‘She didn’t stand a chance, being Protestant and comforted by a Catholic priest’

Family Fortunes: Dad worked in London, mother stayed stubbornly in Co Down

Dorothy and Harold Carson, in Newcastle, Co Down

In these days of airplanes hijacked into skyscrapers, motorway pile-ups and suicide bombers do you yearn for less complicated tragedies? Like this: “There’s been another serious bicycle accident. A Miss Norman was coming down the big hill at Workmans and crashed into the ditch. She was a Protestant, but a funny thing, Father Farn was coming from Bryansford at the time and prayed with her until the ambulance arrived.”

My mother (Dorothy) wrote this to my father (Harold) in March 1952. He worked in London, mother stayed stubbornly in Newcastle, Co Down. Anytime dad took her there to look at a house she said no, bought a new coat and came home, determined to stay.

So we knew our father during breaks: summer, Easter, Christmas and bank holidays when he smothered us with love and attention. Yet the arrangement survived. Dad forged a successful career in Irish Linen, indulged his love of Shakespeare and the theatre without the toil and worry of rearing four children. Mum stayed close to her relations in Newcastle.

Scraps of paper

Her letters, in faded long-hand writing – sometimes on scraps of paper – are stored in a small black cardboard box, once used for starched shirt collars. They recount my sister’s musical excellence, my brother’s homework and the youngest child’s first steps. Arguments over my birth name, Paul.


Darling, you should take care of yourself and pray for a happy death

“Your mother would wish I call the baby Harold as she choose that name for you. But, to tell you the truth darling and no harm to you, I’m not awfully keen on it.” There was unpleasantness: “We had a row over this.”

As to the unfortunate cyclist in the ditch: “She was unrecognisable and died on the way to hospital.” This being Northern Ireland cynics might have said she didn’t stand a chance, what with her being Protestant and comforted by a Catholic priest. “She was 60 years of age.”

Now comes the punch line: “So darling, take care of yourself and pray for a happy death.” That sort of advice is hard to beat, even nowadays. The letters always end: “Your devoted wife, Dorothy xxxxxx.”

Dad retired home to Newcastle in 1970.

Married in 1938, they were together and in their 80s until death: Mum passed first and suddenly in 1990. A quote from Shakespeare is chiselled on to the headstone over her grave: But Thy Eternal Summer Shall Not Fade. Dad joined her in 1999.