In finding my writing voice, I’ve embraced my Protestant unionist background
Adeline Henry reflects on Northern Ireland in the 50 years before and after her birth
Adeline Henry: “The heart and soul of my life growing up was the local Presbyterian church community which many of our neighbours also belonged to.”
An opportunity “to hear untold stories”: this is how I saw the NI centenary described on the BBC news website by Secretary of State Brandon Lewis. Supported by a PhD place at Ulster University, I am writing a novel telling one of these stories.
I turn 50 this year, just as Northern Ireland turns a hundred. That anniversary will give rise to plenty of debate on the usual divisions: a glorious occasion to wave a Union Jack, or a tragedy wished forgotten? The old binaries writ large.
Looking back over the 50 years before I was born in 1971 – Northern Ireland’s first five decades – gives rise to a mosaic of ancestral memories. My parents, born in 1930s Co Armagh, both told stories and I have a sense I can recall the early 20th century. My siblings and I used to laugh about my mother’s “memory” of The Big Wind of 1839, so I can easily visualise the cold hard winter of 1947. There’s also a kind of community memory: evacuees during the war, Young Farmers’ trips, celebrations of the Queen’s coronation, ‘B’ Specials patrols, dances in local Orange Halls and church fetes.
My father was a farmer. In his youth he worked with his father, also a farmer and agricultural contractor. All his life, Dad farmed the fields around the house where he’d been born. I can almost picture men smoking and chatting at the crossroads on summer evenings, courting couples making a nest in the hedge and women at home feeding the hens and making bread and jam. Dad played in a silver band and attended all the local band parades. He went to the mart, the church and the pub; he was more interested in people than anything.
My mother lived nearby but went to Loughry Agricultural College and worked in Co Antrim as a poultry advisory officer before they married in 1966. From her childhood, Mum recalled neighbouring families sitting out at the crossroads playing music and dancing, but they were Catholics, and she wouldn’t have dreamt of going out to see what was happening.
Mum was a dedicated churchgoer and rarely missed a week. She was a woman of her time with traditional views but was always open to new ideas. She was an active member of the Women’s Institute.
My sense of my parents’ lives before I was born is a rural, Protestant, unionist one; they rubbed along with their Catholic neighbours civilly but in parallel, not closely involved in each other’s lives.
Although there were two distinct groupings with little interaction, it seems there was a common priority: community, with a small c. Neighbours helped each other out and gossiped about each other. A childhood friend of Dad’s was heard to declare a local woman had died. On hearing shock expressed about this sad event, the friend responded: “Well, she’s not dead yet, but I hear she’s very bad”. In his later years had Dad often bemoaned the waning sense of community, complaining: “Sure nobody has time for ‘other anymore”.
I WAS BORN in Lurgan, Co Armagh in 1971, Northern Ireland’s fiftieth anniversary year. My parents joked that I was born at 10 to one, just in time for the news. Listening to the news was already a daily ritual for my parents like many in these early years of the Troubles. There are nine entries on the CAIN Chronology of the Troubles website for January 1971, including reported riots, punishment beatings and fatal shootings .
The heart and soul of my life growing up was the local Presbyterian church community which many of our neighbours also belonged to. These were the people we depended on, who formed the backdrop to our lives and who showed up at important times like weddings and funerals. This community is still where my siblings and I are known as our parents’ children. The farming community of our neighbours provided a framework of support that overlapped largely with the network of church and school acquaintances. The Catholics we mixed with were few.
Later at the High School, the only “mixed” school in Newry, I socialised in Banbridge where it was deemed safer to be out at night, being a majority Protestant town. Going out in Newry, a majority Catholic town, was discouraged. Through school in Newry, I met my few Catholic acquaintances, otherwise I had no opportunity to get to know Catholics at all. The education system supports that division still.
The winter before Covid was cold, bleak and long. My mother had just died. I spent the January watching Anne with an E with my youngest in a sort of safe hibernation. Yet when I first read Anne of Green Gables, safety was not the reality. People my parents knew died in shootings, bombings and kidnappings near where we lived. In January 1976, not yet five, I knew not to mention the now notorious Kingsmills shooting to a school friend because their parents hadn’t told them a family friend had died there.
My parents provided a buffer from the outside world for me and my siblings. My father’s mental health suffered, though the habitual activities of farming life provided some stability. I recall one Sunday hearing that a close acquaintance, an RUC reservist, had been kidnapped (days later found dead). My parents went out to feed the pigs in the early afternoon to distract themselves from the awful news. As a child, it was the strange time for “redding up” that made me feel uneasy.
Yet, there were many positives in my childhood: a sense of belonging to a close-knit family and community. Music often accompanied the rhythms of life in the church choir, the local band or at school. When the English aunties came home, there would always be a singsong.
Like many, at 18 I took the opportunity to see what life was like elsewhere. I came to enjoy the Larne-Stranraer ferry journey. When the horizon opened up on the train to Glasgow, I breathed out, unaware till then that I’d been holding my breath.
Living away in Scotland, England and Germany for some years, when I said where I was from, I was aware of the assumption that I was a Catholic nationalist who knew the rebel songs. Truth be told, I didn’t talk much about my Protestant unionist experience. It’s not cool to be on the white, imperial side of history when you’re in the Mandela Bar of the Students’ Union. I pretended to be Scottish for a while.
I came back to live in Northern Ireland though the cloud of tension, anxiety and distrust was palpable, and attitudes seemed depressingly antiquated. I had my children and, after the post-natal fog cleared, the gift of a place on the Queens University creative writing MA materialised. I knew this was what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be. The village where I now live provides a supportive environment that has nurtured my children in their formative years and echoes the benefits of my own childhood.
Yet, what strikes me now is the level of pain that is scarcely under the surface. My automatic internal response when I hear someone is from, say, nationalist Ardoyne in north Belfast or when faced with an Irish-spelt name I don’t know how to pronounce, is not something I’m proud of. It’s deeply ingrained. If certain names, places and opinions trigger difficult feelings for me – who didn’t lose a family member during the Troubles – I can only imagine how tough it is for others, including those I know in the Protestant unionist community and all who were bereaved and suffer mental anguish on a daily basis. The wounds are still raw.
For the Northern Irish centenary, maybe there’s a balance to be struck between triumphant celebrations and complete dismissal – an opportunity for people to acknowledge each other where they’re at, where we’re at, now in 2021 one name at a time, one encounter at a time.
In finding my writing voice, I have, finally, embraced my Protestant unionist background and found new understanding of views on “both” sides I might previously have dismissed out of hand. So, I’ll get back to work on my novel: a rural, Protestant “girl” with another piece of the Northern Irish story to tell.
Adeline Henry is in her second year of a creative PhD at Ulster University, writing a novel set during the Troubles