The residents of the district of Fermanagh and Omagh are the happiest in the UK, according to the Office for National Statistics. This comes as no surprise to any of them. It’s a large area with three civic hubs – Enniskillen, Omagh and Dungannon – each of which claims to be happier than the other two.
Enniskillen people are known to congratulate one another on the weather even when it’s raining. Omagh residents are enamoured of its beauty. And Dungannon, with its squat, claustrophobic high street under smoke-grey clouds, easily the ugliest town I’ve ever seen, simply fosters joy. I don’t know how.
“We’re brilliant,” said Jackie, who declined to give her age. “Why would you not be happy?” her companion Nigel asked, baffled. Donna Close, 47, generalised: “I think Northern Irish people in general are quite optimistic. We’ve survived. We’ve had our troubles but hopefully we’re coming out of them.”
“Blowing each other up and shooting each other, that was only ever one side of it,” Nigel said later. “The English have got that all wrong. They think everyone was killing everyone else. But the rest of us wasn’t. Catholic and Protestant got on really well.”
More recent arrivals from Lithuania – there’s a significant Lithuanian presence; according to the woman running the Lithuanian food shop, everyone from there had moved to Dungannon – concurred on the issue of human warmth. Karolina, 14, Evalina, 15, and another Karolina, 15, said their parents had moved them for the money and the jobs, but it was the friendliness they noticed.
“It’s not what you’d call a party town,” said Brian, 73, standing at the bus stop outside the bookies in Dungannon. “No one smokes marijuana, which is what I used to do in the 60s. But we all manage to stay pretty cheerful anyway.”
Chloe, 17, waiting for the same bus, chortled away. “You can probably tell I’m happy. I’m always happy.” “You have lovely teeth,” Brian observed widely. “Me or her?” I sought clarification. “Both of you. Lovely.” He wouldn’t have his photo taken because his ex-wife thinks he’s dead, and Chloe wouldn’t because she doesn’t, in fact, like her teeth.
I couldn’t really figure this place out. The sun had come out and it had started to look more charming, less like a film set where something bad is about to happen. There are probably more casinos than you’d want for an index of human contentment, but it hasn’t given into that charity shop/Greggs/charity shop cycle that spells the end of commerce.
The main restaurant is called Shambles. The windows are frosted and display no menus, as if it is completely obvious what kind of food a place called Shambles would cook. Hegarty’s the independent baker was set up by the eponymous Sean Hegarty, 13 years ago, when he was 22. “Everybody thinks I’m moody, but I’m happy on the inside. If you were to ask me, I’d say middling. But I’m not middling.”
He tipped his head at me sympathetically. “Have you come all the way from England to ask me that?” Yes, I have. I’m not embarrassed. “That’s a funny job,” he concluded kindly.
There’s a demographic/wellbeing anomaly: 10 miles down the road, the residents of Cookstown, while part of the same district and reporting very high, un-English levels of contentment, are also more anxious than anyone anywhere except Hackney in east London (or were in 2014, the last time they were asked).
It looks immediately like a very different place, with a wide, audacious boulevard, at the end of which is an ostentatious view of the gorgeous, green and heathery Sperrin mountains. It is a more affluent town (the garage on the way into Dungannon flashes in lights how much chicken you can get for a quid – it’s a lot – while Cookstown welcomes you with a well-kept flowery roundabout, and signs instructing: “Visit. Shop. Enjoy.”).
Already, I was bit more anxious: what if you couldn’t shop? What if enjoyment wasn’t something you can just decide to feel?
Pauline, 53, had moved here from Dungannon to set up a coffee shop, which was going extremely well. “It’s a lot buzzier here, there’s always somebody about, all the time. We’ve got regulars already, which is incredible, when we’ve only been open six weeks. Even though there does still seem to be a recession here, people are keeping money just for coffee, just to sit and relax.”
What to conclude: buzzy towns with more going on make people anxious? People who are anxious should drink less coffee? Or maybe, people who are anxious and drink coffee should move to Dungannon which, after all, is not far.