HOW did two men, from opposite ends of Ireland, end up meeting for the first time to undertake a meandering walk from Armagh to Portadown, with the aim of making life better for children in one of the poorest countries in the world?
The answer starts in Afghanistan where Portadown soldier Lt Neal Turkington lost his life in July 2010 and where Ed Burke, a young Cork man, was working for the country’s Ministry of Interior when the atrocity took place.
And last week, Ed and Neal’s father Ivor met up, having previously spoken only on the phone, for the local leg of a 400km walk which Ed is undertaking for the Neal Turkington Nepal Fund (NTNF).
Said Ed, “We stopped off in Loughgall, which is a beautiful village, and I visited Dan Winter’s cottage. Although I live in Ireland, I had never been to Co Armagh, and finding out about my own country is part of what the walk is about, as well as supporting the Turkingtons.”
Ed (30) decided to raise money for the fund after being deeply affected by Neal’s killing, which took place shortly after he arrived in the country and which he said was all the more shocking as it was carried out by a member of the Afghan Army with whom the British were living and working alongside.
He was also struck by the similarities between himself and the young Portadown man - they were around the same age, both from Ireland, and both had been to university in London at the same time - but in contrast to Neal, who had been involved in voluntary and humanitarian work, Ed felt “sedentary and selfish”.
He said, “I read Neal’s obituary on the Ministry of Defence website and he seemed a highly unusual officer and a really interesting guy who had led such a fulfilling life and achieved a lot by a very young age. It seemed to me his was a life well lived.”
Like Neal, who was a member of the Royal Gurkha Rifles, Ed hugely admired the Gurkhas, who hail from the Nepal region. He explained, “The camp where we lived was guarded by ex-Gurkhas and I always found them to be highly professional, with a real sense of duty, politeness, friendliness and patience. They did a brilliant job in protecting us and they sometimes paid with their lives.”
Shortly after Ed left the country, four ex-Gurkhas were killed and a number wounded when insurgents attacked the camp; children who attended a nearby school were also among the fatalities.
Furthermore, the Cork man was also moved by the reaction of Neal’s family to his death. “There is no better memorial to someone than to try and improve the education of people that your son felt so strongly about,” he said. ”It struck me as very noble for people going through the grieving process.”
The result was Ed’s border walk, which started in Culdaff, on the Inishowen Peninsula, Donegal, on July 5, continuing through Buncrana, Derry, Muff through to Aughnacloy and Armagh, with a detour to Portadown to stay with the Turkingtons last week.
And the results of the ‘ordinary’ walk have been “refreshing and enlightening”, with Ed having encountered some incredible hospitality and generosity along the way, as well as learning more about the people who live in the north of the country.
He said.”I went with no pre-set questions or agenda and I found that people were happy to talk once they learnt what I was doing and that I wasn’t there in an investigative role, to question them about the Troubles.
“Saying that, there seems to have been a burden lifted off people’s shoulders since the end of the Troubles; their lives are easier - they can go from Donegal into Derry and vice versa without worrying. In Monaghan, people were saying they had lost touch with their neighbours because they didn’t want to go near the border. Now they have been given back their natural hinterlands.”
He added, “I ended up in Castlederg for the Twelfth and although some people were initially surprised, once they realised I wasn’t there to judge, there was no problem. I have learned a lot during the walk, not least how much I don’t know and how you should always be slow to judge.”
As for the generosity, which has swelled Neal’s fund, one couple, who run a bed and breakfast where Ed stayed, found out after their unassuming guest had left that he was on a charity walk and made a donation via the website.
Another elderly woman, whose brother had just died and who Ed met at a graveyard in Pettigo, also made a generous donation after she and Ed got chatting. He said, “She thought what the Turkingtons were doing was a wonderful thing.”
This week, Ed was set to complete his walk through Glasslough, Monaghan and south Armagh before returning to his home village of Rosscarberg in west Cork. The Trinity College graduate, who has a Master’s degree in War Studies, and has worked as a conflict researcher in Spain, Yemen, Iraq and the Gulf, is planning to start a PhD in International Relations in St Andrew’s, Scotland, in September.
He also envisages possibly returning to Afghanistan at some point. “The future of Afghanistan is going to be decided in the next five to ten years. There will be a time of reckoning for Afghans when NATO leave and I wouldn’t rule out going back again some day if I thought I could play a positive role,” he said.
He added, “It has been an absolute honour to meet Ivor and the welcome I have got from him, his family and friends has been unbelievable. There has been quite a lot of interest in the walk and a focus on me, which is quite embarrassing, because at the end of the day it is about Neal Turkington, a remarkable guy who did things I have never done.”
Ivor Turkington said he and his wife Marie were extremely proud that Neal’s life story had inspired Ed to undertake his walk. He added, “Having met and got to know this impressive young man, I have learned that making a difference lies at the core of his being.”
So far, Ed has raised £2,500, including Gift Aid, and anyone wishing to contribute can do so via the website www.justgiving.com/Edward-Burke.