It was an emotional ‘homecoming’ for one American woman who returned to Derry this week for the first time in more than fifty years.
Heather Gillespie was the oldest of four children living in Newport, Rhode Island, in the United States, when, in 1957, her father, a US Navyman, was told his next duty station was to be the US navy base in Derry.
Along with her parents, Owen and Gloria, and her brother and two sisters, a seven year-old Heather was to make Derry her home for the next four years - “some of the happiest days of my life,” as she recalled this week during her stay in the city.
Heather, known as Doris as a child, says she “loved everything about Ireland - from the warm-hearted people to the beautiful countryside.”
“Growing up in Derry between the ages of 7 and 12 - my formative years - was an amazing experience,” she says.
“We just had the best time. We were made to feel so welcome and everyone was so kind. It’s probably because of this that, in my mind, I will always consider Derry to be my home.”
Over the past few days, the former Model Primary School pupil has been visiting some of her old Derry haunts - including the family’s first home at Abercorn Road, the dairy farm at Gorticross where they moved to next and, of course, the now long-gone US Navy base at Limavady Road.
Naturally enough, after 52 years, it has been a bit of an emotional rollercoaster for Heather.
“My husband, Mike [Hardison], and I called at the house on Abercorn Road and the people now living there very kindly invited us inside,” she says. “I can’t tell you what it was like. Everything just came flooding back. The memories were so vivid.”
Heather and Mike also travelled to Gorticross where the Gillespies lived for a time during the late 1950s.
“The farmhouse is still there,” she recalled. “It’s located in the middle of beautiful countryside and I can recall cycling round those quiet roads with my parents and my brother and sisters.”
Heather has kept some memorabilia from her time in Derry, including an autograph book which was signed by some of her school friends at the Model.
The names include Rosemary Adams, of Marlborough Street, Anne Cadden, of Northland Road, Dorothy Thompson, of Aberfoyle Crescent and Helen Jackson, from Talbot Park.
“I also kept three report cards from my time at the Model School, a piano report from the local music examinations and loads of photographs my dad took. I’m so glad I still have this stuff - it’s a unique reminder of such wonderful times in Ireland.”
When the Gillespies moved back to the United States in 1961, it was, says Heather, a “total culture shock.”
“I was so homesick for Ireland. All we talked about was Derry. At school, people couldn’t understand us when we spoke as we’d picked up a brogue! It was such a big change.”
Heather, a mother of one, now lives in North Carolina, but says Derry still feels like home.
“These past few days have been so rewarding,” she says. “Yes, there’s always the reality of things not being how I remembered them but, all in all, it’s been fantastic. I’m so glad we came back.”