Your mum was blown off her feet in Callender Street by a bomb.
What happened is a difficult topic to address in a few well-chosen sentences. It’s probably not what you may wish to hear. Are you sure you want this?
All I can think of is a few lasting impressions have stayed with me, some of them not the received wisdom that is handed down. I find a total lack of tolerance for differing opinions, rather than defending the right to express them. The trend is to black them out by any means, violence if necessary, as was the case in Ireland. Sadly, this is still the case today as we descend into partisan arguments.
I was a student at Queen’s University Belfast when it started, student protests were the fashion, marches to the City Hall. I was not impressed. I did not take part even if I agreed with some of it. I did watch them. I was studying Chemistry and had no time to take part. Lab practicals and getting a degree were far more important, getting a job to support my wife, who was busy working to keep things together.
Bloody Friday was diabolical, further tragedy when innocent girls lost their legs from a bomb placed in the Abercorn café downtown. All sympathy with the cause evaporated. Many more atrocities followed, La Mon House hotel, where a kennel club was meeting, many incinerated, total innocents. The hotel where our wedding reception was held was destroyed. Your mum’s aunt and uncle were driven from their home in west Belfast. Social life shut down for fear of finding yourself in the wrong area.
Eventually the jobs disappeared, companies moved elsewhere, and your mum’s sisters left the country. There was just us left. Each place I worked closed down. Finally, we decided to leave, to make a better life for all of us, terrible though the actual break would prove to be.
I can never forgive those who lost their senses and took to violence, their political masters on both sides share blame. The political charlatans who stirred the pot for their own ends, tragic.
What is left?
Peace of sorts, but underlying, total disgust with those involved, the damage they caused to a whole generation who departed, never mind those who lost their lives, and those left behind to pick up the pieces.
Probably not what you may wish to hear, not much sign of reconciliation on my part, but happy there is some willingness to come together to stop it from happening all over again. Shame it took over 3,000 deaths to learn the futility of it all.
How will this affect the next generation? Don’t know, hope they do not make the same mistake.
~ Letter from my dad – February 17, 2018 ~
How do I make sense of this violence?
“Your mum was blown off her feet in Callender Street by a bomb.” That sentence will never leave me. My heart hurt and tears rolled down my face as I read my dad’s words. I feared I had dredged up too many painful memories for him by asking what it was like for them living in Belfast during The Troubles in the 60s and 70s.
The Troubles may have affected my parents more than they are able to talk about. Just get on with it – the Irish way.
Some days I feel like I don’t have a right to commiserate with what went on in Northern Ireland. I don’t have any family members who were killed or maimed. I experienced a few bomb scares, that’s it.
Why didn’t the politicians step in sooner in order to stop the violence; to come to a resolution? Why did it take almost thirty years for a ceasefire? Looking back over the past thirty years of my life, I still don’t have good answers to these questions.
I met my best friend, Lucy, at five years old in primary school. I don’t remember the first time we met but we eventually became inseparable. We used to play field hockey together wearing our uniforms; little maroon skirts and white t-shirts. Short skirts are not sensible when you’re running around like a maniac chasing a ball while trying to avoid getting smacked on the legs by your opponent.
Lucy and I practiced gymnastics together every week. We competed mostly in pairs floor routines. We even won some medals. After practice on Thursday evenings, we went to my aunt Molly’s house for tea. She lived in West Belfast. She and my uncle George were eventually driven out of their home due to The Troubles. Certain parts of Belfast were becoming segregated and the local street thugs wanted to enforce some rules that not everyone agreed with.
When we weren’t doing gymnastics, we played outside at the end of my street making mud pies and riding our bikes for hours on end. It was a quiet cul-de-sac and a large playground full of possibilities. We knew everyone on our street. “Dinner!” my mum would shout when it was time to go home. She didn’t need to say our names. We knew it was us being summoned.
A normal life
Growing up in Belfast as a young girl, life felt normal. It was at the time after the height of The Troubles. I remember bomb-scares being announced over the loud speaker in the shopping mall. Often our bags were searched for anything suspicious before entering the grocery store. What could we possibly be carrying in our bags I wondered?
Much of the bomb scares during my childhood were false alarms and people soon became complacent, often ignoring the call to evacuate the area. The presence of the military became normal. We didn’t talk about it much. We just got on with life.
