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Familiarity breeds sense of belonging in new home town

Morag McRoberts left Northern Ireland 20 years ago to escape the Troubles and found a new abode across the sea in Barrow, Cumbria. Here, in her own beautifully evocative words and photographs, she pays tribute to the people she encountered and reveals the area's similarities to Belfast

Kids’ fun: children in the playground after school with the BAE Nuclear Site Boundary just across the road
Kids’ fun: children in the playground after school with the BAE Nuclear Site Boundary just across the road
Afternoon tea: the view from a fourth floor of the tenement buildings near Barrow Docks
Incoming tide: one of the many friendly fishermen down at Barrow docks
Colourful home: Lynn and her dog Tilly love living in their Barrow flat
Morag McRoberts
Rules are made to be broken: Barrow’s people have a history of cycling to and from work and school

I drive across Walney Bridge, Barrow-in-Furness, like I have done 1,000 times before. It's dusk and the intense orange light that you sometimes get on a cold autumn evening transforms BAE Systems' huge industrial nuclear submarine shipyard into Barrow's own Samson and Goliath.

Quite suddenly I turn off the road home and park at the Dock Museum. I am surprised at this impulse to revisit the docks but do not intend to sit and stare at the sun setting across the channel, as I did 20 odd years ago when I got my first teaching job here. Then, to escape the violence and bombings, I had taken a ferry from Belfast Docks for a job in Cumbria where, ironically, from Barrow docks, with its shipyard and red brick tenements I would look across the Irish Sea and feel a deep familiarity between where I stood and where I'd come from.

As I boarded the ferry alone from Belfast Docks I quickly understood what Granny had meant when she said: "That little bit of sea between Ireland and England may as well be the Atlantic Ocean, you'll be so far from home."

Teaching in Barrow has certainly brought security and hiking the Lake District Fells has brought peace of mind now that I am settled here. But despite the easy, instant comradeship with the locals, my family and my roots are 'back home' in Northern Ireland where I return every teaching school holiday.

This article evolved as I encountered the stoic friendliness of Barrow's people set against BAE's nuclear submarine shipyard and the community that welcomed me into their Black Hut homes. I hope my photos capture the heart of the local people who allowed me, without prejudice or judgment, to take a snapshot of their lives. Barrow and the Black Huts are both harsh and beautiful - they are my Belfast.

Across Walney Bridge in the docks area, there is a lone, stationary figure hunched against the wind, fishing rod propped on the channel rails, line tugging with the incoming tide. An array of neatly organised fishing gear is laid out, a grim reaper's tools, and I make to scurry on, this is not somewhere to linger at night.

The black shroud that covers this figure swivels at the sound of my footsteps and from under the hood a teenage boy's face smiles charmingly so I am drawn towards him. He chats and chats with unaffected honesty about his "time in jail", how he's trying to "get off drugs", the fights he survives as he sleeps on the streets and his search for and rejection by his adoptive "Mam". But this is not a monologue of torrid details that some people might be alarmed or frightened by.

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In Northern Ireland I had worked for the Probation Board teaching outdoor education to young offenders and I'd heard and witnessed many conversations about "knee-capping", shootings and "feather-tarring traitors" until these topics gradually lost their shocking impact. Now, I find a surprising relief talking with this fisherman, and the engaging way he asks and answers questions and listens to comments takes me back to the natural, easy craic on the streets of Belfast.

Perhaps with the political unease over Brexit, the threat of a return to the explosive border controls in Northern Ireland, and this being the 50th year since the Troubles started, upsetting memories of home are resurfacing and so I go in search of more encounters with people like this fisherman, people like my own.

My trips to the docks end as quickly as they started when a security man in a high vis vest approaches asking to see the photos I have been taking of BAE's 'Nuclear Boundary Site' sign and the playground 50 metres from its fence. Heart thumping, I whip out my ID that I learned in Northern Ireland to always keep handy for random police road blocks and frequent security checks. This dormant sensation of acute fear is disproportionate to the guard's request, but I know that it's time to move on.

The tenement housing near BAE had first been occupied in the late 19th century by Irish working-class immigrants and in 2009 I'd watched the social deprivation, poverty and drugs in this part of town highlighted on the The Secret Millionaire TV show. So just like I'd avoided Belfast's Shankill Road and the Falls Road, I'd kept away from this area too.

But over the next days I find myself walking as casually and unobtrusively as I can along the maze of paths through the tenement blocks.

From a ground floor window sealed with old newspapers I hear music blaring, open yards are strewn with old sofas and broken TVs, I avoid a man who is walking what looks like an illegal dog breed while a woman in slippers and dressing gown wanders past. I wonder if it is my own prejudices that keep me from following a white cat as it wanders up a steep, high cement stairwell as I decide to return to the sanctuary of my car.

Just as deflation hits, I spot some colourful washing flapping on a line strung high between two tenement blocks. I look up and a smiling woman waves down at me as she pegs more clothes on the line pully. The scene is so familiar of old photos taken in Belfast on washing day that I tell her she reminds me of home and ask her if I can take a photo.

Days later I go in search of her flat to give her a print of the photo and am astounded by the contrast between the gloomy entrance stairwell opening onto the noisy road and a garden scene painted on the passage way next to her door on the first floor and decorated with gnomes, fairies, butterflies, ladybirds and colourful lights.

Lynn and her dog Tilly answer this Alice in Wonderland doorway to me many times over the following weeks as I take photos of her grandchildren, meet her daughter and now see the beauty in this area that she sees: I come across backyards with flowers growing, windowboxes and friendly faces who respond openly to me now that I am no longer wary of talking. When I dare to tiptoe up and manoeuvre round the bleak stairwells, I reach a fourth floor balcony with a Beirut view across desolate and disused buildings. But there's two rickety chairs adorned with colourful cushions and a small table set for two with an overflowing ashtray. These homes are lived in and loved.

Barrow is both harsh and beautiful; its people have a reputation of survival and their stoic friendliness reminds me of home. But the lyrics of Simple Mind's Belfast Child - 'Come back Billy, won't you come on home, come back Mary, you've been gone too long, come back people you've been gone a while' - remind me that I am not home, although, for now, Barrow is my Belfast.

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