While much progress has been made in Northern Ireland, people right around the world are still feeling the life-changing effects of the Troubles.
Among them are the many couples who felt forced to flee the place they called home simply because they fell in love with someone from a different background.
Now Exiles in Love, a new book from the Northern Ireland Mixed Marriage Association written and edited by Paul McLaughlin, is sharing some of their heart-wrenching stories.
Here, we speak to two of the couples featured…
Derek & Winifred
He met his would-be wife Winifred at a dance in Enniskillen back in 1968 and, according to Derek Kerr, it was clear from the start things were going to get complicated.
"Right from the beginning, after only two or three dates, it was clear this wasn't going to be easy to resolve," laughs Derek, now 75.
Because from very early on the young couple, Derek, a Protestant from Co Fermanagh and nurse Winifred, a Catholic who grew up in Plumbridge, Co Tyrone, were acutely aware of their different backgrounds.
"That was quite clear from very early on," says Derek. "We took time to look at our situation from every possible angle because we knew it wasn't going to be easy.
"It's difficult to describe now, but it was something that was such a big issue in those days, it was something you just didn't talk about.
"There's a passage in the book that talks about a time that my mother was seriously ill in hospital. I went to visit her and she said, 'Winifred, that girl you know, she was the one that did my dressing'. And then she adds, 'She's lovely'. I never got to talk with my mother about her properly."
Sadly in 1969, Derek's mother passed away. The couple continued to see each other but their families' apprehension about the relationship was clear. Derek remembers the reception he received when he eventually got to meet Winifred's family.
"After phone calls to Winifred at her home and having taken her to her home in Plumbridge on several occasions I eventually met up with her parents and family," he says. "The reception I received though reserved was amiable in every respect. Likewise when Winifred came to our house my father may not have welcomed her with open arms, nevertheless he was never insulting or derogatory in any way."
With pressures mounting, the couple took a year apart when Winifred travelled to Zambia at the beginning of 1970 for work.
"We knew it was going to be difficult, but we did it as a deliberate year apart, as a sort of period to get our thoughts in order to see if the upheaval coming down the track was worth it," recalls Derek.
"And when she came home after 12 months away, we had no doubts left. Within four nights, we had an engagement party in Bundoran."
Where to start married life, however, preoccupied the couple. "Although the hostility that could have emerged within our families never occurred, it was clear that many difficulties lay ahead," Derek says.
"We soon concluded that for our future together to be successful and to lessen the impact it was going to cause our near family and 42 relatives, it was going to require us to move away to England or further afield."
An uncle whom Derek describes as a "dearly loved mentor" met with him to mull over the situation.
"We explored the dilemma that potentially had serious ramifications not only for Winifred and me, but for my father and others as well," he recalls. "We shared our concern for my dad and how he was going to cope on his own. We also talked about the added complication of the farm and property and the reality of my 'walking away' which in the longer term would likely result in my being disinherited from any part of my father's legacy.
"My uncle and I talked very congenially and extensively for several hours and covered a large range of event'ualities. In a last-ditch attempt to persuade me from leaving and abandoning my father and our homestead, he informed me of a suitable job vacancy with a locally-based company which he knew very well.
"He offered to recommend me and I was invited to a pre-interview assessment. I was verbally offered the job by the interviewer, but just 24 hours later it was withdrawn and although not mentioned, it was blatantly obvious that my personal life (which he would have subsequently been made aware it) was totally incompatible with the nature of the job.
"This reflected the bigotry and prejudice that prevailed at the time. It further underlined the necessity for us to leave our homeland and seek a new life elsewhere."
Winifred adds: "What was really confusing for us and remains a conundrum to this very day is the fact that both our families were always helpful and friendly with plenty of social interaction involving all our neighbours, irrespective of religion.
"Yet, when it came to the bit, the idea of marrying outside of your own 'Church background' was almost certain to result in being ostracised by our peers."
In October 1971, the young couple were married. “There were just five of us there,” remembers Derek. “The wedding was held in Lurgan at a place neither of us had been before. Winifred’s sister was the bridesmaid and a good mate of mine was the best man, and along with ourselves, we had only the priest.
“We went to a local eatery, where the priest knew the hotel manager, and we got our drinks on the house. That evening we got the boat to Scotland and we were in Stranraer by 7pm.”
And without saying an official farewell to their friends and families, the young couple embarked on a new life across the water.
The couple enjoyed a brief honeymoon in Scotland before heading for Durham, where Derek soon started a new post as county organiser for Durham young farmers’ clubs.
“It was very clear that in Northern Ireland relationships between denominations were frowned upon,” says Derek, who as a young man had dreamt of following his father’s footsteps into farming. They were held in low esteem and living in a rural community like we did, you depend on good relationships in your community. Difficulties over our marriage was not something we wanted to live through.”
Settling into life in England, Derek’s first job came with a staff flat, and after two years in the north east the couple moved to Leamington Spa, where they lived for almost four years before settling in Leicester 38 years ago.
Winifred, now 78, spent her working life in nursing, and the couple went on to have three children, Evelyn, a consultant gynaecologist, and Christopher and Matthew, who are both teachers. They also have eight grandchildren.
“It saddens me how it all came about because I was very interested in Northern Ireland,” says Derek, who was awarded an MBE in 2004 for services to young people in rural areas. I loved it. I still do. But I have no regrets about leaving. Since living in England, the fact Winifred and I grew up in different denominations has not been raised. We have been accepted as two individuals and there hasn’t been a question to this day about our differences.