My dad received his PhD in polymer science from Queen’s University in Belfast. His qualifications were his ticket out of Ireland for us; a way for him to provide a better life for our family.
I remember the day I found out we were moving to Canada. I was devastated. I would have to leave Lucy and my other friends, my school. No more gymnastics! No more mud pies! Who would I play with? I didn’t understand why my parents wanted to do this to me.
We packed up all our belongings and our family of five set off for Canada. Anne was five years old and my youngest sister, Mary was only three. I felt angry and sad about being torn away from my friends.
We arrived in the small town of Sarnia, Ontario, in May of 1986. We stayed in a hotel for the first three weeks while my parents got oriented and found a rental house on the outskirts of the town near the lake. It was an older home in a quiet cul-de-sac. We had a huge garden, much bigger than the garden we had in Ireland. I didn’t see any military on the streets in Sarnia. We didn’t have to get our bags checked at the grocery store. There were no bomb scares.
Our new neighbours, the Robinson family, had an equally large garden and a pool. That summer was hot, and we spent many hours in the pool playing with their three girls; Janne, Sherri and Megan. Conveniently, they were similar in age to my sisters and I. We rode our bikes and made friends with the other children on the street. I didn’t make as many mud pies there as I did in Ireland. Perhaps I grew too old for that game.
Bullies and leprechauns
After wiling away the long days of summer, that September I entered grade seven at my new school. I had trouble settling in at first and found myself in the principal’s office on more than one occasion for acting out. I managed to make a couple of friends; Charlotte and Jessie. Charlotte and I would play together after school. Jessie and I found ourselves getting into trouble together at school.
I hated reading out loud in class. Some kids called me a leprechaun and laughed at my accent. In the first six months I did everything in my power to lose my Irish accent, replacing it with a foreign Canadian accent. One day my teacher, Mrs. Johnstone asked me to read a passage from a history book. I refused. She dragged me out of the class by the ear and made me sit in the broom closet until I could learn to behave myself. If only she had paid attention and tried to find out why I really didn’t want to read.
Today when people ask me where I’m from, I say, “I’m originally from Ireland.” Their response, “You don’t have your accent.” Sometimes you will do anything to fit in.
I didn’t take to being called a leprechaun in the school yard. The boys used to chase the girls during recess. One day after much chasing and taunting from my nemesis, Julian, I kicked him in the groin as hard as I could. This was the one time the teacher was looking. I got hauled off to the principal’s office once again.
Public school wasn’t all bad. In grade eight I had my favourite teacher, Mr. Collins. He created an environment of inclusion and fairness instead of shaming and punishment. I spent much less time at the principal’s office in grade eight.
I managed to survive the few bullying incidents of primary school and was ready for grade nine. I was a tough girl in high school. I wore a leather jacket, smoked cigarettes, and hung out with the older crowd. I had teased eighties hair crunchy with hairspray. I was inspired by the heavy metal music I was listening to at the time. Despite my rebellious nature, I did well in highschool and won a scholarship to study Business at a university in Ottawa. My dad had always stressed the importance of getting a good education.
How do I make sense of this violence?
It still doesn’t make sense to me that certain neighbourhoods in Belfast were walled off and topped with barbed wire. Today, in the most segregated areas, tourists can partake in black taxi tours to see the murals that paint the picture of history from both sides. The tour is affectionately known by locals as the bombs and bullets tour.
It still doesn’t make sense I had to avoid telling people my last name, or what part of town I lived in, in case they might determine my religion. I returned to Ireland many times in my twenties to visit my grandma, Lucy, and friends. My dad would warn me not to tell anyone my last name or what part of town we used to live in, as I often went to pubs with my friends who were from ‘the other side’. When people asked, I would say, “I’m Canadian.”
During my last visit to Belfast, after my grandmother’s funeral, we had lunch at the La Mon House Hotel.
My parents took a big risk moving to Canada leaving behind family and the life they knew. At eleven years old, I thought my life was over. Upon reflection, it was the start of a new chapter; one with an abundance of opportunities. After university I traveled the world extensively while working and volunteering. I was often welcomed into strangers’ homes with open arms. I learned that many people with different beliefs could live together harmoniously.
I am eternally grateful my parents sacrificed a lot to give us a better life. As for the future, I can only pray for peace to prevail on Callender Street.
Image courtesy of Guillaume Hankenne, Pexels.com.