Situated on a hill overlooking the river, one block from the Montevideo golf course, and connected to the 26-storey Sheraton hotel, one can find Punta Carretas Shopping with its 180 shops, food hall and multi-cinema complex. It is the most up-market of Montevideo’s shopping centres. Once inside the austere external walls, there is little to differentiate this centre from any other American-style centre; the shops display most of the same global brands that one can find anywhere. But the language is a South American giveaway: almost exclusively Spanish with a smattering of Portuguese from Brazilian tourists, or occasionally English from Sheraton guests or cruise passengers in port for a few hours.
But this building has not always been a shopping centre. It was originally the notorious Carretas prison, built in 1910, when the area was well outside of the nucleus of Montevideo. In the era of the military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s, many of the captured members of the Tupamaros, the urban-guerrilla movement, were imprisoned there. In that same era, an estimated 14% of the Uruguayan population were forced into exile abroad.
In the years 1931, 1971 and 1972, there were three major escapes from the prison, using tunnels. In 1971, 106 prisoners escaped through a tunnel that ended in the living room of a neighbour’s house. One of those prisoners was José Mujica, who eventually ended up as President of Uruguay in 2010-2015. He was shot six times, captured four times and eventually released in 1985. With his austere lifestyle, refusing to live in the presidential palace, driving his own old battered Volkswagen and donation of 90% of his salary to charity, he became known as ‘the world’s humblest president’. In the photos one can see Mujica as he was the day he was released and today. Only the nose is recognizable.
After the end of the period of dictatorship in 1985, the prison was closed. Following a competition, the building and site were eventually sold to a developer, and in 1994 the shopping centre was opened. With its luxurious multi-storey apartments, desirable single family homes and restaurants, today the Punta Carretas area is one of the most sought-after addresses of Montevideo. Apart from the external walls of the shopping centre, there is nothing to reveal the area’s undesirable past.
Many of the ex-prisoners are still alive today and at least one of them escorts curious tourists around the building and explains how the prison used to be. For those ex-prisoners it must seem ironic that every day hordes of people, of their own will, enter the place from which they once struggled to escape.
One of the rising stars of Irish rugby, Stuart McCloskey plays in the centre for Ulster, and at the age of 23, has already been selected for Ireland this year, when Jared Payne was injured.
I have seen him play many times and have often wondered if he and I were related. My mother’s mother was a McCloskey from near Coleraine.
Stuart was included in the training camp for the 2016 South African tour, but was not included in the final selection. But I have no doubt that his turn will come.
Over the past few months I have been focussing on my Irish ancestry, with the invaluable help of a fellow amateur genealogist, Norman Calvin, from Coleraine. Norman has discovered that I am indeed related to Stuart McCloskey. We are 3rd cousins 1x removed. Our common ancestor was James McCloskey (1808-1890), my 2nd great grandfather, and the line of descent is as follows:
Belorado is a small village that lies between Logrõno and Burgos in northern Spain, on the pilgrim way to Santiago de Compostela. The location has apparently been inhabited since before Roman times.
On the way into Belorado we came across a sign stating that four hundred casualties of a local battle between local volunteers and the occupying army of Napoleon were buried beneath the ground on which we were standing.
Quite a sobering thought.
A little further on we came across the Albergue A Santiago and I took a room for the night.
Later, having a beer outside in the warmth of the evening sun, we chatted with two Frenchmen. They were of early retirement age and were on their fourth pilgrimage to Santiago. Walking from village to village for days and weeks on end can be quite addictive.
They told us of a sailor that they had recently met who had been involved in a shipwreck off Iceland many years previously. The sailor had sworn to the Virgin Mary that if he survived he would spend the rest of his life walking to Santiago de Compostela. He was subsequently saved and to date he had completed 25 pilgrimages, including one from Saint Petersburg in Russia.
It was not until later that I recalled having taken a photo in Logroño of a huge wall painting of an old man with body tattoos of the stamps of various Camino villages.
Was he the old sailor that the Frenchmen were describing?
One of our regular valley floor walks follows the river Aveyron to the north-east of Chamonix, as far as the furthest bridge and back along the other bank. The rapids are fed by the melting ice from Mer de Glace, the largest European glacier.
