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How I survived the road trip from hell in sole charge of my cousin's 3 children

First time 'parenting', a burglary, and to top it off, a death in the family
First time 'parenting', a burglary, and to top it off, a death in the family Credit: FRAN LABUSCHAGNE
Just as his own father died, Jamie Lafferty took his cousin’s children on a motorhome tour of Ireland

The smashed avo on artisanal sourdough, teased with freshly ground spices and enlivened with hand-squeezed citrus was well received by my adolescent dinner guests. Great.

I would go on to make the exact same thing for dinner the next night and, yes, it was ultimately just discounted avocado on toast, but as my three young cousins gained little green moustaches in our motorhome, I felt as though I’d cracked parenting on Day One.

This first meal was being demolished with alarming gusto in a car park in Liverpool, but we were soon to drive on to a ferry for a week of motorhoming around Northern Ireland and the Republic. An unusually favourable forecast suggested we would get the best of the coast, including the much-touted Wild Atlantic Way.

More importantly, I’d hoped it would feel foreign enough for the children, without being wholly alien to them. Isabel, 16, Noah, 14, and nine-year-old Megan are my cousin Sarah’s children, but for that week, I was their guardian.

Friends laughed at the idea of me voluntarily going from zero-to-three kids, but I knew this trio to be bright, funny, largely well-behaved and easy enough to intimidate if the need arose. I’d always wanted to see more of the north of Ireland – my family name is from there – but while exploring in a motorhome seemed like a good idea, doing so alone did not.

The scenery, at least, was nothing short of spectacular Credit: getty

Our first stop was Belfast’s Titanic Experience, which had us totally engaged for six fact-packed floors. The highlight for Noah was the revelation that there were 40,000 eggs on board when the ship set sail. We pondered how many were got through before the iceberg did its lethal work.

Later, travelling west to the Drumaheglis caravan park near Coleraine, I felt a certain kinship for Capt Edward Smith – driving the motorhome along Northern Ireland’s occasionally narrow roads with my own precious cargo brought a very particular type of stress. If something went wrong, history would absolutely remember me as the villain.

I didn’t go on holidays like this when I was younger and had scant experience of motorhoming, so once in a while I had to refer to the handbook for our Swift vehicle. The kids’ own instructions were so inbuilt that my life was made fairly easy – importantly, they made a solemn vow not to use the on-board lavatory. 

The highlight in Northern Ireland was the five-mile clifftop hike to Giant’s Causeway from Dunseverick Castle. Before we set out, I gave everyone a disposable camera, the sort I’d used long before smartphones. Partly to teach the kids a little about photography, partly so they’d have physical mementos but mostly to force breaks in their Snapchat addictions.

Belfast’s Titanic Experience had the children engaged for six fact-packed floors Credit: getty

By the time we’d bussed back to Dunseverick and the motorhome, it was getting dark so I asked my passengers what they’d like for dinner. 

“You’re going to have to give us options,” said Megan. “You know, we can tell you aren’t really a parent,” added Isabel, a little conspiratorially. 

Perturbed that I’d been rumbled, I decided to have an indoor picnic of dried meats and cheeses, from Aldi. The kids seemed more than happy and if they’d noticed my growing financial panic, they were polite enough not to mention it. 

The manifold expenses of childcare were being driven home. Not because there’s something particularly pricey about travelling in a motorhome, nor because Ireland outside of Dublin is extortionate, but because going from feeding one mouth to four made me wince every time I had to hand over my creaking credit card.

Day Three was spent largely on the road, pushing hard through Derry and Donegal to get to Easkey, Co Sligo, in the Republic. We crossed the border so seamlessly the kids barely even noticed; Gaelic road signs the only indication.

On the agenda was a five-mile clifftop hike to Giant’s Causeway Credit: getty

Morning on Day Four initially seemed unremarkable. I was trying to get Megan to choose between brown toast and a bagel for breakfast when my mother called for what I assumed was an update. I took it on my headphones so I could keep going in the kitchen (against considerable odds the choice was toast).

From the tone of the first words, I knew it was one of those calls about something going wrong: my own father had died in my hometown of Ayr.

Memory works in strange ways at moments like this. In our extraordinary week in the motorhome, of all the meals we ate and the amazing sights we saw, this breakfast wasn’t one I thought would be so crystallised. 

My father and I weren’t close and hadn’t spoken for over a year; later, I reflected that if I felt any sadness, it was only at the absence of grief. That’s still true now.

His dissolution, alcoholism and fecklessness scarred my youth, and I decided to not let him pollute my week with the kids, too. I didn’t want to let this distant, spectral event inside the motorhome, and so rather than spread the news, I held up the spreads. Faced with three jams or goats cheese, Megan of course asked for Nutella.

Attempting not to break stride, I threw myself further into what we’d termed #Vanlife. Blur’s Parklife and The Crusaders’ Street Life had both been adapted to sing of our exploits (“Vanlife, it’s the only life we know…”).

The rugged shoreline of Easkey, Co Sligo Credit: getty

We’d nearly perfected the dances to navigate the motorhome’s tighter spaces and our bedtime routine had become well-oiled. I’d found extra gears in myself, too, developing a near-sixth sense for sharp objects at children’s eye-height. Their thirst, hunger and comfort were never far from my mind.

Ireland offered near endless distractions, but when my passengers dosed off on longer drives, I was left to think of my father. He may have set a very low bar, but it cheered me to know I was creating more happy memories for these kids in a week than he managed in my lifetime. (If that sounds macabre or triumphant, I would gently point out you never had to travel with him.)

The kids’ happy memories hopefully include our visit to the astonishing array that is the Caves of Keash, which perforate a limestone cliff near Sligo. Outside the first and largest, we found a small tin flute by the entrance. I insisted the only reasonable explanation was it had been left by a leprechaun. Of the tall tales I told over the week, this one came closest to being believed.

That night, I took time to make my signature bolognese from scratch, making a mess of the kitchen but trying my best to show the kids that I could pretend-parent with the best. It was almost 10pm before it was on the table, but there were as many complaints as there were leftovers: zero.

We eventually reached the gorgeous green coast of Galway. We all wished we’d had a bit more time, but we had to make the comparatively bland trip across Ireland to Dublin. With the motorhome too large for any multistorey, we found space on the banks of the Liffey. It could hardly have been more central so, with everything locked, we headed into the city. 

I think I did a good job of hiding the week’s first landmine from the children, but they were unavoidably witness to the second: the motorhome was broken into. My camera equipment was stolen, as were Isabel’s phone and her study laptop, weeks before her first meaningful exams. The Garda were friendly and competent, but had no hope of our belongings being recovered. At least the disposable cameras were untouched. 

Two hours later, we were heading to the ferry. It was hard to keep upbeat, but the kids were upset enough without me throwing a tantrum, so I bought us fish and chips and lied that I was confident my insurance cover would look after us. We docked a little after 5am and headed towards Buxton, to meet my cousin before I returned the motorhome to Swift in Stockport.

A pink dawn rose and blossomed ahead of us. “Look at that,” said Isabel having finally reclaimed the front seat from her siblings. “It’s beautiful.”

“It certainly is,” I said. “Perhaps things aren’t so bad after all.” And then I started to believe it.

Essentials

Swift Go ( for more information.

For a week’s hire of a family-sized motorhome, sleeping up to five, prices start around £700 in low season, rising to £1,225 in high season. Customers can collect from Swift Go’s depot near Manchester Airport or from its new Edinburgh facility. More details at .

Campsites

Drumaheglis Marina and Caravan Park:

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