A Belfast Child Returns

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Some say troubles abound

Some day soon they’re gonna pull the old town down

One day we’ll return here

When the Belfast Child sings again

The lyrics above are from the song ‘Belfast Child’ by Simple Minds. My mum played this song to me when I was young. Though I didn’t really understand the significance of the lyrics at the time, it touched my heart and I knew my mum was trying to share with me the sadness she felt about the conflict and tragedies that had become synonymous with her hometown of Belfast. Mum would often talk about The Troubles and the acts of terrorism that had marred her childhood. For those that don’t know, The Troubles refers to thirty years of violence and dispute, from 1968 when my mum was twelve, until 1998, between Protestant unionists (loyalists) who wanted to remain part of the UK, and Roman Catholic nationalists (republicans) who wanted Northern Ireland to be part of the Republic of Ireland. You can read more about the history here Encyclopaedia Britannica. My mum and her family were Protestant loyalists. During The Troubles, the British Army were stationed in the country in a peacekeeping capacity. In 1972, when my dad, a British Army soldier, was deployed to Northern Ireland, he met my mum, then aged sixteen. He was twenty-four years old and newly separated from his first wife, the mother of his two daughters. The separation had not been his idea. Mum, who had lost her father when she was eight and her mother the year before when she was fifteen, felt she was old enough to take care of herself and all she wanted in life was to get married and have a family of her own. Mum and Dad met when her friend, who was dating a friend of my dad’s, invited mum to a disco (this was the seventies…). They fell in love but the course of true love was not smooth. Dad went back to his first wife for a while to give things a last go for the sake of his daughters. Mum was devastated, pined for Dad but accepted he had left her to try to do what he considered to be the right thing. When Dad returned to Belfast, with his first marriage completely over, Mum and Dad reunited, married in Belfast on the 20th December 1975. I’m told I was conceived on their first wedding anniversary as I arrived into the world nine months later in September 1977 when Dad was stationed in Hanover, Germany. My Irish Grandmother’s name was Elizabeth. I was given the name Lisa as a tribute to her (Lisa is a short form for Elisabeth, the more common spelling in Germany and Northern Europe) and a nod to Elvis Presley’s beloved daughter Lisa Marie. My dad was a huge Elvis fan and his idol had passed away the month before I was born.         

My earliest memory of being in Belfast must be from around the age of six or seven. At this time Dad was stationed in Ballykinler, less than an hour’s drive from Belfast, where Mum’s family lived. Mum was the youngest of six children (and Dad was one of four kids) so I had lots of aunties, uncles and cousins growing up. One day Mum told me she was taking me to my Auntie Miriam’s house and I remember feeling excited. However, before we got into the taxi, Mum became very serious and she instructed me not to speak at all until we were safely inside my auntie’s house. She explained that I was not allowed to speak as I had an English accent and if my voice was heard, or I said anything about my dad being in the Army, I could put both my dad and my auntie and her family in danger. It was genuinely frightening as a child to know that just by uttering one word I could cause terrible things to happen to people I loved. As Mum chatted away with the jovial taxi driver, I sat mute and looked out of the window, too scared to make eye-contact with the driver. I assumed he must be a bad man if I wasn’t allowed to speak in his presence, not fully comprehending that wasn’t necessarily the case but Mum was just trying to minimise the possibility of incriminating questions and risk of repercussions. I was rewarded with a chocolate bar at my auntie’s house for my good behaviour. I couldn’t always understand what my auntie, uncle Herbie or cousins Ruth and Robert said to me as they spoke fast and their Belfast accents were strong, but I knew I was loved and there was a lot of laughter, and cuddles for me, in their house.   

While Dad was based in Ballykinler, Northern Ireland, we lived in the barracks for security reasons. To go to the local primary school in Tyrella, I had to pass through a security check point and my name was ticked off when I left for school and when I returned to the barracks. It didn’t seem strange to me or my friends that we had to do this and it was only when I was older that I realised why we had had to do this and the risk we had faced being the children of British Army soldiers in a place of conflict. We moved every one to two years, usually moving between the UK and Germany, and we didn’t return to live in Northern Ireland again, though we did visit once more as a family when my cousin Ruth married and I was a bridesmaid. I was twelve.

