Our remarkable summer
Day after day, week after week, the sun shone relentlessly across Northern Ireland. Two writers reflect on what was a lovely time.
Alex Kane: ‘We had picnics in the park and family gatherings in the garden’
I remember the long, hot, dry summer of 1976. Well, to be honest, I don't remember it in great detail. I was still a student, with a part-time job, and most of my spare time seemed to involve lying around Botanic Gardens in the early evening and then heading off to what seemed to be a never-ending cycle of house parties.
It was the era before mobiles, laptops and Kindles, when people, often complete strangers, talked to each other as they lazed in the sun. And if a football appeared then sides were formed and people just had fun.
It was so hot and dry that the Government rushed through the Drought Act and appointed a Minister for Drought in late August - followed, days later, by thunderstorms and the wettest September and October in years.
It was also the summer of some of my favourite hits (like most young people back then we still gathered round the TV on a Thursday evening for Top of the Pops): Jolene by Dolly Parton, Queen's You're My Best Friend, Elton John and Kiki Dee's Don't Go Breaking My Heart and the always wonderful Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel's version of Here Comes The Sun. I still sing along when I hear them played and think fondly of those days.
It was a carefree three months of 'chilling' (a word nobody ever used back then, of course) and of having no particular responsibilities. Belfast remained a difficult, troublesome, often unsafe place, but it was also the summer of the first Peace People rally and the faint possibility that something better was on the horizon.
For me, the biggest difference between then and now is that I have responsibilities. There's no bohemian lifestyle or waking when you feel like it when you've a clock to watch and children to keep amused. There's no wandering off to house parties and 'crashing' on a couch when you're too tipsy to walk home or don't have enough for a taxi. Anyway, hangovers take much longer to recover from when you're older.
As it happens, I'm not convinced that people really are nicer when the weather is good, yet it certainly seems like it.
I think the big difference is that people talk to each other when they feel relaxed, and good weather relaxes us. Neighbours talk to each other, rather than merely nod. We smile more when we pass each other on the streets. We're more willing to remove the earphones and put the mobiles in the back pocket. In other words, we want to live in the moment because we're not rushing inside.
We had two birthday picnics in the park this summer. Two of the nicest parties I can remember. We had family gatherings in our gardens, spending hours chatting and watching the children play. And it's astonishing the number of times I heard people say something like, "Isn't it wonderful to see the kids outside rather than stuck inside in front of one screen or another?".
We gave Lilah-Liberty a book about science experiments for children - many of which involved being outside - and she had a fabulous time. Okay, the decking was covered in all sorts of concoctions and debris and the cat escaped being painted a couple of times, but she had fun. She laughed. She bubbled. And she talked to us incessantly. Not some nonsense about a computer game or TV cartoon, but about living in her own particular moment.
The World Cup - and I have no particular interest in football - also changed the mood this summer. People talked about it. There was that sense of a whole country gathering to watch the same sporting event and of coming away happy. And even people like me watched the matches and got caught up in the dream that something was, in fact, 'coming home'.
It was also the baby's first summer. He's just turned one and there was going to be far too much stress involved in taking him on holiday - a holidaying baby requires far more luggage than the entire family combined. But he spent most of the time outside, whitewashed in sun-cream and rolling around in grass or learning to stand upright on the trampoline as Lilah jumped around him. If there is a better, more uplifting sound than that of a baby hooting in laughter, I have yet to hear it.
Talking together and playing together are hugely important for families. We don't do enough of it. We tend to retreat into our own separate worlds, all in the same place perhaps, yet scattered around it rather than together.
I loved this summer (although I could have done without George Ezra's Shotgun being played every five minutes): I loved being outside; I loved the relaxed atmosphere; I loved the laughter everywhere; I loved the pleasantness; I loved the noise of people interacting rather than the noise of technology. Maybe the best tribute to the summer of 2018 is this: I'm actually sorry to see the children return to school. These have been great days.
Karen Ireland: 'I knew it was going to be a precious time... exams and change were on the horizon'
I will always look back on summer 2018 as a summer of two halves. The first was one of long, sunny days filled with family fun. The second was the end of August, which heralded in our household a stressed time of exam results followed by huge, life-affirming decision-making about the future.
The beginning of the summer, when the good weather first made its appearance, was a busy time - my eldest son, Jesse (18), was sitting his A-levels and my second eldest, Korey (16), was sitting his GCSEs at the same time.
To encourage the pair of them to take breaks from their study, we tried to have family barbecues and tea in the garden as often as possible. I also took them out for lunches and the odd milkshake or coffee - when they could fit me in between friends and study.
