Irish natives talk about their homeland


On Saint Patrick’s Day, March 17, Canyon Lake’s Irish natives, David and Marie Johnston, are scheduled to dock in Darwin, Australia as part of a three-month trip around the world. Their journey will end with three weeks in their homeland before they return to Canyon Lake.

Since moving to Southern California in 1966 for David to fulfill a two-year contract working on the Boeing 747 fuselage, the Johnstons have visited Ireland many times.

They had planned to move back in 1969, after David’s contract (plus one year) was up. But by then, “the Troubles” had started; referring to the years of conflict between Northern Ireland (Protestants) and the Republic of Ireland (Catholics). By the time the violence had somewhat subsided, the Johnstons had grandchildren in California, and moving back to Ireland was out of the question.

Right up front they have something to say about St. Patrick’s Day. First of all, the first church St. Patrick ever established is in Northern Ireland, less than 25 miles from where they grew up. But St. Patrick’s Day isn’t celebrated in any special way in Northern Ireland.

Marie recalls visiting there in March and going out to eat on St. Patrick’s Day with friends. She wore green, as is the American tradition, but was the only one in her party to do so. She also points out that corned beef and cabbage do not originate in Ireland – neither does green beer. Those are American traditions surrounding the commercialized holy-day.

Shamrocks, however, are part of Irish tradition. And Americans may have seen or read more about Ireland’s culture and countryside than they realize. C.S. Lewis was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and the countryside of his famed Narnia was inspired by the nearby Mourne Mountains.

Belfast is home to the Titanic (it was built there) and to Titanic Studios, where “Game of Thrones” is produced. The city is very close to Game of Thrones filming locations across Northern Ireland, including The King’s Road, Winterfell, The Wall and Dragonstone.

Naturally, after their many travels in Ireland, David and Marie have some good advice for their neighbors wishing to visit the Emerald Isle – but first, a little about what it was like to grow up there.

Both of them were born in Belfast in 1937. As part of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, specifically Belfast, was subject to bombing by the Germans three times when David and Marie were children. They describe what it was like to hear the nighttime air raids and fleeing on foot with their families and neighbors to the outskirts of town to lay low in the fields.

During one bombing raid, an entire street of homes in David’s neighborhood was leveled by a bomb and, at his house, the plaster walls were damaged and the windows blown out. Marie also experienced having all but one window blown out of her house. Her family kept a German incendiary device that fell next to her grandfather’s house as a souvenir.

While David and Marie met for the first time in elementary school, they didn’t start dating until David picked her up one day in his dad’s car. Marie is quick to explain. Walking with friends was the only thing there was to do on Sundays after church, as every establishment was closed. In those days, cars were an unusual sight.

Born and raised in Belfast, David and Marie were married on June 17, 1959.

Born and raised in Belfast, David and Marie were married on June 17, 1959.

When David was 17, his dad bought the family’s first car and David was the designated driver. Therefore, it was a big deal to be driving a car on Sunday afternoon and see a cute girl he recognized from school walking down the road. It was an even bigger deal to be asked to ride in a car. So that’s how their relationship began. They were married June 17, 1959.

They remained in Ireland seven more years and their first two children were born there. David, a graduate of Belfast Technical College, worked for a company that built aircraft; so when he got the contract to work for Northrop Corporation in Hawthorne, they moved to Southern California, eventually settling in Rancho Palos Verdes.

David loves planes and could talk in detail about the ones he helped design, including the Skyvan used by skydivers at the Perris Airport. Before retiring, he was working on stealth surveillance aircraft, which occasionally took him to Area 51 in Nevada. He says, in those days, the federal government did not acknowledge the existence of Area 51, so his visits were top secret and highly restricted.

For David, a trip to Ireland often includes a visit to an air show and taking pictures of vintage airplanes, fighter jets and other types of aircraft. But he also has become much more interested in the history of his homeland. Growing up, he and Marie learned all about the history of England but little about the history of Ireland.

Though the ruins of castles are everywhere – and there usually is nothing to bar the public from exploring them at will – it wasn’t until their daughter-in-law asked about a crumbling tower she noticed one day that David and Marie began to wonder more about the people and events of their country’s past.

Now, when they go to visit family and friends, they invariably visit other parts of Ireland, especially the scenic north, south and west coasts, along with the famous castles and ancient ruins of those areas. As for the best way to visit Ireland, their suggestions differ.

Because most of the roads are extremely narrow, and Americans aren’t used to driving on the left side, Marie thinks taking a bus tour is the best way for her American friends to see Ireland. David recommends renting a car, and researching and booking B&Bs ahead of time in America; then picking up the car at the Dublin Airport.

He points out that tourists 70 years and older aren’t allowed to rent cars in Ireland; however, they can rent a car in America and pick it up in Ireland. He adds that booking B&Bs ahead of time isn’t always necessary as rooms usually are available.

To celebrate his retirement in 1995, David bicycled around Ireland for a month and never had a problem finding a room in a B&B each night without a prior reservation. Both agree that the breakfasts offered at B&Bs are outstanding.

Drives they recommend between Belfast in the north and Cork in the south are the Causeway Coast, which includes Giant’s Causeway and the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge; and the Wild Atlantic Way, which is made up of several shorter drives: Donegal, with its Slieve League Cliffs; Mayo-Clare, with Galway Bay, the Loop Head Lighthouse and the Cliffs of Maher; and Kerry-Cork, with its famed Dingle Peninsula and Ring of Kerry.

Among other destinations, Marie recommends Dunguaire Castle on Galway Bay for its medieval banquet, and David likes Old Bushmills Distillery in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, for its history and Irish whiskey. Of course, like most tourists, they have visited Blarney Castle, near Cork, and kissed the Blarney Stone.

It’s likely they would have thought of many other destinations to recommend, but at the end of this particular interview, they were off to the airport and Australia. The Johnston bought their home in Canyon Lake in 1996. David served on the CLPOA Board of Directors for two terms, 2007 to 2010.


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Donna Ritchie