Living through a century of partition: ‘My mother never forgave the new government’

Mairead Liddy (99) was born the same year the state of Northern Ireland was created

Mairead Liddy from Magheralin, Co Armagh, who was born in December 1921, the year the Northern Ireland state was established following partition. Photograph: Stephen Davison/Pacemaker Belfast

Mairead Liddy from Magheralin, Co Armagh, who was born in December 1921, the year the Northern Ireland state was established following partition. Photograph: Stephen Davison/Pacemaker Belfast

 

Even at almost 100 years old, Mairead Liddy remembers well the impact of partition on her family.

Her parents owned a pub in Warrenpoint, Co Down, which was popular with daytrippers from Belfast. But in the new state of Northern Ireland, which came into being in May 1921, there was no Sunday opening.

“That was the best day of the week, because in those days the trains came into Warrenpoint and people came down specially on the train and would have gone in and had a few pints, and of course all that was lost,” she explains.

“I always say my mother never forgave the new government, because she used to look out the window and see all the people passing by. Instead of staying in Warrenpoint for their pint they went over on the wee boat to Omeath, and she never forgave them... she would look out of the window watching all the pints she was missing.”

Liddy was born in 1921, the same year as Northern Ireland. Now approaching her 100th birthday, she regards the NHS as one of its greatest benefits as well as the 11-plus exam, which governs admission to grammar and other secondary schools using academic selection.

“As a Catholic family, we were lucky... when the children came, it was the 11-plus. That was the greatest thing Catholics could ever have, the 11-plus.”

Liddy recalls Warrenpoint as “a lovely place” to grow up in.

Nurse

The family later moved to Belfast; during the second World War her brother Pat Cranley was in the RAF, and Mairead was a nurse in London.

“I remember the Blitz, parts of it, going out in the ambulance in the middle of the night and the bombs, but you were young, you had no fear in you.”

Was she scared?

“Maybe you were, deep down, but you never thought about it.”

Back home in Belfast, there were plenty of American soldiers, and plenty of opportunities to meet them.

“There were dancehalls and all the girls went, but my mother wouldn’t have allowed us,” she says.

Henry Liddy in the newsagent’s and confectionery shop he ran with his wife Mairead Liddy in Belfast
Henry Liddy in the newsagent’s and confectionery shop he ran with his wife Mairead Liddy in Belfast

“Some of my friends would have driven out to [the base] where the Americans were, at Nutt’s Corner, and the result then was shiploads of them then going out to America at the end of the war.”

But Liddy was allowed to go to a Sunday night dance at St Mary’s Catholic Hall in the centre of Belfast where there was “no alcohol” and she met her husband, Henry, who was home on leave from the merchant navy.

“We got engaged, and then he went out on what he thought was a short trip to India, and that short trip took three years.”

Did she wait for him?

“Oh yes,” she replies with a smile. “We were very happy.”

A job for Henry in the civil service took the couple to London, and a “beautiful house” in Kingston-upon-Thames, but they came back to Belfast when Henry’s father died.

“He was an only child and we got word to say that his Daddy had died... he couldn’t leave his mother and the business. I cried because I didn’t want to leave London, but that was the way it was.”

Sweet shop

After their return Henry helped to run the family newsagent’s and sweet shop on Donegall Street, and as his mother got older they moved there with their four children. This meant that during the Troubles they were “right in the middle of it. There wasn’t a day or night we didn’t have bombs,” says Liddy.

“We lost that many windows, Henry knew the measurements of all the windows and could ring up the next day and order them,” she says.

“We had front door blown in, back door blown in, and still we never had even a cut, any of us. The only thing I thank God for is that I reared four of them, and not one of them got into any scrapes because they didn’t get out at nighttime.

Mairead Liddy, who will celebrate her 100th birthday in December, with her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Photograph: Stephen Davison/Pacemaker Belfast
Mairead Liddy, who will celebrate her 100th birthday in December, with her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Photograph: Stephen Davison/Pacemaker Belfast

“It’s not like nowadays, when I see the children out running, and I think, what sort of parents have they? My father wouldn’t have allowed that. Even the night before I was married I had to be in at 11pm.”

Now living in Magheralin, Co Armagh, Liddy’s greatest delight is her four children, eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren – and the return of her hairdresser now that the Covid-19 lockdown has eased.

She does not believe there is any secret to a long life, pointing out that she has “had my ups and downs, the same as everybody”, but when she looks back, “it was a happy one”.

“I am happy – why wouldn’t I be? I like to be able to go to bed at night and I don’t owe anybody anything. I’m not rich and I’m not poor, but I’ve got enough to live on, and I like to feel that I can live in peace now.”

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