“The way we see it, we’re from two different denominations of Christianity — and if you can’t love your Christian neighbour, then who can you love?”
Winifred adds: “I have no doubts whatsoever about moving away, it was 100% the right thing to do at the time. My parents and Derek’s father were able to come and visit, and we would go home every year for five or 10 days, although we haven’t for the last two years.
“We’ve had wonderful posts to work in over the years, and we have eight grandchildren and we’re in contact with our wonderful kids three or four times a week. There’s no question that we did the right thing.”
Angela & Mark
University lecturer Angela was in her early 20s and studying social anthropology at Queen’s University, Belfast, when she met soulmate Mark back in the late 1980s.
A Catholic from Lisburn, she had grown up the child of a mixed marriage herself so wasn’t fazed when she met Mark, a Protestant from England, at a Christmas party. The added complication, however, was his job. He was a soldier with the British Army.
“It’s a strange thing, but I suppose it’s the experience every good couple has,” says Angela, now 54. “We just clicked. Conversation was so easy from the start and we enjoyed each other’s company.
“Mark wasn’t from Northern Ireland, so he didn’t have that baggage we might have had in a mixed relationship with someone local about us being from different backgrounds. I guess it was nice to be able to talk about other things from the start. We focused on what we had in common, rather than what was separated us.”
After a year together Mark proposed.
“He did it all officially and asked my dad,” recalls Angela. “He got the ring secretly, and we went on to have a really lovely wedding when I was 23.
“The priest was supportive and it was easy in that Mark wasn’t religious so he was happy to agree that any children we would have would grow up as Catholics. By then, Mark had given up his position in the Army.”
But it didn’t take long for the young couple to realise it wasn’t going to be as simple as that to make a life for themselves in Northern Ireland, with the Troubles rumbling on in the background.
“I was still at Queen’s but Mark needed a job, and that’s really when we started to realise things were going to be difficult,” recalls Angela, a mum-of-one.
“He worked then as a chef — he still does — but of course when he was applying for jobs the questions would be about his previous experience, where he was from, what he had done to end up in Northern Ireland.
“There’s this physical feeling of stress you carry with you in situations like that. We had to be so careful who knew he’d been in the Army. You feel physically nervous, you don’t sleep well and of course we were very sensitive to things going on in the news. We were hyper-vigilant all the time, and that feeling of stress really builds up.”
In addition, the newlyweds were looking to the future.
“Mark had planned a policy of staying at a job for a month at a time and moving on,” says Angela. “But we knew even then it wasn’t sustainable. How could it be? There’s no chance to put down roots and make meaningful connections with friends. And of course, we were thinking about children and how our situation could impact on them.”
By 1989, when Angela and Mark were both still just 24, they packed their bags and moved to the North East of England, where Mark grew up.
But of course, that came with its challenges, too.
“I feel like I’ve missed out on a lot,” says Angela, who is doing a PhD at the moment through Queen’s University about the long-term emotional legacy of The Troubles.
“Moving over in the first place was actually quite traumatic for me, because it happened quickly and there were loose ends I didn’t have time to tie up and people I didn’t get to say goodbye to in the way I’d have liked.
“On top of that, it was very difficult in those early years to stay in touch with people, because flights weren’t cheap, we didn’t have mobile phones. Some people didn’t even have phones in their houses.
“Having a Northern Irish accent back then was difficult too because there were a lot of perceptions about what that might mean.”
But, says Angela, while the challenges have been tough, her life in England with Mark and their daughter, who is now in her 20s, has been worth it in the end.
“We’re very happy here, and we’ve got a good life,” she says. “We get on really well as a couple and we’ve got good friends. Would we have had that if we’d stayed? Probably not. The circumstances we were in then would create tension in any marriage, and when we moved away those tensions weren’t there.
“I feel some resentment now as I get older because of those circumstances we found ourselves in, and I do see it in many ways as having been in exile.
“But I think such huge changes have happened in Northern Ireland by now that I hope other couples coming up behind won’t be in the same situation.
“As part of the book, we called our chapter ‘Never Say Never’, because I increasingly feel some nostalgia towards Northern Ireland, and it might be that one day in the future, we’ll be able to come home.”
Mark adds: “If I’m being completely truthful, I’m not sure I realised the significance of everything that was going on back then. I was still young, and I didn’t have the same history as Angela because I didn’t grow up in the place.
“I liked lots of things about Northern Ireland — I loved the soda bread especially, but moving away at the time seemed like the right thing to do, just to get to somewhere that felt like a bit more of a normal environment, and on reflection coming back to England was the right thing to do for us and our family.”
The Northern Ireland Mixed Marriage Association (NIMMA) was set up in 1974 by a number of couples in or hoping to be in a mixed marriage who had met at a conference in Corrymeela. It has spent the past 44 years providing country-wide support and information to couples either in or contemplating mixed marriage. This is the third of its books about the subject and, like its predecessors it is aimed at secondary level pupils across Northern Ireland. NIMMA continues to lobby for acceptance of mixed marriage and wider availability of integrated education and shared social housing.
Exiles for Love by Paul McLaughlin, is published by NIMMA in paperback and costs £5. Copies can by ordered by emailing email@example.com