We hopped in the car, just the two of us. Just the two of us and neither would ever admit it out loud but there wasn’t a seat in the world we’d rather occupy. His was the driver’s, mine was beside him with the ‘Irish News’ down at my feet and my kitbag slung into the back.
Excitement simmered beneath the calm surface on that cold Saturday morning. Excitement because we were heading off on a wild adventure, father and son. We were coming from the North. A most unlikely of journeys down to the bottom of the country awaited, to a place called Cork that may as well have been the French Alps or a Greek island for all that I knew it. Visions of people and characters I associated with Cork - inevitably shaped by my obsession with sport - flashed through my mind. Thoughts of Seán Óg Ó hAilpín bursting through a tackle, helmet-less and warrior-like, mingled with faintly remembered pictures of Roy Keane plunging into a tackle or snarling at Alan Shearer. Cork was an unfamiliar entity, a slightly mysterious and exciting prospect that rose ahead in my imagination.
It was the day of the 2010 All-Ireland schools’ cross-country championships, to be staged at Cork I.T., and I was sixteen years of age but mostly shaped by a naivety borne from utter dedication to training and school. Mornings were spent at Castlereagh Leisure Centre, evenings on the roads or pitches around where I lived. What I was training for, perhaps even I didn’t know. A vague notion of bettering myself at Gaelic football, perhaps, or perhaps just a desire to explore the depths of my physical and mental potential.
Either way, it somehow ended up with a surprise qualification out of the Down district cross-country heats and then, despite a rampant nose-bleed in the Ulsters, a narrowly accomplished place in the All-Ireland race. All of a sudden, I was known in my school as ‘the runner’ and that alone made me grow an extra foot. As for the feeling of telling my father that I would be representing my school, his old school, in Cork...to attempt to measure that feeling would be as pointless as trying to catch rain with your bare hands.
So we journeyed down to Cork, one sport-mad Belfast man and his son, who was thoroughly infected by the same bug. We stopped off somewhere along the way for a cup of tea and enjoyed the southern lilt that surrounded us, joking about how out of place we sounded and each silently cherishing every second of it.
Arriving in Cork with a vague Google Maps printout, two Nokia phones and an Irishman’s stubborn refusal to ask for directions, we eventually resigned ourselves to pitch up at a petrol station where we ventured inside to enquire as to where we were going. Now, my father had, with some innate human understanding, managed on family holidays to return to the car with solid directions from farmers in the middle of the French countryside and from old shopkeepers in tiny Spanish villages. But neither of those challenges proved half as difficult as our first attempts to comprehend the Cork accent. It came at us in a kind of high-pitched machine gun chatter, blinding the senses briefly and causing us to lose all co-ordination before a neutral middle ground was sourced and both parties came to an understanding.
What remains of the day, and our trip to the All-Ireland schools cross-country championships in Cork? There is the shaky camera footage of the start of the race, where the herd of boys thunders past, myself at the back of the pack, fighting to hold on to the nerves and the adrenaline coursing up through my legs and into my chest. There is my father’s voice coming through the footage, urging me on. There is the memory of coming in somewhere in the forties, falling over with exhaustion at the finish line and pretending not to look for my father while my eyes search the stand.
There is the journey back home, tired and proud, my father telling me about this wonderful young athlete in the race before me called Ciara Mageean, who won the Senior Girls race and would surely go on to great things in the sport.
There is the creeping into the dark house, everyone else asleep, throwing my dirty kit into the wash and thanking my father before going up to collapse into bed. There is the moment, just before I close my eyes, that I think of the day, of the people I met, of our trip to Cork.
There is the storing in my heart of a precious memory that will live with me forever, a memory that will come back to me any time I return to Cork, a memory that lifts me up and fills me with warmth, happiness, pride and hope.