On the moon?

On a balmy airless night in July 1969 I sit with my Grandmother on the edge of a concrete water tank looking up at the moon; the crew of Apollo 11 are on their way home.

Granny Davis and my sister Elaine circa 1965.

My Grandmother, Annie Davis (1889-1978) was born Annie Elizabeth Gillmor in post-famine County Leitrim, the eldest of eight children. As a young woman she read the poetry of Longfellow, The Romantic Poets and later the War Poets; favourites she copied in her notebook and included the lyrics of Stanley Kirkby’s 1915 song “Somewhere in France.” As the eldest she helped raise her younger siblings in a family with strong Victorian and religious values; a family that expected advancement for their children, primarily by marriage for their three daughters. She carried a sense of responsibility for her siblings, supporting them where she could, and for the culture and values of her shrinking Protestant community.

I am her first grandchild.  When Apollo 11 lifts off to the Moon I am 17, going into my final years at grammar school, the A-level years; dreaming of being an airline pilot, a head full of rock songs and riffs; playing in a small band, in a garage mostly.

We travel to Larkfield on the 12th of July, the start of the Twelfth holidays, avoiding the traffic snarls around main Orange demonstrations. Along the route my father sings a verse or two of “The Sash” to the accompaniment of nearby pipe band.

The sun shines all summer; the hay is fresh and sweet smelling, made without rain and worry. A Sunday afternoon trip to Bundoran is a teenage heaven; the base beats of “Mony Mony” and “Baby Come Back”, drive out above the lights in the packed arcade; girls in short skirts lounge in the summer heat.

News filters through of escalating conflict since the 12th of July; the first deaths of the Troubles, riots in Derry and Belfast, families fleeing their homes in fear.

I follow the progress of Apollo 11 from Cape Canaveral to the Moon and back. RTE’s daily coverage and Kevin O’Kelly’s commentary taking me to the heart of it; like millions across the world awestruck by images of spacemen at a human frontier. The scratchy voices and broken fuzzy images adds to the drama. I’m rolling with the orbiter, weightless at the thought of it, falling for the managed presentations, mesmerised by its magic.

Granny Davis sitting at the water tank circa 1955.

Late one evening after the Apollo 11 programme ends Granny asks me to go with her to fetch water; the large kettle and pot on the range are all but empty. There is no indoor plumbing; drinking water comes from the well below in the meadow, the rest is drawn from a large open concrete storage tank at the top of the yard fed from a distant spring. We take two buckets apiece. Granny is now 80 has had osteoporosis for years; she gets smaller each time we visit. The moon, nearly full, lights the farmyard and surrounding landscape. We walk the 25 yards up to the tank, our buckets clinking, breathing in the warm air of a long summer dusk.

Do ye hear that? She asks. Listen!

I hear it, faint in the distance, a cuckoo, soft and velvety as the evening.

I pull out the wooden stopper from a pipe protruding from the tank and fill the buckets from the spout of water; Granny’s I only half fill. She sits on the edge of a small tank where the cattle drink, and when I finish, I sit down beside her.

The beauty of God’s world. she says with a sigh, as our gaze is drawn to the sky.

You’re enjoying it? The Moon on TV? She asks me after a time.

I am. It’s a great adventure.

Well, she replies dryly, Whatever I’ve seen on that box in there, I don’t believe they’re up the there.

And with that she picks up her buckets and walks towards the farmhouse.

As the end of the holidays approach and our return to Ballymena is imminent, the news brings word that violence continues to spiral. There is widespread sectarian rioting; British troops are on the streets of Belfast and Derry, taking control from the Stormont Government.  At Boggaun there is an undertow of tension as we think about getting home.


1.  Stanley Kirkby “Somewhere in France”, 1915 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q96UruVGIT4

2.  “Mony Mony” by Tommy James and the Shandells, 1968 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pkMgs3lFwkQ

 3.  “Baby Come Back” by the Equals, 1968 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yPVRzKCWlGI

4. For a summary of events on the island of Ireland in 1969 see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1969_in_Ireland

5.  Samuel Devenny, who had been severely beaten by the RUC in his home in April 1969 subsequently died on 17th July, becoming the first victim of the TheTroubles. Francis McCloskey (aged 67) died one day after being hit on the head with a baton by a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) during street disturbances in Dungiven, County Derry, on July 14th.

6. For an alternative view on the Moon landing here’s a link to Gill Scott Herron’s “Whitey’s on the Moon.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=goh2x_G0ct4

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