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Seven Up! Leona O'Neill and Laurence White reflect on their lives so far

'Give me the child until he is seven and I will show you the man' is the Jesuit saying that inspired the landmark ITV series Seven Up!

Leona O'Neill aged seven
Leona O'Neill aged seven
Laurence White aged seven
Happy times: Leona O’Neill aged 14 with her mum Gloria and brothers Aidan and Cathal
Young reporter: Leona aged 21

First broadcast in 1964, Seven Up! introduced viewers to a group of schoolchildren, whom it returns to interview every seven years, charting their beliefs, ambitions, dreams and disappointments. With 63 Up on TV screens recently, we asked two writers to reflect on their lives so far...

Leona O'Neill

Seven years old

I was a third child to history teacher William and accounts technician Gloria Breslin. By seven years old I was obsessed with animals and wanted to be a vet.

I would get up early on a Saturday morning and watch Black Beauty, and then again on Sunday morning for Lassie, which religiously left me in floods of tears. That dog was always saving the day or just being generally canine saint-like and I couldn't cope with it. My mum banned me from watching it, such was the distress that animal caused.

The Hollywood version might have been barred, but mum bought a real Rough Collie, Lassie made flesh, who I idolised.

We had a medium-sized back garden so I tortured my parents about purchasing me a horse. I envisaged me galloping up and down the garden on Black Beauty, with Lassie - the wind blowing in her beautifully luxurious hair - trotting along beside me.

I told Santa I wanted a horse. On Christmas morning, I was bitterly disappointed that there was not a Friesian mare under the tree but a wooden replica.

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My father pointed out it's intricately fashioned saddle and the fabulous mane. I leaned up against it and the paint was still wet, ruining my good My Little Pony pyjamas. I felt sorely let down by Santa.

Years later my mother told me my father had spent every evening for three weeks after school in the woodwork department making it for me. I still have it in my attic.

14-year-old

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Happy times: Leona O’Neill aged 14 with her mum Gloria and brothers Aidan and Cathal
 

Fourteen-year-old me, in 1989, was more interested in archaeology. Indiana Jones had made it look so cool and, bar the terrifying spiders that often accompany dark, undiscovered places harbouring treasures, it was right up my street.

I went to school in Creggan and the Troubles were raging outside the windows, yet everything felt very normal. By 14 I had seen a man shot dead by the Army while walking to the shop for sweets. Bombs, bullets, murder and mayhem were our daily diet. The Troubles encroached on our lives often. There would be an empty spot in assembly because a girl's father had been murdered. The Army stopped our school buses in the morning, coming on board with their guns. After school we would take the long route home, singing Madonna's Like A Prayer as we went, because of a bombing or shooting. The house would shake when the IRA blew up Fort George army base at the bottom of our street, but as long as the electricity didn't go out and we didn't miss Grange Hill, we weren't too bothered. That was just life.

I was 14-years-old when Patsy Gillespie was murdered, tied to his seat in his van by the IRA and made to drive a bomb to the Coshquin army checkpoint. I heard the bomb that night. I read his story in the papers and watched the television reports and was disgusted. I thought of my own father and put myself in the place of Patsy's daughter and cried and cried.

It was the first time that I paid any real attention to a Troubles-related incident and I devoured the news. I watched Kate Adie and others reporting from the Bogside, as if it were a foreign country, not down the street. I ditched the idea of being a female Indiana Jones and decided I'd rather like to be a reporter.

21-years-old

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Young reporter: Leona aged 21
 

By now I was a cub reporter in west Belfast. I cut my teeth under a brilliant editor who fostered in his reporters strong independence, courage, tenacity and the importance of giving people without one a voice.

I covered challenging stories on collusion and legacy, I covered riots and marches and the run-of-the-mill hard news fare. For months after writing a story about a surge of huge spiders in the area, readers brought spiders of all sizes and descriptions - dead and alive - to me in the office in match boxes and shoe boxes. As a woman terrified of the things, I still wake in the night screaming about it.

A young mother came to me asking if I would help her organise Christmas in July for her terminally ill six-year-old daughter.

I ran the story and that day the community rallied around, decorating her home, making it snow in summer, bringing so many presents, even Santa made an appearance on a fire engine for her. Sadly she died weeks later. It was a heartbreaking story to handle, but, like so many tough stories in the years that progressed, I was so glad I did.

