Forty nine years ago Isobel Cassidy turned to her three closest friends and said “Imagine, one day, years from now, we all meet up again in The Diamond.”
Just 19 at the time, Isobel was getting ready to leave Derry to start a new life in Detroit with her new husband, a GI who had been stationed at the US Army Base at Lisahally, and she was unsure she would ever see her friends again.
But this week, in an emotional reunion, Isobel and her four friends came face to face again for the first time in 49 years and spent six hours reminiscing about their teenage years, the men who would take them away from their beloved Derry and their journeys back home.
Isobel, who worked in a factory on Society Street had become friends with Suzanne McIntyre, Sally Casey and Daphne Mullan who all worked in McColgan’s shop on Bishop Street - where Cafe Artisan now is.
“Isobel would come in and tell us all the news,” Sally said. “She had all the gossip for us while we worked behind the counter at McColgans.”
“McColgans was the kind of shop which sold everything. It was the shop everyone in Derry went to,” Suzanne explained. “And there was a real sense of community about the place. We had the same customers coming in week in and week out - so you got to know everyone.”
The girls who were all in their late teens said they enjoyed the banter which went with working in the shop and when the evening came about they would go to the dancehalls at the Corinthian, Borderlands and the Embassy where they would dance the night away.
The evenings, they said, generally started off in Suzanne’s house in Garden City - where there was always plenty of music to be enjoyed. The sister of well known Derry jazz musician Gay McIntyre, Suzanne, said she grew up surrounded by music. “Sometimes,” she laughed, “there was a bit too much of it. Gay of course would be playing his jazz and my father, Willy McIntyre was a classical violinist and would be playing his music.
“At times I longed for a bit of peace!”.
As the girls set out and about on their nights out in the dance-halls they all, apart from Sally, fell for American GIs. Young and excited about their new lives, each of the women say they did not realise how hard it would be to leave their native Derry.
Isobel was only 19 when she married Len Franz and moved to Detroit. At around the same time Daphne was falling for Pat Partridge and she left her home behind to move to Maine. Suzanne would leave behind the musical madness of her home in Garden City to marry Bruce Pearson and move to Utah. Only Sally would stay behind and marry a Derry man - Pat Houston.
The ladies who left Derry behind said in hindsight they had been naive about the big move. “Why I didn’t think it would be hard, is beyond me,” Suzanne said, “But I was so very miserably homesick.”
Daphne agreed: “Looking back on it we were very young but I never realised how hard the homesickness would be. It was truly awful even though I was really welcomed into my new family, I still missed home.
“I don’t know how any of us thought it would be easy. We were all so attached to our mammies and daddies,” Daphne said. “It was like a part of me had been ripped away.”
“It was just a completely different way of life,” Isobel said. “When I married my husband he told me his father worked in the city. I had this big idea that I was travelling to America - to the land of dreams of prosperity.
“But when I got there I discovered his dad did indeed work for the city - but was a bin man. I never worked as hard, or as many hours, as I did in the States.”
Although the girls no longer lived in each other’s pockets they did keep in touch as much as possible. Isobel travelled to see Suzanne and was godmother to her son. Suzanne initially would come home for a holiday every two years and the girls always kept in touch via letter or over the phone.
In recent years Isobel and Suzanne have also used modern technology to stay in touch via email or on Facebook.
“No matter how long it went between us chatting,” Sally said, “be it 50 minutes or 50 days or 50 months, we were always able to just pick up where we left off.
“It was as if no time had passed at all.
“But, I have to say honestly, I never thought I would see Suzanne again and that we would all be in the same room.”
Suzanne is the only of the three still to live in the States - but she said in recent years she has felt a longing to come back to her native Derry.
When her brother Joe suggested she come back in time for the Jazz Festival she saw this as perfect timing for her return.
With a reunion planned with her friends, and the sunshine bathing in the city as she took the bus up from Dublin she said she could not help but feel tears spring to her eyes as soon as she got the first glimpse of the Foyle.
“When you are away from Derry for a long time you forget how beautiful it is,” Suzanne said.
“And to have this amazing weather has made it even more incredible.
“So much has changed but the city is still as breathtaking as it was - what has warmed me most of all however is the warmth of the people. You forget that when you are away.”
The girls reunited on Wednesday in Isobel’s house at Thorndale Park where they recalled their boyfriends past, their old workplaces and the dancehalls they frequented as well as their years in America. They also recalled a lot of the mischief they got up to.
“They were great days. Innocent days compared to now. You could go anywhere and do anything and feel safe,” Sally said.
“But to think of what Isobel said all those years ago - and how we are all together now - that is amazing,” Daphne. “We never thought it would happen. Sure it’s not The Diamond but it is just as grand.”