When the battle lines had been drawn a ripple of laughter broke out among the the groups of lads gathered on the playing fields at Lover’s Retreat. It echoed around the high trees that loomed over the banks of the Camowen river at the edge of the pitch. The teams were unintentionally split straight through the middle of Northern Ireland’s religious divide. It was reflective of the past and the present of a perpetually confusing country: together but still separated.
‘Hold on, we’re one down and yous have an extra.’ a voice from our team remarked.
‘Simon, you go with them.’ their captain replied, ‘You may as well be a fucking fenian.’
‘He’s right you know,’ Simon said as he turned and faced the other way. Now it was eleven against eleven.
Like all summers consigned to memory it felt blissfully hot. Lover’s Retreat is a stretch of land that banks the Camowen river, before it joins the Drumragh river in town to form the Strule and provide the town crest with a positive symbol of unity. If you watch the river long enough you are sure to see fish swimming valiantly upstream from time to time. In the right weather it’s as idyllic as the name suggests. That particular day the late afternoon sun split the sky and the Camowen sang to the side of us. The location was completely at odds with the combative and occasionally volatile football match that took place. The game was fierce, played with all the bravado of youth but ultimately meant nothing. It was designed to whittle away the hours of the day and to work up a thirst for the hours of the night.
Later that evening The Rory McConnell Show on BBC Radio 1 was broadcasting live from Molly Sweeney’s in Omagh. A few touring bands were performing for the occasion, something of a novelty for the town, and a cause for excitement for us aspiring musicians in the group.
The ‘Catholic’ team were resolutely dismantled that day. Time was called when breath was short and faces red. The teams headed to the goalposts, where they rifled through the small heap of bags for car keys, water bottles and cigarettes. Hands were shook, fags were lit and plans for the evening exchanged.
The three cars that carried our team’s players were parked around the corner from the fields in a lot speckled with sand and dust. It was early evening now and the sun was cooling, so no one was in any rush. At the tail end of our teenage years, no one had any cause to be rushing anywhere. We stood outside the cars discussing the game, wiping the sweat and dirt from our brows and offering up opinions on what went wrong. ‘They were way taller than us’ was the extent of my own tactical insight. I’ve never had much of a head for the game. Analysis was futile anyway.
‘Ach well. Next week we’ll get them,’ Darren (right midfield) said as he slumped into the driver seat of his ould fella’s car and started it up.
I was sitting in the passenger seat, bent over double, removing my brother’s borrowed football boots with some difficulty. When the key slid into the ignition the radio dial lit up and the car was filled with a blaring guitar riff. My heart thumped at my ribcage and the blood pulsed more intensely inside me than at any stage during the adrenaline fuelled football match.
‘That’s us,’ I searched for wherever Melly, the drummer (and centre forward), was standing. ‘That’s fucking us!’ I shouted.
It was our first radio play, and it was on The Rory McConnell Show. Darren turned the volume up until the dashboard panels rattled and the car hummed with the vibrations. The other drivers started their cars, tuned it and turned it up. Surround sound. We bounced off the trees, over the Camowen and back. The four of us laughed in disbelief – it had been so unexpected. The other lads were happy, but bemused by how much it meant to us. We were delirious with excitement.
I used to think that moment symbolized the beginning of a musical journey for us. The further age removes me from it, the more it seems like an ending. At the time I was a month shy of my twentieth birthday, playing music with my three best friends. The song that was played on the radio that day was the first proper song I’d written, called Don’t Mind The Weather. It was a short indie-pop song about disillusionment with small town life. Lyrically, it was very naive but musically it was executed confidently by four friends with nothing to lose. That moment galvanized us and made us determined to build on that small achievement. We did so with varying degrees of success in the times that followed.
I wouldn’t change anything that happened in the following five years, but after that radio play, it became a little less about having fun and little more about ‘making it’. We lost some of our carefree spirit. We became four more fish trying to swim upstream. Michael McCullagh (Meb Jon Sol)
Photo by Matthew Patton.
Download ‘Don’t Mind The Weather’ by Colenso Parade right here