Several months ago, before I had any idea I’d have the opportunity to visit Northern Ireland, I went to see the film, Philomena. Though it is ultimately a tragic and sad story, I laughed a lot through it. There were many moments of humor, brought on usually by the culture and socioeconomic clashes between the British Oxbridge-educated journalist Martin Sixsmith in his travels with Irish working-class Philomena Lee as together they searched for her lost son. Seeing the beautiful cinematography and lush Irish scenery, though the story takes place in the Republic of Ireland, did make me yearn for a visit to the North, where my mother grew up.
This past Friday when I was there in Newcastle, I decided to try to find my grandparents’ grave. I’d been there once before but probably at least 2 decades ago and wasn’t exactly sure if I’d remember where it was. I’d asked Mum before I left to remind me of its location and thought I was clear on the directions. I walked around the corner from where Granny used to live and proceeded up a steep hill leading to the base of the Mourne Mountains. But as I got to the end of that road, which was populated by homes on either side, it turned into a dead-end and I knew I’d gone too far.
I was confident that I was looking for a church in the area but there was no one else walking on the quiet residential streets that I could ask. I re-traced my steps and while I didn’t remember the street name where the church might be, I veered to the left and wandered in the direction I recall going all those years ago. Tucked away between the roofs of the modest 2 story homes, I glimpsed what looked like a steeple. I proceeded along and came upon a small Church of Ireland (what the Anglican church is known as in this country), which wasn’t open. Apparently Protestant churches in the North only open on Sundays for services and are closed during the week. But the gate leading into the compound was ajar and I saw an evergreen tree-lined road leading to a small cemetery which was familiar from my previous visit.
Though I had in my mind’s eye what the headstone looked like, and I believed it was on the right, I couldn’t find it. I wandered through rows of Magee’s, McNerney’s, Mc Graw’s and Kennedy’s, but there was none for the James’s. Not trusting my memory, I crossed over the left and continued walking, trying to scan each headstone systematically. When I got to the end of that section to no avail, I began again at the back, this time on the right. By this point, I was trying not to get discouraged. I was convinced my grandparents were buried here; I just couldn’t find the exact spot. Grandpa was laid to rest first in the sixties and then almost 20 years later, Granny’s coffin was added on top and the headstone carved up again to reflect their shared resting place.
Just when I was beginning to feel a bit queasy about all the graves I was trying not to trample on, and the wind was picking up so I began to imagine the movement of the dead around me, there it was – as I’d remembered it. My sleuthing and persistence had paid off.
I spent a few moments taking it all in – the double grave nestled in the shadow of the mountains, minutes from where Granny had lived for many, many years. Then I took photos and left – without running into even one other person – both grateful and amazed to have had my own ‘Philomena’ moment.