At regular intervals along the river are warnings to the public not to venture near the river bed, as the water level can rapidly change when water is released from the dam further upstream. When that happens the current through the rapids is so powerful that small rocks the size of a fist are spat into the air. Despite the warnings of the danger being in French, German, English and Italian, many people wandering on the riverbed or sunbathing on the rocks appear to believe that they are immortal.
Or perhaps just plain stupid.
At the upper end of the valley is a small subsistence farm, with herd of goats and their accompanying guard dogs. Their enclosure fencing is moved most days and it meanders up and down the valley, the goats consuming anything that is edible.
Initially the huge guard dogs used to growl and snarl if we got too close, but now they ignore us. Apparently they have got accustomed to both our smell and voices and no longer view us as a threat to their charges.
Near the farm is a small pool beside the road, host to a multitude of tiny tadpoles. They must have ‘hatched’ out in the last few days. It will be interesting to follow their life cycle.
And guarding the farm is a sleepy old Basset hound that has seen better days.
Old man Watton was a very old man, at least as I remember him when I was young. He was grizzled and grey and said very little. But he was so strong. In his hands the heavy hammers and pliers of his blacksmith’s trade were like a child’s toys.
When I close my eyes I can still recall the sound of the hammer striking iron, the huge black bellows that he operated with his foot, the intense heat from the coals and the fierce hissing when he dipped the red-hot metal in the water. I went to the forge may times as a child, usually delivering eggs to old Mrs Watton, sometimes taking a piece of metal thatmy father needed reshaped for the farm.
A typical country smithy
The forge was on the way from my parent’s farm towards Portrush, past the headmaster’s house and Carnalridge Primary School and just after the honeysuckle bush that my mother loved so much. When I was young she used to take me there of a warm summer evening to experience that heavenly scent. When the air was still, one could smell it from quite far away.
A honeysucle bush in full bloom
The smithy was at the end of a narrow lane. It overlooked the town and was not far, probably no more than ten minutes walk from our farm. On the right of the entrance was the tiny cottage of the Dallas family with their beautiful vegetable garden and opposite there was a spring, with a metal cup hanging from a hook. That water was so pure, so cold and refreshing. And at the end of the lane was the smithy.
But progress and modernization have marched on. The spring had been covered over and the lane turned into an asphalt road. The old Irish cottage of the Dallas family has been replaced by a tasteless modern bungalow and the vegetable garden is now a car park. The smithy has disappeared and the honeysuckle bush has long gone.
These days I know more people in the graveyard than in the street.
And sometimes I feel that it would be better never to return again, just to remember it as it was.
It was on this day – 8 July 1965, that I left Ireland and migrated to Canada. Like several million Irish before me, I set off to travel and make my fortune. I had just over £100 in my pocket and all my possessions fitted into a small suitcase, with plenty of room to spare. I was just eighteen and still quite ‘wet behind the ears’.
Since then I have managed to see a great part of the world, but there are still many places in which I would like to spend some time. I may need another fifty years of wandering.
As for my fortune, it is still a work in progress.
And apart from a small collection of books, my few possessions still fit in a small backpack.
I could never be described as a conspicuous consumer…
‘Eat, drink and love: the rest is not worth a fillip’ (Lord Byron)
The first time I came across that quotation was on a steamy summer’s early evening in a little Greek restaurant in London, in Soho, just down the street from the Palladium theater. The quote was incorporated in a large fresco of an idyllic Greek island scene. At the time I was insanely in love, but apart; she continued travelling around the US and I had to return to the UK to work. That quotation just about summed up my nascent attitude to life in that era.
Lord Byron (1788-1824)
After an early dinner, I went to the Palladium for a Manhattan Transfer concert and the next day I flew out to Nigeria to start a three month assignment with an multi-national oil company.
And today, sitting in the sun outside a bar in a little plaza in Leon, I came across that same quotation, and I recalled that night long ago. I don’t know if the restaurant still exists or if Manhattan Transfer still perform, and her path and mine only briefly crossed one more time. But I don’t believe that my attitude to life has changed much since that hot August night in 1978.