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Mix 'n' match: Crossing the religious divide for love

Family fall-outs, prejudice ... and hope. In two of the most revealing real-life accounts you'll ever read, the children of couples who fell in love across the divide tell their stories.

Published 10/04/2015

Common ground: a scene from Mixed Marriage at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, a drama about relationship issues amid religious sectarianism in Belfast
Common ground: a scene from Mixed Marriage at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, a drama about relationship issues amid religious sectarianism in Belfast
Author and NIMMA volunteer, Paul McLaughlin
Optimistic outlook: Louise Manly was brought up a Catholic and is now in a relationship with a Protestant
Family ties: Kit Wright went to Mass and learned to play the Sash

Since 10 brave souls told their stories of love, across the religious divide, for Mixed Emotions, a ground-breaking 2012 publication by the Northern Ireland Mixed Marriage Association (NIMMA), a follow-up on the children of such unions has been eagerly awaited.

Each story in the newly published Both Sides Now - as in Mixed Emotions - is shared in openness and with courage, and makes for some very moving reading.

Author and NIMMA volunteer, Paul McLaughlin, who has more than 30 years experience of interviewing in the private, public and voluntary sectors, describes himself as having "been very fortunate to have met and worked with the brave people whose stories make up this book".

He says: "It is never easy in Northern Ireland to break the sectarian mould and to talk about it openly. Unfortunately as a society, we have not yet moved that far, but these folk have done it and done it for the benefit of others."

Both Sides Now explores the experiences of children of mixed marriages in their own words. "These individual stories, real life experiences in the words of the people themselves, speak of hope and courage, compromise and determination," says Professor Peter Shirlow of the Institute for Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queen's University, Belfast. "They tell of good times and bad, of love and prejudice, of difference and division, but they also speak of family as a force for good, often against all the odds."

Here, two of the new publication's contributors - from different generations and cultural upbringings - give a snapshot of their experience growing up with parents of different religions in a divided society.

'My best friend blurted out to the rest of the class: her daddy is a Protestant!'

Louise Manly is a 29-year-old piano teacher from Belfast and a former tour guide at Crumlin Road gaol. She lives near the village of Hannahstown on the slopes of the Black Mountain and has a boyfriend who happens to be Protestant. The youngest of three children, Louise was brought up Catholic. Her "mixed marriage" parents met while working in the Civil Service in 1973. Louise says:

Initially my mother, a Catholic, initially had a good relationship with my father's Church of Ireland parents, but the announcement of their engagement changed that. My paternal grandfather didn't support the decision and neither of my father's parents attended the wedding, which was held in a Catholic church and blessed later by a Church of Ireland minister.

I'm sure that absence was hurtful and it's difficult to fathom this petty disapproval. It certainly had nothing to do with politics - my paternal grandfather was a Dublin Irishman and my grandmother was proud of her Donegal inheritance. It was about religion, and I'll never understand why minor differences in spiritual belief caused such discontent.

My father continued to see his parents, but acceptance was never extended to my mother. Eight years passed - then one sunny afternoon, when my parents were spending the weekend on the coast at Magilligan, my father called his parents, who lived close by in Derry. He told them that he was nearby with his family and that they were welcome to join him.

They did - and this was the first time that they met their grandchildren, Stephen, then eight, and Niamh, three. By the time I was born in 1985, visits to Derry were regular, full of happy memories and enjoyed by everyone. Perhaps time healed old wounds, but I certainly believe children put things in perspective. We were christened Catholic and my grandfather certainly didn't love us any less because of our religion.

So, I had Catholic aunts, uncles and cousins, and Protestant aunts, uncles and cousins. Meanwhile, on the news, the incessant media reports describing the conflict between "Protestants and Catholics" reinforced the perception of complete opposition between the two. Was I the only child of a mixed marriage? Perhaps if I'd gone to an integrated primary school, I wouldn't have thought so, but they were few and far between in 1989.

One day in my Catholic all-girls school, a classmate asked me why my daddy never went to Mass. She remarked that she saw me every Sunday with my mum, but never my dad. I thought for a moment before I remembered the answer. So, I said, matter-of-factly: "My daddy is a Protestant".

She gawped at me before blurting it out to the rest of my class: "Her daddy is a Protestant!"

There was much gasping and mouths hanging open, and whispering. I didn't cry or go back on my word, as you might think a nine-year-old would. Instead, I laughed: how silly were these girls, thinking my daddy being a Protestant was a big deal!

Of course, back then we went on EMU trips (Education for Mutual Understanding) with Orangefield Primary School. The beautiful thing about children is that they'd rather look for compatibility than differences in potential friends. My all-girls class was so agitated about spending time with boys that we almost forgot they were Protestant. Anyway, I had plenty of opportunity to spend time with Protestants - my own cousins.

When it came to family, differences like religion barely mattered. We shared the same grandparents - what was more important than that? In fact, differences were hardly discussed at all, and when they were, it was interesting rather than conflicting. One evening when my cousins were over for dinner, my mother went upstairs to find one of them dressed in my sister's old First Communion dress. She hadn't received Holy Communion or the opportunity to wear a big white dress and veil - so we decided to have one for her and dressed her up accordingly.

