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I spent 25 years looking for my Catholic mother and was ready to quit, but then fate intervened

After a mixed marriage ended in heartbreak, John Chambers was sure he'd lost his mum for good, then a chance encounter changed his life, writes Ivan Little

Published 17/08/2016

John Chambers, the child of a mixed marriage in Belfast
John Chambers, the child of a mixed marriage in Belfast
Above from left, John (far left,as a child with sisters Jane, Theresa, (renamed Alison) and his brother Francis, (renamed James).
John (centre), with his brother Francis (right) and a friend
A young John Chambers in hospital
John with his wife and their two children
As a teenage Mod

A Shankill Road Protestant who spent 25 fruitless years searching for his Catholic mother from the Falls has talked emotionally of how he stumbled on the first clues about her whereabouts thanks to a chance encounter in Florida between a friend and a Boston-based Belfast exile.

Not long after the remarkable million-to-one Stateside meeting, John Chambers had a tearful reunion in England with the mother he'd given up any hope of ever knowing after she was ostracised by his loyalist relatives because of her religion.

Now John (50) has launched another quest - to find a publisher to bring out a book about his astonishing story of growing up in a bitterly divided family in a bitterly divided city.

"I wrote most of it 20 years ago," says John. "I had a publisher then, but I took cold feet and pulled out of the deal because I thought the time wasn't right for me to go public about the complexities and sensitivities within my family, many of whom were still in Belfast

"However, so much water has flowed under the bridge now that I am keen to see it in print."

John is now poised to have his wish granted to share his experiences with an even wider audience. After a national newspaper printed part of his draft, he was approached by a number of documentary-makers, scriptwriters and radio show producers who wanted him to collaborate with them on recounting his story, which started with a chance meeting between his parents, Marie and John.

The couple, who fell hopelessly in love, eventually married in 1962, but it was also a union that was doomed from the start because they were both disowned by their families for daring to cross the religious divide.

But the pair tried to hold things together and John Jnr was born in July 1966, the third of four children and the first boy.

The Chambers lived in the Grosvenor Road area and the parents tried to insulate the children from the hatred that surrounded them.

But John, who spent two years in hospital with a bone disease that led to him undergoing 16 operations to save his right leg, was also shielded from other tensions nearer home that resulted in the break-up of his parents' marriage - and of his family.

"I was too young to understand what was happening, but I realised that something was wrong when my parents started visiting me separately," says John, who was later bundled out of the hospital by his mother into a taxi where his two sisters and brother were waiting.

An excited John thought they were going on holiday, but they flew to London to start a new life without their father. However, it wasn't a case of happy families, for John's father suddenly arrived in London to take the children home.

"There was nothing mum could do about it, and although we didn't know it at the time it was the last time any of us would ever see her, or have any contact with her, or any of her family again, for decades."

The children came to believe that their mother was dead, and John says that the pain of not having her in his life tore him apart.

After he was finally discharged from hospital in 1970, the four- year-old John went home with his father and siblings to a new house in the loyalist Glencairn estate, and he says he fell in love with the place because of its wide open spaces for him and his dad's Alsatian, Shep, to play.

But as the troubles intensified, John would eventually realise that there was another side to Glencairn, which was largely controlled by the UDA.

John says his Christian and pacifist father was a member of the organisation, but had nothing to do with the violence they perpetrated and instead ran a drinking club for them called Grouchos.

John was eventually told by his grandparents that his mother hadn't been killed in a car crash as he suspected, but that she had in fact gone away and he would never see her again. He was also forbidden from talking about her again.

Two of his siblings' Irish names, which had been given to them to placate their mother's family, were changed to English-sounding ones in a bid to remove all traces of their Catholic connections.

And John says with every passing year he became more and more the archetypal Protestant, filled with pride as he saw his father and sisters dressing in their uniforms on the Twelfth of July to march with a loyalist band.

