Choosing to be both

The conflicts and consolations of growing up in a “mixed marriage” in Northern Ireland

Two months ago, my mother went to the cinema to see Belfast. Her path wasn’t quite Branagh’s but it was a retrospective all the same. Born in 1950 and raised in a Protestant, loyalist town just ten miles from Kenneth’s childhood home, she caused some consternation by falling in love with a Catholic fella from West Belfast. To say it didn’t go down well with her family (her father was a shipyard worker, a freemason, and an Orangeman) and my Da’s family (his father was born on St Patrick’s Day – a man who began the path to priesthood before marrying and producing six children) is a bit of an understatement. When they announced their engagement in 1972, they were warned by both sides that mixed marriages – the term used for the union of those following exactly the same god but from a slightly different angle – were doomed to failure. Indeed, only a Holy Roman wedding would ensure their offspring were deemed legitimate. My grandfather, ousted from the Orange Order and facing death threats if he entered the chapel, waited in the car park of St Bernadette’s as my great-uncle gave my mother away instead.

Following the wedding mass and the subsequent blessing at my mother’s church, both families sat down for together for the first and only time. They ate their steaks and drank their wine and took it in turn to sing, although the priest had to be elbowed sharply by my aunt as he unthinkingly began a more contentious verse of a rebel song. That night, having dropped off their suitcases at their hotel, my parents went to celebrate with friends in a nearby pub. When they returned, their luggage was on the lawn outside, about to be destroyed in a controlled explosion: they were the only people unaccounted for when a bomb threat had been phoned in.

Honeymoon over, my parents left their home towns and moved first to a ramshackle cottage near the Co. Down coast where there was no running water and no electricity but, pleasingly for my mother who sees the good in things, there were roses round the door. By the time I was born in the mid-’70s, they were living in a village at the end of the Ards Peninsula. They had both turned their backs on organised religion when they married and had determined that their children could decide their own faith when they were old enough. There may have been slight disquietude that I settled on atheism but given all the furore over what was nominally about who did god better, I was having none of it.

Where their childhoods may have had echoes of Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, mine and my sister’s was much more like Derry Girls. Lisa McGee’s show captures note-perfectly the atmosphere of working-class life during the latter years of the Troubles, not least because my Da is now Granda Joe to a tee. Oh, there are differences: I’m a few years older than her characters and I grew up in Portaferry, not Derry. My school was a state grammar (read: Protestant), not a convent – though our bottle green uniforms and ties with yellow stripes were identical to those of Our Lady Immaculate College in Derry Girls. My home was in a Catholic town, and I was immersed in Irish music and culture as standard. We did indeed go for holidays over the border with our punt purse. In the cross-community school trip episode, where differences are listed on a blackboard to stereotype each side of the divide, I scored 50:50 – I love a good hymn, but I also love a good statue. I like soup, but I’ve never kept my toaster in a cupboard. I clearly inherited the Catholic guilt and the Protestant work ethic, so now I feel guilty if I’m not working.

Life growing up in the Troubles wasn’t idyllic, but it was usual; it was normal. It wouldn’t meet the standard of normal outside of six particular counties, but to us it was what we knew. Yes, the police were Protestant and issued with guns and moustaches as standard; no, school wasn’t closed just because the bus had been hijacked. Yes, my student cohort was welcomed to Queen’s University Belfast in 1994 with the shining promise that we were destined to be the ceasefire graduates; no, it didn’t last. Yes, the army had closed off the end of the road again; no, no delay, you could still get to the Spar for a loaf of bread. Yes, it was perfectly acceptable – indeed, contractually obliged – for you to be asked to search for incendiary bombs in the shop where you have your £3.65 per hour Saturday job; no, you shouldn’t try to remove the suspect devices yourself. Yes, there was a rising death toll on every news bulletin; yes, we saw more than we should; yes, we sometimes knew the dead – knew they were the relative of a friend or a colleague, that they too were living their normal-not-normal lives, and no, probably they weren’t supposed to be there, they weren’t supposed to be hurt or dead, they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. An entire populace somehow in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I lived my life there as a run of contradictions but with a strong loyalty to my belonging. For me, it was a beautiful thing for a place to shoulder its burdens and keep going. I always did have an overdeveloped sense of martyrdom. I was a misfit in both worlds: a Token Taig at school, with an Irish surname that didn’t fit with the rest of my class, and the Half-a-Jaffa in my hometown, never going to mass, never sharing those catechisms. But I felt at home – fiercely at home – within that line on the map, united by those experiences that no one outside our contested border shared.

