One eccentric feature of parenthood is that your holiday dates are chosen for you by the Department of Education. Left to their own devices, few parents would spontaneously elect upon the dreary weeks of late October as the ideal season for a family holiday.
Yet we must make the most of what we are given, and so this year for mid-term break we booked ferries across the Irish Sea, and clamped the roof box to the top of our disheveled old seven-seater for an odyssey through Ireland, Wales and England, to visit family and friends and see the sights.
I did all the dad things before we left: checked the oil and tyre pressures, and packed the essentials for emergencies: jump leads, a first aid kit and a bottle of Powers. Storm Brian wreaked havoc with our ferry schedules and we had to leave home at 5 am to catch the rescheduled crossing. With the engine running we placed three dazed children in the car in their pyjamas and set out, sleep deprived, in to the eerily quiet pre-dawn roads.
We had barely pulled out of our driveway on this 1,500km expedition when our three-year-old, in whining tones, inevitably enquired, “are we nearly there yet?” There is a reason that doctors creating programmes to relax and de-stress people have not yet recommended a long car journeys with three small children.
Before long, sporadic squabbling began to erupt in the back seats, necessitating the first dose of “digital valium”. The kids were duly administered their tablet device. As this electronic remedy began to take effect, all three were soon staring blankly at screens in the back and a strange quiet enveloped the car, punctuated only by digital beeps and blips.
“This is it,” I said to my wife as the dawn broke grey, the sun attempted vainly to puncture the October gloom. My heart rate fell slightly, “we’re on holiday.” We gave thanks that it had, thus far, only been mildly traumatic.
Yet we soon got into the swing of life on the road. We caught the first ferry with ease and before long we were cruising through the majestic mountains of Snowdonia. Wales is familiar. It’s Wales alright, but it could easily be Kerry, Wicklow or Connemara – just with a higher concentration of rugby clubs. The houses and castles even are similar across the Irish Sea.
We stopped at Pembroke castle where the Irish-Welsh connections were made all the more evident. Gerald – the ancestor of the Fitzgeralds – had lived there in the 11th century. The kids love castles, but it was especially fascinating for them to think of an old family connection. Better yet, his wife Nest, also an ancestor, was a Welsh princess. No wonder Wales had felt so familiar.
There’s hard wisdom to be gained on the M4. There’s nothing like a British motorway journey to make you realise that nothing in life is certain. We are once again like ancient peoples, subject to the caprice of mysterious forces like lightning and thunder. For no reason at all, the whole motorway can grind to a halt without notice. Yet even across the congested Severn bridge, and on into England, there is a sense of continuity across the four old nations of these islands.
After a few days visiting cousins and castles via Dublin, Cork and London we set off homeward. Our last journey involved another 4.30 am start, a four-hour crossing and a five-hour drive. I’m sure I spent more time driving than sleeping on this ‘holiday’. Yet despite the sleep deprivation, many happy memories were made. The happiest moment of all for me personally came when the ‘holiday’ ended, and I collapsed back into my own bed, in my own house, safe in the knowledge that only the comparatively restful sanctuary of work lay in wait for me the next morning.