a shambles. A pathetically crafted, atrociously edited piece of drivel made by an apparently award-winning documentary maker who allegedly was born in Larne. If so, I can only imagine that he or the principle member of the town council who featured heavily, have an axe to grind against the local community. There was one cameo about a single bone-fide couple who are actively putting time, effort and money into a new tourism venture. Well done them but the editing and colour palette of the documentary did little to show them in an inspiring light (literally).
As for the rest of it there was a completely unnatural bias that was specifically edited to make it look like the town was full of religious zealots. If the director had wanted to see that faith (of all denominations and creeds) is alive and well in the town why not got to St Cedma’s Church? An awe-inspiring 13th century building that would have provided a perfect backdrop to interview the many inspiring interdenominational leaders from the town. Or seek out the non-denominational schools that have broken the religious divisions of our past. But no, we were subjected again and again to a crude and mean-spirited attempt to paint the town as completely threadbare, inhabited by nobodies whose chief ability to bring regeneration is to hope Jesus comes down and sorts it out whilst they hold prayer meetings for 6 individuals. That coupled with what could only be described as cheap shots aimed at the population as a whole through specifically chosen interview subjects, questions and editorial focus led to a resultant “documentary” that was nothing but a slur on a small town community. Had the same tawdry opinion been voiced by an individual in a crowded bar I imagine they would have been swiftly shown the door (or been put through it). It wasn’t of course. It was delivered behind the anonymity of the television documentary and therefore the right of reply and objection is denied. That neutering of expression in response is of course highlighting the unfairness of the programme as a whole and so I decided that I would respond like this.
I openly invite Mr Guy King (the creator of the documentary) to reply in the comments if he objects to my opinions.
As for me, my social media contacts and the town itself… well we know the real Larne, the beauty of her countryside, the depth and colour to her history and the vibrancy of her people. We know that all who have not visited the north Antrim coast have not seen one of the true wonders of nature. We know that the potential for a total regeneration of the town is unabashed by a defamatory documentary and we can but hope that the elected representatives of the town pick up the challenge and provide inspiring leadership.
If this has whetted your appetite to see what the real Larne looks like, check out Brian McCullogh’s amazing video of photography by clicking here.
Ian Andrew is the author of the alternative history novel A Time To Every Purpose, the detective thrillers Face Value and Flight Path and the Little Book of Silly Rhymes & Odd Verses. All are available in e-book and paperback. Follow him on social media:
© Can Stock Photo Inc. / nahlik