In 1998, I had graduated and was working on a Viking dig in Temple Bar in Dublin. I remember reading Seamus Heaney’s North as a perfect background to life then – all those symbols and images of Ireland and its Scandinavian colonisers laid out in words that spoke directly of the Troubles: archaeo-politics and conflict in the turning of the soil. We all loved a bit of Heaney in the ’90s. It was convenient cultural shorthand.

The Friday Agreement states that the people of Northern Ireland can “identify as Irish, or British, or both, as they may so choose”

On 22 May that year, my boss gave three of us northerners the afternoon off work to drive to Belfast to vote in the Good Friday Agreement Referendum. In that car, in the sunshine through a dusty windscreen, we each had stories of loss and we each travelled home to vote Yes. It was a hesitant rather than a jubilant peace when it arrived. Too many false starts. But when it happened, when it took hold, it was a long exhalation. For me, it was a settling of my own status. The Good Friday Agreement meant I no longer had to pick between cultures. I could be both at once. The birthright provisions in it state that all the people of Northern Ireland can “identify themselves and be accepted as Irish, or British, or both, as they may so choose.” That’s me, that’s what I am: both.

I left my homeland in September 2000. I crossed the Irish Sea to England (never “the mainland” – it was never that to me). I had only moved to another part of the UK, but the culture shock was enormous. It was early enough days, then, that the jokes were still there (“Are you a bomber?” “You stupid Paddies.” “Don’t get her angry – she’ll shoot you”). I modified my voice so they could understand my name. “That’s Kayyyte, not Kit.” I clung on tightly to the Irish parts of me so they wouldn’t be subsumed. I needn’t have feared that, though. Twenty-two years on and I’m still in England, culturally adapted and accepting – approving, even – of baked beans in my fried breakfast. Soon I’ll have lived here for longer than I lived there but I’m still both.

Sometimes, when I go back to visit my family, I find myself feeling guilty that my loyalty to the place is no longer as strong. But I was shaped there, by countless contradictions. I will never shake the mental sorting of a new acquaintance with an accent like mine into a religious denomination by dint of their name, address, or school, and I’ll never stop trying to find out who we mutually know and how we are connected in that tiny wee province. For now, peace holds. It was never really about whose version of god was best. That’s a convenient hook for blame when it’s really more about power and social control and poverty and marginalisation. I don’t know what happens next in a post-Brexit landscape where these things are pushed to the fore once more. But in this, the 50th year of their marriage, I am thankful for my parents’ stubbornness in the face of opposition. It has given me the gift of common ground.

Kate Devlin is a writer and academic at King’s College London. She tweets as @drkatedevlin


5 Comments. Leave new

  • Brendan Lynch
    May 11, 2022 1:39 pm

    Fantastic article, as a ‘both’, left Norn Iron 40+ years ago, brought up a family in England and still see Belfast as home!

  • Russell McCaughey
    May 12, 2022 6:21 am

    Great article Kate. Fascinating read! Your ‘cousin’ Russell.

  • Clare Rodgers
    May 12, 2022 10:54 am

    Excellent article and so true

  • Jodie Rogers
    May 12, 2022 7:18 pm

    Brilliant, relate to a lot of this. You’re abs excellent writer missus 🥰

  • E Anne Wilson
    May 15, 2022 9:38 am

    So proud to know you Kate. Fantastic peice, you’ve grown into a great woman and maybe we could get you back here to sort the ‘mess’ still going on. You’d be a brilliant asset me thinks. .😊


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