Following their exams, both boys went off travelling; Jesse headed off to the Greek island of Zante on a post-A-level break with a group of friends, and Korey went to a music festival in Spain.
Mum was left at home to work to fund their travels and look after their younger brother, Teo (14). When I say 'look after', the good weather meant I didn't have the usual summer of choruses of 'I'm bored'. While I was working, Teo found it easy to keep himself entertained by spending his summer days out and about with his friends. Given the fact the World Cup was taking place, football featured high on the agenda.
I was delighted as the PlayStation was relegated to a night-time activity and he spent most of his days outside in the fresh air.
But a strange thing happened too - I couldn't help but notice how the days seemed to last longer while the weather was so good. That strong sunshine that never flickered but stretched on into the evenings brought with it a sense of timelessness. If time wasn't suspended, it certainly was slowed down, so I found I could finish work, get some work done around the house and still feel like heading out for a long walk or going shopping.
Normally I never feel like going out to see a movie during the working week but, spurred on by some sense of being on holiday, even when I wasn't, I made trips to the cinema - including twice to see Mamma Mia Here We Go Again, which was without a doubt one of the highlights of my summer.
In a throwback to my own teenage days, I've blasted out the soundtrack repeatedly while doing tedious chores around the house.
I also managed to see Nuala McKeever's amazing one-woman show, In the Window. at the Lyric. She gives a wonderful performance.
While the boys were away on their travels, I had some adult time and a couple of long weekend breaks, including some time in Belfast over my birthday and a visit to Dublin, somewhere I hadn't been in years.
It was great to be able to do a couple of city breaks and enjoy fabulous weather and exploring on my own doorstep with my other half.
In Belfast we shopped and visited many of the beer gardens in the local hostelries, enjoying cocktails and a few G&Ts. We also fitted in a visit to the fabulous new Grand Central Hotel.
And we took time to enjoy the increasing number of buskers on the streets of the city, standing in the sunshine and enjoying the great variety of music on offer. No rush - nowhere to be and just enjoying the moment. How different from how we'd hurry past them in the colder, wet days of winter.
In Dublin, too, we sauntered slowly along Grafton Street, taking in the sights and sounds before having a long, leisurely pub lunch complete with traditional music. The sun continued to beat down and we continued to people watch, idling over a frozen yogurt at St Stephen's Green.
The extraordinary extended period of good weather meant the summer seemed to last longer than ever - and we took full advantage of it. We packed more in, but we also seemed to make more time for each other - and got on better. Everyone was in a good mood, and I found that despite working long hours I still got to spend quality time with friends and family and do fun stuff, including things I never thought I'd do. For example, one adventure saw us try out the new Thunder Park in Bangor, a venue for skateboard, scooter and stunt bike activities.
The boys had a blast and enjoyed trying out their stunts in the various settings and watching the experts do backflips into foam pits.
Snapshots of this summer? Lots of ice cream. Trips to McDonald's when there was no time to cook as we were heading out. Family meals eaten outside in the garden, everyone more relaxed, the old routines falling away.
With hindsight, I think I knew all along this was a precious summer as the end of August would bring with it change of some description. The sun and blue skies and heat simply embellished that feeling - everything felt timeless, but time would inevitably bring changes in the end.
And so it was in the form of those exam results. Ah yes, the A-levels and GCSEs, how long ago those days of swotting now seemed. In the run-up to results day, I couldn't help but fret about both sets.
Jesse's results arrived first, in the middle of August. As soon as I heard his alarm go off as I was getting up for work at 7am, I knew the time had come. There was nothing more we could do now but log on and find out how he had done. I was almost sick with nerves.
Thankfully, it was good news, with an email from Queen's telling him he had been accepted on his course of choice - film studies - which meant he had got the grades he required.
I have to admit to being a bit of an emotional wreck. I was so proud of him and I cried tears of joy and pride all day.
One very short week later and it was time for another sleepless night before Korey got his GCSE results. Another early start as we headed to school to get the all-important envelope.
I sat helpless in the car waiting on him to return - with whatever lay in store. Thankfully, it was good news again and he did really well.
He had a dilemma of whether to go back to school and take the traditional route of A-levels or to follow his plan to go to technical college and study media studies.
A week later, and after some tears and talks (both from me), he finally decided to go to Belfast Met and do creative media, TV and film.
So, two of my boys are embarking on different stages of their lives and the dynamic of the family home is changing.
How glad I am that we have had this remarkable summer to create memories that all of us will never forget.