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Belfast man Joe Cushnan left home 40 years ago but left his heart behind

Belfast - 'It is stuffed full of creative people and more than a smattering of stubborn political'

When Joe Cushnan quit Belfast for England, he was glad to flee the Troubles yet, in a deeply personal account, he freely admits home is still where the heart is.

People react in different ways to the end of one year and the beginning of a new one. The ambivalent and apathetic choose one way but others adopt a more positive outlook and consider fresh starts in relationships, finances, career directions, travel plans and so on.

Appraising who we are, where we've come from and where we'd like to head to next are thoughts that occupy some of us as we step into the yet unwritten chapter of another year. My January fresh beginnings take me back specifically to 1976, the year I left home for a job opportunity in Manchester.

I have lived away from my native country for nearly 40 years but, while by definition I am an exile, let me pinch the punchline from a poem by actor Jimmy Ellis: " ... truth to tell, I never really left". And I never will.

Belfast is my home city and it is very important to me. It has a big heart and a troubled soul. It is where I was born and raised, where I went to school, where I started my working life and where my family roots are. I have always felt a strong and affectionate connection to it.

It is a city to shake a fist at and to embrace seconds later. It is stuffed full of creative people and more than a smattering of stubborn political slabber. But Belfast is in my blood. It is where I began.

So, how did I end up here in the English Midlands? And what do I carry with me from the city that shaped me?

I was one of seven children, not an unusually high number for a Catholic family in the 1950s. There is a photograph from around 1957, taken before my youngest brother was born - mother, father and six kids looking pretty happy and contented.

A couple of years later, my father walked out, abandoning his wife and kids. He never came back. I was six. I saw him once, some years later, but he was more of a stranger than a father.

My heroic mother

My mother by default became the greatest woman I have ever known. She raised seven children singlehandedly, sometimes under tremendous emotional and financial strain. Heroic.

At this time of the year, I always remind myself that I cannot recall any birthday or Christmas that was not special because she cooked and baked great food and, remarkably, we all received great presents. I have no idea how she coped.

She died in December 2011 and, because she lived in the same house for 60 years, her coffin was greeted by a huge crowd of friends in the street and by a capacity congregation in the church.

I learned a lot of good lessons from my mother, watching her in the kitchen, listening to her stories and, in retrospect, marvelling at her faith, determination and grit to do her absolute best for her kids. I carry my memories of her and admiration for her with me to this day. She shaped me in so many ways.

I left St Mary's Christian Brothers Grammar School in 1970 and applied to the Belfast Corporation Electricity Department, underlining my four O-levels on the application form. I was invited to an interview in the City Hall and endured an hour-long interview with a panel of crusty old guys in pinstriped suits. A relative warned me that they would already know which foot I kicked with, so I might not get the job. Oh, he of little faith! I was hired as an office clerk in the exciting location known as Power Station West, all sounding very Alistair MacLean. It was my first job, alas deadly dull and boring, but a start.

From there, I moved into junior retail management with Stewarts Supermarkets and Penneys in Dunmurry, before joining British Home Stores (BHS), Belfast in 1973. The BHS career plan included the possibility of moving to other stores on what the English loved to call "the mainland", a name that still irks me.

The three years I worked in Belfast city centre were a mixture of fun and fear. The 1970s were bloody times and the security forces fenced in Belfast's core.

The daily ritual of travelling to work included queuing at a gate awaiting a body search by a uniformed official, armed to the teeth. Bomb scares, random incendiary devices, riots and an occasional explosion took care of the fear factor. The fun part was working with a lively team, full of banter, individuals from all parts of the city working in harmony and good humour - before we all went back to our enclaves at the end of the day. BHS taught me so much about the mechanics of business and the importance of respecting people regardless of backgrounds and beliefs.

My oldest brother Paul was killed in a road accident in 1974. I turned 21 in 1975 and, in 1976, the second heaviest year for casualties in the Troubles (after 1972), I was offered a chance to move to England. I thought about it for a while and I came to the conclusion that this was a ticket out of a troubled country. More than a handful of people had told me: "There's nothing here for you, son."

