Going beyond the bridge in Northern Ireland

Grow Wild visits Armoy, in Northern Ireland where one man is determined to bring the community together going beyond building bridges, to create a beautiful shared space for both plants and people…

“When I was 18 and I had hair 'The Troubles' here in Northern Ireland started. I’m coming 68 now and I have no hair, but we’re still talking in terms of us and them. They’re saying we need to build bridges, but we need to go beyond the bridge,” Gerry the leader of Beyond the Bridge, a Grow Wild funded project in Armoy, Northern Ireland tells me, welcoming me to Tea at Tilly’s, the local cafe where meetings usually start over a strong cup of coffee.

“We’re one of the few villages in the whole country that’s 50/50 [Catholics and Protestants],” Gerry continues, “and we’ve managed to maintain that, but we don’t want your space and my space anymore, we want our space.”

Gerry sows seeds with some local school children Gerry is the group's catalyst and his energy is infectious. “Tell her about the great work you’ve been doing, down at the garden centre in Ballycastle, Pádraig” he says, encouraging Pádraig to speak up about his achievements at Greenlight Gateway, a charity that provides meaningful employment experiences for people with a learning disability, to enhance and develop their self-confidence, skills and talents.

Gerry with his arm around PodrikPádraig grins at me but says nothing.

“He goes down there and does great work, then he comes back up here and tells us what to do, don’t you Pádraig?” prompts Gerry.

“Yeah, I do, I tell them what to do,” Pádraig says grinning. 

“And Eddie here,” Gerry says, gesturing to an older man in a baseball cap covered in motorcycle badges, which Eddie later tells me are from his collection of 500 in total, “Eddie tries to keep me right and I keep him right… And Pádraig here, he keeps us both right.” Gerry adds as everyone laughs.

We take a walk up to the site that the group is transforming into a community garden, crossing a bridge that Gerry says is over 300 years old. "It used to separate us - at one time or another, different baronies; different parishes; different Councils - different communities. Now we’re going beyond the bridge,” he says proudly “to bring the community together.”

Martin, one of the other men in the group who hasn’t said much yet, shares his story with me as we watch the others having their photographs taken. “I’ve always liked gardening. Ever since I was 14,” he says, “I lost me da when I was 14, it sent me off the rails. I had a problem with the drink, but I’ve been sober nearly 3-4 years now. I know if I drink again I’ll either end up in trouble or dead.

I hear from Gerry that "Martin is a good man" and has been very active in helping to clear the area for planting.

“It will make a big difference for people in the area,” Martin says, looking out over the space beyond the bridge. “They’ve got sod all to do, they’re depressed, lonely - even just to be able to sit here, to get out the house.” He says.

Eddie and Podrik raking I ask Gerry how he’s gone about bringing everyone together for the project.

“We have to connect, which usually starts with a cup of coffee at Tilly’s,” he says smiling, “We all have this basic need to belong and often when people have drug or drink problems, or they’re socially isolated, they don’t feel they belong. So it’s step by step.

“We all have a desire to try and make the world a better place and we have to go out of our way to make that happen. You experience compassion when you take care of the environment and it gives you hope on your own journey through life.”

Gerry with his arm around EddieNever missing an opportunity to big up his comrades, Gerry places his arm around Eddie’s shoulder, “Eddie here cuts all this grass with a tiny £300 mower.” He says.

“I do. I do all this grass that you can see there,” Eddie says proudly.

“And tell her what you do to the grass,” Gerry says mischief playing across his face. “Tell her why you put whiskey on it.” He laughs.  

Eddie starts to chuckle, and I sense I’m being let in on an in-joke. “Do you want to know why I pour whiskey on the grass?” Eddie asks smiling at me. “It makes it come up half cut.” The two of them burst into laughter and it takes me a moment to realise ‘half cut’ is another term for drunk.

“Have you heard of the song ‘Lovely Armoy’?” Gerry asks me, and I feel like our site visit has merged into a sort of stand-up show, but I’m not complaining. I barely have the chance to reply and Gerry bursts into song. Podrik stops raking and joins in, the two of them merrily singing along, arms around each other’s shoulders.

“Join here my kind friends and relations,” they sing “I am going to bid you farewell. I am bound for a far distant nation, no longer in Armoy to dwell. I am leaving that sweet little village wherein I was raised as a boy. And now for to leave you it grieves me. I’ll be far from you lovely Armoy.”

As they sing I feel moved by how much pride Gerry has, not only in Armoy, but in what he is creating here with the other men – a community garden and a connection with each other and their space. 

Gerry and the group pose for a photo See what Beyond the Bridge is up to on their community profile page.