I continued my education in an all-girls Catholic secondary school, and when I was 16 I decided to apply for the Spirit of Enniskillen.

It was a youth-led charity that took people from different cultural backgrounds to find areas of commonality. Many of my friends had gone on these trips and enjoyed them, but my application wasn't successful. Because I was already from a 'mixed marriage', the interviewer couldn't understand how I would benefit from the trip. Once again, I felt like an outsider.

I hadn't been thinking about what I would take from the experience - it was about what I could give. I wanted young people to see that it's not just Protestant or Catholic; that plenty of children come from a happily mixed background; that we weren't outsiders. For me, it wasn't about team-building trips away or weekend workshops, but rather the example of lifetime partnerships that blur the 'boundaries' completely and show the way to a shared future.

Of course, not everyone is as optimistic as I am. My brother Stephen left Belfast for university across the water more than 20 years ago - he couldn't wait to get away.

He has married and has a family and a new life there. I speak with him regularly on the phone and sadly, he still feels the same. He didn't get the chance to see how things have changed and are continuing to change, and remains downbeat about Northern Ireland.

I look to the future and the belief that we have the common sense and humour to face it together.

Ironically, having been raised the Catholic child of a mixed marriage, I'm now in a relationship with a Protestant.

We have no problems with religion or about religion - it isn't that important to us, but, unlike when my parents got married, and my father was coerced into making promises about child rearing (he never did by the way) - we know we can rely on the support of NIMMA if we need it.

If we do get married, I'm not sure I'd ever call it a 'mixed' one anyway.

After all, it will have the same ingredients that went into my parents' marriage and we'll just be repeating the same recipe. Not with a 'mixed marriage' label, but, hopefully, a happy marriage."

All NIMMA publications are available by contacting their office at 28 Bedford Street, Belfast, Northern Ireland. BT2 7FE or tel: 028 9023 5444 or email info@nimma.org.uk

'Did my brother's lifelong stammer come from being jeered at as a boy?

Kit Wright is a retired postal executive, originally from Portadown, now living in Banbridge. In Both Sides Now, the father-of-one acknowledges the example of respect and love learned from his Protestant mother, Charlotte, and his Catholic father, Vincent, a former RAF man who was shunned by his religion for marrying in a Presbyterian Church. Now non-denominational in his faith, Kit was strongly influenced by his mother's Protestant Scots-Irish culture and traditions. Kit says:

My parents met when my mother was 14 and my father 16, and they remained together for the next 70 years. When my father reached his 18th birthday in 1943, he joined the RAF for the war effort and was stationed in England and then Nutt's Corner, near Belfast.

My parents' wedding photo shows him wearing his RAF uniform outside Tandragee Presbyterian Church where they first married. If there are photos of their later remarriage in the Catholic Church, I have never seen them. As far as they were concerned, their wedding anniversary was the day they married, not the day they remarried.

My father's parents were vehemently opposed to the wedding and put pressure on him to cancel. My parents didn't receive any presents from my father's family until they remarried in the Catholic Church six years later. (Up until then, my father - being in a mixed marriage - wasn't allowed to receive the sacraments, which had affected him deeply).

Growing up, I remember there seemed to be a certain distance between us and our extended Catholic family. They were kind and friendly, but we were never really close. I was aware from an early age that my Catholic aunts had not approved of my father's choice of wife, or rather, her denomination. Indeed, my mother only recently told me that when my teenage father declared to his mother that they were seeing each other, she responded by saying he would get nowhere going out with 'that wee Protestant girl'.

I spent a lot of my childhood with my maternal grandparents in Bangor, where we experienced the strong Scottish flavour of my mother's heritage. My grandfather bought the Scottish Sunday papers and he loved music - the Alexander Brothers and Andy Stewart. He was a liberal man with working class roots, who didn't warm to the unionist government or the Orange Order, but he was Scots Irish to his toenails.

When my parents married, he advised his daughter not to give the children Catholic names because, as he said, they wouldn't get a job. So we all have somewhat neutral Christian names to go with our English surname of Wright, from my Catholic father's Protestant grandfather. (It's complicated!)

We lived in a religiously mixed housing estate, although predominantly Protestant. All my childhood friends were Protestants and I collected for the local bonfire on the 11th night. One of my friends taught me to play The Sash on the snare drum - I can still play it today.

However, not all our neighbours were tolerant. My mother and I were walking home one afternoon when a woman who lived down the street from us let loose on her about how she was a 'f*****g Fenian turncoat', shouting at the top of her voice. We got away and into the house, and strangely I understood what the fuss had been all about. I knew what the contentious issue was even at that young age.