I arrived in Manchester in February 1976 and almost immediately my Belfast accent sounded and felt abnormal. I was indeed that stranger in a strange land but with the added pressure of being audibly identifiable as a native of a very troubled and tragic part of the United Kingdom.

'On the run'

In the early months, I was asked if I was "on the run" or "a member of the IRA" or a Protestant or a Catholic. Sometimes, it was in a half-joking way but occasionally the questioning was very uncomfortable.

This was a period of atrocities in Northern Ireland and in other parts of the UK, sometimes involving British military and civilian casualties.

Tensions and feelings were high. I felt vulnerable. So what did I do?

I did what some people do and made the decision to "go native", to practice sounding "English", to take the rough edges off my original accent. It was a cowardly thing to do in some ways, I suppose, but I was conscious that my accent in the mid-70s in English locations was more of a liability than an asset. I had to do something, if only for my own confidence.

I listened to my voice, practiced certain vowel sounds and tried for a more middle-of-the-road accent. I can't help the way I talk now and I don't worry about it anymore. But I am aware that people from far and wide, trying to make a new life in another country come up against all sorts of prejudices, sometimes to do with skin colour, sometimes with accents, sometimes by association with negative news stories, and it can be a difficult and challenging period of adjustment.

Sometimes you have to deal with bigots and idiots, but if you are a decent human being, most people will warm to you and help you find your way through life's biases and ignorance.

I have worked in and around London, in the Yorkshire Dales, near Liverpool, in Sheffield and Nottingham, pursuing a retail career that has given me a good living and a wealth of experience.

But, apart from what might be called a brief period of accent denial, I am still a Belfast kid. So, to anyone reading this and thinking about moving away from Northern Ireland for a fresh start, I can recommend it, but planning and preparation are important.

If you are running away from something and decide to wing it with no plan of action or destination in mind, I am not sure I can offer any useful advice. But, you might get lucky and see all your dreams come true and find that all your paths are smooth. However, there is no shame in going back home if things don't work out. The worst thing you can torment yourself with later in life is the phrase "if only".

The first part of my journey was secure, moving from a job in Belfast to a job in Manchester. The rest was up to me.

For a short while, I was homesick, lonely and self-pitying. But I had a reason to get up in the morning, a purpose in life and I was learning to look after myself domestically. In short, I was growing up and learning to be an independent soul. Now, I am happily married, with two grown-up sons on their own journeys.

I like England. I see it as a different menu to Northern Ireland, but I'm happy to be here, content that I grabbed the opportunity to leave Belfast and satisfied that I encountered more opportunities for career and personal development.

I miss not being in Belfast for significant family occasions and events. Social media and the internet help us to keep in touch, to form new friendships, rekindle old ones and to keep tabs on what is going on. But it's not quite the same as a hug and a handshake.

So, here I am pondering the leaving but, as I said, truth to tell ...

They also moved away...

Other famous faces from Northern Ireland who have made their homes across the water include ...

Christine Bleakley - originally from Newtownards, Christine started out working as a runner for BBC Northern Ireland before presenting Sky High, a programme examining the landscape of Northern Ireland from a helicopter. In 2007 she took over hosting duties of The One Show on BBC One and cemented her move to England with a relationship with Premier League footballer Frank Lampard. The pair have since become engaged

Sean Rafferty - best known for presenting Scene Around Six and the Radio Ulster show Rafferty, Sean made the move to England in 1997 when he became the presenter of In Tune on BBC Radio 3 each weekday afternoon

Eamonn Holmes - starting his broadcasting career at the then Ulster Television in 1979, the Belfast native left to join the BBC in Manchester in the mid-1980s to present the national Open Air programme. He then went on to host flagship morning programmes for both ITV and Sky News. He lives in England with his wife and This Morning co-host Ruth Langsford

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