“Do you ever miss the North?” the lady asked at the dinner at the weekend.
“I do”, I said, “I miss the edge”.
“You mean the people in south Dublin are too nice?”
“Exactly,” I said.
I forgot about the generosity and hospitality of the people in the North, I miss that as well.
One Monday three years ago I got a telephone call from someone I hadn’t seen for at least eight years, a man who had lived in one of the country parishes where I had been Rector. They were never really parishioners, but his wife had suffered a massive stroke in 1991 and I had got to know them through visiting her week by week during her long months in hospital. The lady had died the previous weekend and the man wanted to know if I would come and take her funeral in Belfast crematorium on the Wednesday morning. They had moved to Co Antrim and had no connection with any church and didn’t know any other clergy.
I could hardly refuse, and left here at 7.00 on the Wednesday morning, getting to the crematorium in Belfast at 10.00, in good time for the service at 11.00. Plenty of time to go to the crematorium coffee shop and read my ‘Irish Times’, I thought. It was then I realised that I had no Sterling cash. I went to the coffee shop and asked if I could pay with my Sterling Debit Card. The woman in the shop said she couldn’t take plastic, but what was it I wanted. ‘A cup of tea’, I said, ‘but I have no way of paying for it’. This was no problem to her; I could have it for nothing. Did I want something to eat? I didn’t want to push my luck, being more than happy with my pot of tea.
After the service the man whose wife had died asked me if I would join him and his family for lunch in Newtownabbey. I said that I really wanted to be back in Dublin before four o’clock. At which point a lady from Downpatrick said I should at least join her in the coffee shop for a cup of tea, again I said I had no money. Again this wasn’t a problem – she bought tea and scones and pancakes.
The North may have many problems, but welcome and hospitality for strangers is not one of them. At home in Somerset such a response would have been unthinkable, the best response there would have been a suggestion as to where the nearest cashtill might be in order that I could pay for my purchases. Nor, I suspect, are there many places in Dublin where you would meet such hospitality.
In losing its bad things, I hope the North doesn’t lose its good things.