I was the first born after my mother converted and attended a convent primary school. I can vividly remember a nun telling us that only Catholics had guardian angels, and that Protestants didn't believe in them and they would go to hell. I remember being upset that my maternal granny wouldn't be going to heaven …

I stopped going to Mass at 16 and any time I've been back since, searching for something, I've come away angry. My eldest brother Jeff lost his faith completely. He was only nine when he was confronted by four women, around our parents' age, outside the parish hall. Seeing him approach, one of the women declared loudly "Here's Vincie Wright's wee b*****d", in reference to Jeff being considered illegitimate by the Catholic Church (as my mother didn't convert until six years into her marriage). Of course, Jeff didn't understand this. They grabbed him and shoved him from one to another until the parish hall doors opened.

Jeff had lived all his adult life in England and kept that incident locked away for 41 years. He could still recall the women's names when he told the story for the first time, sitting on my settee drunk, with tears streaming down his face. It had affected him deeply for all those years and I wonder if a child psychologist would have attributed Jeff's lifelong stammer to that incident.

During the 1974 loyalist strike our house was petrol bombed and we were forced to move to a new housing estate on Portadown's Garvaghy Road, which was gradually becoming a Catholic area, due to increasing intimidation on both sides at that time. I never liked it there, as I always preferred mixed cultural company, but that was restricted due to the tensions of the time and the risk from a minority of bigots.

Looking back, my father regarded himself very much as an Irishman, even though - having served in the British Armed Forces - he would have been a 'soft' nationalist. But he despised Irish republicans who used their Catholic faith as some kind of credential for their political beliefs.

When his RAF service ended, he went to the British Legion hall in Portadown to socialise, but hard-line unionists in the hall made him unwelcome because he was a Catholic. He never returned.

On the other side of the family, many of my mother's uncles and first cousins were in the RUC. My cousin had me convinced at 14 years of age that I was joining the RUC when I left school. I would have been happy to do so, but the Troubles started and it didn't happen. However, the family connection gave me a degree of empathy for police officers that would not have been appreciated by some of my Christian Brothers' classmates in Armagh. Not that I was stupid enough to tell them, given the number that hailed from South Armagh. Three of my schoolmates were later killed 'on active service' in the IRA.

It's funny to think of it now - my mother's Girl Guides experience came in handy for me at times. I started working for the Post Office in the 1970s and at one point, my duties included raising the Union flag over the local Post Office on the days designated by government. Given my upbringing, I didn't have a problem with this, but when I told my mother she was careful to explain to me the right way to raise it - that is, not upside down. She also taught me the words to God Save The Queen, which I needed to know - back when I played in a band - for the last number of the night.

One unexpected issue with being the child of a mixed marriage was medical history. When I was diagnosed with cancer on the eve of my 52nd birthday - and when my brother received the same bad news a few years later - my GP advised me to speak to the cancer genetics department at Belfast City Hospital to determine if there was a trend in the family history.

If a trend was found, this would enable us to alert the next generations of the family and they would be aware of the need for early checks. However, as my parents had largely been distanced from their immediate and extended families, we didn't have any information on how relatives of previous generations had died. I did eventually source the information through a cousin of my mother who lived in Canada and who had remained loyal to my mother through all the years.

Of the six children my parents gave life to, three married Protestants, one a Buddhist, one a Catholic (who, ironically, later divorced), and the other never married. We experienced an overall happy life. However, standing at my dad's bedside during the last days of his life, and witnessing his torment over his virtual excommunication some 70 years earlier, it brought me back to my early memories of the family discomfort that I had long since forgotten. Dementia had erased almost a lifetime of my father's memory, but it couldn't impact upon the deepest wound on his psyche, the torture he had to endure for loving my mother."

Making a drama out of a real-life crisis 

The theme of mixed marriage has made for some compelling drama on stage and screen, most notably in the hit film A Love Divided, and in the famous Billy plays.

The second play in the legendary Billy trilogy, A Matter of Choice for Billy, set in 1978, traced the shifting relationships within the Martin family after the death of their mother and the emigration of their father.

Billy has to decide about the nature of his commitment to Pauline, his 'Fenian nurse-friend', when she gets a job offer from Canada. Once she decides that she would rather live in sin than Toronto, Billy moves in with her. The play got all of Northern Ireland talking about mixed relationships, unfortunately still as contentious on certain bigoted circles, but now more common and accepted than ever before in wider society.

A Love Divided is based on the true story of Sean and Sheila Cloney and the bitter boycott that followed their mixed marriage in Fethard-on-Sea, Co Wexford, in the 1950s.

Catholics refused to buy goods from their Protestant neighbours after Sheila refused to honour the infamous Catholic Ne Temere pledge to send her daughters Eileen and Mary to the local Catholic school.

Under immense pressure, Sheila fled to Belfast and then Scotland with her daughters. Her defiance led local priest Fr William Stafford to order a boycott on all Protestant businesses in the area. Protestant shopkeepers in Fethard lost customers, a Protestant music teacher lost 11 of her pupils, and a Catholic teacher at the local Protestant school was forced to resign.

The boycott was eventually broken when Fr Stafford bought a packet of cigarettes in a shop owned by a Protestant.

Belfast Telegraph

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