Aged 15, stuck in an all girls’ secondary school, I couldn’t wait for the day of our GCSE Geography
Field Trip. The craic. That’s all we were interested in. Getting into a river was a rare thing for Our
Lady’s ladies, and a wild opportunity for the culchies to have a good laugh at us townies in our new
colour co-ordinated wellies.
The build up to the field trip was measured – hypotheses were made about flow and silt and wildlife
and river speeds and all those other geography-key words that I forget now. Measuring its velocity
was less thrilling on paper and not exactly the real reason why I wanted to get into the river. I was
just dying for a day out of school and a good splash.
The Ballinderry River is/was my local river, up in Tyrone. Its source starts up beyond Creggan and it
flows downstream through Cookstown, my hometown, into Lough Neagh. (Crikey, it’s just occurred
to me that this is an Irish competition . I really don’t want to check the rules but suffice to say that I
hope my river qualifies as an Irish river. See – everything IS political these days!)
Until my river field trip, I never had any association with my local river in all my first 15 years of
maturity, until Mrs. McMaugh, my stern Geography teacher changed all that. (Thank you Mrs.
McMaugh, I wish now I had stayed on to do A’Level Geography!)
Ashamedly, I chose Geography for GCSE not because I had a real grá for it, but more because it was
the lesser of the other 3 subject evils on the option sheet. But my assignment on the Ballinderry
River turned the tide. It was an epic journey. I immersed myself entirely, not so much in a heroic,
sexy, Odysseus way. More drenched rat style. It was a natural, spontaneous trigger of passion. For
the first time in my school career, this didn’t feel like study. It felt like fun. How all education should
really feel, in my humble teacher and mum opinion.
My research skills were probably first kicked into action during that project. I remember going to see
a man by the name of Alan Kee who lived in a big fancy house outside the town. He had written lots
on the Ballinderry River and is to this day still heavily involved in The Rivers Trust. His wife, Libby
taught me Speech and Drama, so it felt weird going into their home and interviewing him about the
Ballinderry River. They were lovely people. They invited my Dad in too and gave us tea and biscuits
and a book, which I don’t even know if I ever returned(!). My father drove me around half the
country that June in our battered old red-going-orange Toyota Corolla, assisting me in my
investigation to get to the ‘bottom’ of the Ballinderry River.
I was so dedicated and determined to do the best project ever, I even convinced my friend Claire, a
very cool kid in my class to get involved and go the extra mile for our project. We went more than
the extra mile. We went on our own field trips up to the river’s source in the wilds of Creggan, where
Claire got her first squelch of the soggy peat bogs of Tyrone and the Sperrin’s. We stayed out in my
Granny’s in Kildress because she told me her stream was a tributary of the river – and I was
convinced that if we had extra inside information like this, and extra, never-before-seen pictures of
hidden tributaries, we would surely get As.
The year must have been 1989 or 1990. The summer was gorgeous. The haystacks were gold. The
river was perfect. Like all my memories, everything was perfect when I wax nostalgia. The water was
skinny and shallow upstream, barely visible from a distance, but the joy at finding that trickle made
me wonder at the how’s and whys of a river’s emergence. The fatness of the river down by the
Glenavon Hotel, where the river flows through Cookstown reminds me of the Dodder. I went down
to that spot by the hotel in February, before lockdown and nearly got swept away, the current was
so strong.
Lots of people have asked how come I care so much about the Poddle beside me here in Kimmage,
Dublin. ‘Sure, it’s hardly visible.’ ‘It’s a bit of an auld drain, is it not?’ ‘Who’s going to care about a
wee trickle of water like that in a big city like Dublin?’ These are just some of the things I’ve been
told or asked. I guess I never realised the importance of that Ballinderry Project until lately. Its
impact lay dormant in my blood. But the cold feeling of flowing water never goes away. Once you
wade in, the river seeps into your bones, your bloodstream, your heart. And it rises and bursts open
again when you least expect it.