Even though he attended church and joined their youth organisations, the pride of the Twelfth gave way to hatred as John started to view all Catholics as his enemies amidst the mounting horrors of the conflict in Belfast and across Northern Ireland.

John couldn't exclude his own mother from his loathing. "The thought that she was a Catholic disgusted me," he says "She became a dirty Fenian in my childish mind.'

As he grew older, John continued to do the things that most Protestant boys of his age did in the Glencairn estate -he carried the strings of Orange banners on marches, he built Eleventh Night bonfires and fought to protect them from rival gangs, and he watched as effigies of the Pope were set alight to cheers from adoring crowds.

However, he also saw sights that disgusted him, including punishment beatings and the tarring and feathering of a young Protestant girl who had been in a relationship with a Catholic.

The notorious Shankill Butchers were also murdering Catholics, and the bodies were sometimes dumped in or near the Glencairn estate.

John says he started to feel anger towards the killers and sympathy with their victims.

But his life changed dramatically after his father died of lung cancer at the age of 39 and John and his siblings were farmed out to relatives throughout the estate.

John became a glue sniffer and a joyrider. He says he was involved on the fringes of the paramilitary groups, but never took part in any of their operations, choosing instead to align himself with the Mods subculture, which brought him into contact with Catholic Mods, who he realised were just the same as him.

At the age of 18, he boarded a ferry for England to "flee from unemployment, prison, or death".

"I never looked back," John says. But the reality was that he couldn't escape his past and the Catholic mother that he by now knew for sure was living in England.

He'd earlier met a Catholic priest in Belfast in an attempt to find her, but he "bottled out" of any further contact because he was afraid of being seen with "a representative of the enemy".

Letters between John and the Salvation Army came to nought. He even wrote to Dear Deidre in The Sun newspaper seeking her help in locating his mother, but again without success.

Just as he'd resigned himself to never tracing his mother, fate stepped in when an old school friend from the Shankill went on holiday to Florida, where he met a couple from the Falls Road who were on vacation from their new home in Boston.

Out of the blue the name of the Chambers family came up in conversation, and after the friend said that he knew them the woman said she was a sister of John's mother. The aunt said that her sister had been trying to get in touch with John and her other three children for years, but had always been blocked by the family.

The aunt wrote a letter to John, which his friend agreed to send on to him.

It read: "I hope this letter finds you well and apologies if I have the wrong person.

"You obviously don't know me and, although I now live in Boston, USA, I am originally from the Falls Road. A few days ago, I met a Belfast couple and we got talking. When I heard they were from the Shankill, I felt goose pimples run up my spine. You see, my sister, Marie, married a guy from the Shankill Road, John Chambers, in the 60s and they had four children together.

"The strain of coming from a mixed marriage was too much for them. The break-up was very hostile and my sister was denied access to the children and lost contact with them. In fact, all contact with members of my sister's family was denied and we have been trying to find the children ever since.

"When I asked the couple if they knew the Chambers family, I was amazed when he told me he went to school with you and he knew your brother and sisters.

"John, I think you are my sister's son and I am including my telephone number and address and would be over the moon if you would contact me.

"I will understand if you don't wish to speak to me, but my sister has always loved you all and has spent a lifetime searching for you. Even to know that you were all well and happy would mean the world to her."

The upshot of the letter was a meeting between John and his brother and their mother, who was waiting for them at Preston railway station in Lancashire.

"There were lots of tears, kisses and hugs," John says. "Our mum said she was nervous about seeing us and it was a really bizarre experience coming face-to-face with her. But I am so glad that it happened.

"After that first encounter, I moved to the north of England with my wife-to-be to be near my mother, and I see her almost every day. My wife, two children and I have a very good relationship with my mum despite the history. It was very difficult for her as well as for me."

John's mother has shied away from the spotlight and has declined to do interviews or be photographed. "But she's given me her blessing in trying to find a publisher for my book," says John.

John Chambers blogs at

Belfast Telegraph

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