An Irishman's Diary
The social life of the small community of Catholics had a more secular quality than that of the Protestants
TO ADAPT one of today’s cant phrases, the Soundtrack of My (Early) Life has two refrains. One was the staccato of light artillery and automatic weaponry from the firing range in St Patrick’s barracks, home of the Royal Ulster Rifles, in the garrison town of Ballymena, the Middle Town. And the second was the peal of the Angelus bell from the tower of the Catholic church. It made no distinction in the ears that it reached, be they Catholic ears or Protestant or Dissenter.
Each – the rat-a-tat and the Angelus – links to its own recurring image.
Soldiers from the barracks would be a familiar sight passing through the streets. They might have been only a year or two older than us sixth-formers, but there was a chasm between us and the “brutal and licentious”. At Trinity College a couple of years later I bridged that gap and became friends with two of them, John and Norman, who had done their National Service in the Middle Town.
Their experience, I was to discover, was quite distinct from mine.
Set at liberty on Sunday evenings, they would head for Belfast (John liked to say that the most frightening sound in the world was a Belfast man calling you “Friend . . .” ) Or they would roam the countryside, as far afield as Randalstown and Toomebridge, looking for dances and girls.
Catholic girls, of course, on a Sunday evening and dances in, of course, Catholic parish halls. Hard to imagine that in the bitter 1970s or 1980s.
The tolling of the Angelus calls up the image of nuns from the St Louis Convent, gliding through the streets in pairs. Proper nuns they were, too, in ankle-length black habit, black wimple and square, white starched coif framing their pink faces, which looked like they had been scrubbed with cold water and carbolic soap. They rarely seemed to speak to anybody except the shopkeepers. But in this predominantly, nay overwhelmingly, Protestant town, they were just part of the scenery, like the soldiers, evoking no feeling one way or the other.
The nuns ran a girls’ school, of which my distinguished former colleague Fionnuala O’Connor is an alumna. Not that Fionnuala and I would ever have met. No social contact was established or maintained between the other secondary schools and my Academy. There was no Catholic boys’ school in the town then, unlike today, when St Patrick’s surely still basks in the reflected éclat of its past pupil Liam Neeson. So the Catholic boys, and a few Catholic girls, attended the Academy, which had always been co-educational and non-denominational.
The social life of the small community of Catholics had a more secular quality than that of the Protestants, especially of the Non-Conformist variety, which seemed to consist largely of midweek prayer meetings. In the Catholics’ parochial hall there would be céilithe and beetle drives (this was the BB era, Before Bingo). So, while interpersonal relations were relaxed, no structured interaction took place. But my memory-sense is that there wasn’t a jot or tittle of nationalist feeling among the town’s “Catholics” (I use quotation marks only for convenience). The fact that they were a very small minority may have had something to do with it. But I like to think they just went about making an honest living, like everybody else, reciprocally neighbourly. Hence the Middle Town was a Middling Town, tending towards neither political extreme.
And yet, for completeness, I have to record a couple of episodes that rather tarnish that tolerant image. By now, I hope, they can be recalled with a smile of rueful amusement.
In the 1950s and 1960s George S had a retail milk business and left his pint bottles on the doorsteps of a good proportion of the town’s population. But one day word filtered round the housewifely grapevine that George was SELLING CATHOLIC MILK.
And he was. The monastery in Portglenone belongs to the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, a daughter house of Mount Melleray. It had a dairy herd, and George had been buying some of his wholesale milk there. Accounts closed with a snap all over the town. No milk from Roman Catholic cows would cross those well-scrubbed doorsteps.
Again, on the Fair Hill one Saturday, where that ecumenical wandering minstrel Dr Donald Soper was addressing a crowd, a young evangelical firebrand threw a protesting Bible at the apostate preacher.
After that bid for doctrinal history, that young man was never heard of again. His name was Ian Paisley.