It was around the age of twelve when I began to notice my mum’s drinking. My mum was a vivacious outgoing person who loved to pop round to friends’ houses for a gossip and a glass of wine. She would get drunk and emotional, tell me she loved me and would cry about her lost parents. It was uncomfortable but I thought all mums were like this. I was her shoulder to cry on, forced to be the adult in the relationship. Over time, the rows between Mum and Dad increased – they had a couldn’t live with/couldn’t live without relationship with Dad leaving the family home multiple times – and Mum’s drinking became a problem. The root of the issue was her grief at losing her parents at a young age, grief which she had never properly dealt with. At sixteen she had felt old enough to look after herself and live life on her terms but as I entered my teenage years, Mum seemed to unravel. Seeing how young I was made her realise just how young she had been when she had gone through so much turmoil and loss in her family, and her country. Creating a family of her own had been a distraction but buried feelings always eventually rise up and everyone has different coping strategies. Mum’s coping strategy unfortunately was drinking. I didn’t realise that it had gotten out of hand until I caught her having a sneaky drink in the morning. When you have to start your day with a drink, you are in trouble. I tried to talk to her and asked her to get help but she insisted she didn’t need help as she wasn’t an alcoholic. She was a devoted and loving mum but alcohol changed her. The reality was she was a lovely person to be around until 6pm and then after that, she was best avoided. Our home became a battleground and I couldn’t wait to escape to university when I turned eighteen. I didn’t return home very often after I left as I found it too stressful and upsetting. Sometimes she would send me sweet handwritten letters and cards telling me she was proud of me, loved and missed me. Sometimes she would get drunk and leave me abusive voicemails. I loved her but wanted her to sort herself out, to face her demons and find some happiness.

It wasn’t to be. She threw my dad out and isolated herself. Mum passed away at home alone, aged fifty in 2007; her death was caused by her long-term drinking. Her body wasn’t found until weeks after she passed. I had told my dad beforehand that I was concerned I hadn’t been able to get her on the phone for a while but that wasn’t that unusual for mum and he said she would get back in touch when she wanted to. When she passed, I know he regretted not going to her home to check on her. Though her death was a shock, I felt relief that she was at peace. Some of Mum’s siblings came to her funeral and after Mum was cremated, my auntie Miriam took Mum’s urn back to Belfast and her ashes were scattered where she wanted them to be: on the graves of her mother and father. The Belfast child returned after all.          

I haven’t been back to Belfast myself since I was a child. Over the years, with grandparents and my parents’ passing, I have lost touch with my extended families. I am only forty-two now but with Dad’s passing last year, I am very conscious of the lack of family in my life. When you have been brought up taught that family is everything, it’s hard not to have those kinds of bonds in my life. I could easily pass cousins in the street and not recognise them. It’s a shame and I’ve decided to do something about it. Belfast is very much a city on the rise today with many tech start-ups moving there post-Brexit. Money has been spent regenerating the city centre and attractions such as the Titanic Museum make Belfast an appealing weekend city break. I am going to Belfast to retrace my mum’s footsteps and to see if I can reconnect with some family members. I remember the stories she used to tell me about her High School, her old haunts, and I want to see for myself what these places look like today. Only after you lose someone do you become aware of all the things you wish you could ask them. I’m grateful that Mum and I had a strong bond when I was growing up and that she shared so many stories with me so at least I have her memories.     

When I look in the mirror I see my mum. When I was a child people always commented on how much I looked like her. I used to feel embarrassed and irritated by my lack of distinctive identity, as if it was assumed that because I looked like her that I must be like her in personality and qualities. I wanted to be my own person, an independent spirit without Mum’s failings and weaknesses. We can be harsh judges of our parents when we are teenagers, lacking understanding of how life’s complexities and changing tides can impact and change a person. Now older and bruised by some painful life chapters myself, I feel more compassion for Mum. Never able to admit it out loud, Mum was an alcoholic and her struggle with personal demons made life at home challenging growing up. I never doubted how much she loved me though and I treasure the handwritten letters and cards that she sent me after I left home. I feel ready to explore my Irish heritage and I am proud to carry the resemblance as I return to her hometown.

I will keep you posted about my journey and will write a destination guide for Belfast for those readers who enjoy my travel posts (see more travel posts here Flight Path). 

Take care,

Lisa.