It was August 1966. Aged 17, I had just passed my driving test. It was fortunate that I had passed, as my sister had arranged this holiday in Ireland for me to practice my driving in a relaxed environment. Had I failed, and it was touch and go, she would have had to do all the driving herself. I recall that in the theory test (not a separate exam as it is today, just a few questions as I sat in the driving seat of the car) I got none of the questions about the speed and the car’s stopping distance correct. Luckily the practical part of the exam was OK, which seemed to satisfy the examiner. He told me to go home and study the Highway Code for this information on stopping distances, which of course I did not do. I still could not tell you how slowly you must be travelling to stop within x number of yards. I have spent a lifetime of fairly safe driving, ending over 40 years with a clean licence, without ever learning these important facts. Although the speed question would still include miles per hour, the stopping distance would now be expressed in metres; where else could we go so many decades mixing imperial with metric measures with scarcely a thought? This peculiar mishmash of measurements has been a feature of British life for years. Will we ever go over to kilometres I wonder?
But back to the beginning of August, 1966; we drove across England and Wales from Norfolk to Fishguard in Pembrokeshire. I can remember nothing of this part of our holiday. Now you can only go to Rosslare from Fishguard, but in 1966 you could also take a ferry to Cork. The vessel, the S. S. Innisfallen, had been built in 1948 and was sold by B & I Ferries in 1967. She was bought by Greek shipping company and broken up in 1985. Because this was a much longer journey than Fishguard to Rosslare, it involved an overnight passage and a cabin. It was a rough crossing and a very uncomfortable night; the sort of night when you fear not that you might die, but that you might live. It was my first experience of real seasickness, but the minute it was over and you entered calmer waters you immediately felt fine and wondered what all the fuss had been about.
The car we took (and the car I had taken my test on) was my Fiat 500. This had very generously been passed on to me by my sister Tiggie for my 17th birthday. The car was exactly like the one in the photo, except that this is a model of course. It was the same ivory colour, had a sun roof and the same front opening doors. We had to wait while it was unloaded at Cork; there was no roll-on roll-off ferry service in 1966, so it had to be craned out of the hold. Then it was off round the coast of Western Ireland. I do not have to tell you how long ago this was, and so you must forgive me if my memory is less than perfect. Nevertheless I remember our visit to Blarney Castle. The kissing of the Blarney Stone involves quite a stretch across a void and I declined to attempt it.
The poverty of the ordinary Irish was very noticeable. Never had beggars approach me so blatantly before. There had been the occasional itinerant (tramp) who would call on my mother ‘for a cup of tea’, but nothing like the Irish children who would openly beg for pennies as we walked down the street. The Irish pounds, shillings and pence were pegged to the British coinage, and British coins were freely accepted in Ireland, although the reverse was not the case.
After visiting Limerick we went further north to experience an intimate evening of Irish culture (mostly folksongs) before we headed back to Cobh and Cork. It is funny how little inconsequential things stick in one’s mind; I particularly remember how the water came out of the taps at our hotel in Cobh with lumps of peat in it! Also at the hotel was a lifebelt from the Lusitania hanging on the wall. This was the liner which was torpedoed off Cobh in the First World War.
After a fortnight it was nearly time to make the passage back to England; the crossing was as smooth as the outward crossing had been rough. I have one more memory of my holiday in Ireland; although this was several years before the start of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the authorities in Eire were jumpy about the possibility of terrorism. ‘Have you brought any sporting guns with you?’ asked the customs officer. My sister obviously thought this was a question about our sporting intentions rather than the possibility of importing an arsenal of weapons into the Republic. ‘No,’ she replied, ‘ but we have got a fishing rod.’