28-years-old

There are a few things that top the stress list - moving house, getting married, having children are among them. I did them all when I was 28. Add that to the fact I was living under threat from paramilitaries. We were living on Belfast's peace line when I received a serious death threat and had to sell my house in a hurry. We moved across Belfast. My husband Brendan and I got married in Donegal and our eldest son Daniel was born.

When my brother came to the hospital to visit us he asked for me by name.

The nurse at reception said she didn't have a Leona O'Neill, only a Leona O'Donnell. So for the first five hours of his life, my son was Daniel O'Donnell.

Becoming a mother was a huge shock to the system. There was so little sleep to be had and there was so much worrying to be done. I recall phoning the emergency doctor out to the house and tearfully telling him that my son was "puking like that girl from the exorcist".

He was the blueprint for our other three children. The one we made all the rookie mistakes on. But they all turned out okay.

35-years-old - "After my dad's death I was gripped with grief"

At 35-years-old I was grieving the loss of my precious dad from cancer. We had moved from Belfast to Derry to be close to my family and had looked after him at home as the prostate cancer took hold of him and slowly stole him from us.

He was my anchor in life and no matter where my siblings and I were in the world and no matter what was happening, he was the light guiding us home to warm hugs, love and safety.

Laurence White

It is a deceptively easy sounding brief — describe your life in seven year segments just like the television documentary programme 63 Up. But while those youngsters may have been volunteered to do so, do I want to engage in some sort of confessional of a life which could have been better spent on occasion but which gave me the most essential things in life, love of a wonderful wife, pride in a family who are making their own successful way in life with their own families and continuing to bring joy into my life? And still keeping my hand in at a job which by and large I have loved.

Seven years old

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Laurence White aged seven
 

I was born and brought up not far from Cushendun in the Glens of Antrim and at this age was in P2 — we started school a little later in those days — in the little two-roomed Knocknacarry primary school. I was fortunate to have two excellent teachers, Miss Healey, who took the young entrants and Mrs O’Hara, who prepared the older pupils for the dreaded 11-plus.

I don’t know what spark she saw in me but all I can remember from her is encouragement and guidance. Of all the teachers in my life she was without doubt the most influential, giving me even at that tender age a sense of worth and a feeling that I could succeed, given the opportunity denied other family members with their own talents. And yes I did get the 11-plus much to the delight of the entire family.

14 years old

Education at Garron Tower grammar school was an eye-opener. From being a bright boy at primary school to an also-ran — although astonishingly I came first in a religion examination on one occasion — was a bit of a blow to the ego.

In those days the school had a large boarding contingent as well as drawing day pupils from Ballycastle to Ballymena and Larne. Incidentally my year group has just celebrated the 50th anniversary of leaving school.

Sometimes I felt I didn’t quite fit in, creating a bit of an inferiority complex which has never totally disappeared. In those days the fee-paying boarders seemed more valued by the college.

I can never recall having any firm aspirations at school, other than a vague notion that I would like to go to university, if only to prove that I could … and I did.

21 years old

University was freedom, life in a big bustling city for a boy from the sticks. No doubt I indulged in the freedom at the expense of the study as exam results were to prove.

However, I did have one lasting experience, seeing the late snooker genius Alex Higgins playing in the Students’ Union and marvelling at his ability to pot balls at breakneck speed as if they were drawn by magnetism to the pockets.

But as the doors of Queen’s closed those of the College of Business Studies in the centre of Belfast opened and an opportunity to learn the rudiments of journalism alongside my former colleague on this newspaper Robin Morton, regular contributor Malachi O’Doherty, national journalist David McKittrick and acclaimed author Walter Ellis.

28 years old

Now married for three years to Eileen and with our first (of six) children Grainne, who took her first steps on the day Elvis Presley died in 1977. Those were dreadful days in a province convulsed by violence, yet as journalists we all felt somehow safer than the general populace even if our jobs took us into contact with figures whose notoriety was certainly greater than their humanity. A visit to Berlin, a helicopter ride along the wall and wire and standing outside Spandau Prison whose sole occupant was Rudolph Hess was like feeling the hand of history on your shoulder, as someone else more famous than I was to say. Propaganda was everywhere and swallowed by many without question but somehow that sole prisoner seemed a reminder of the horror of past wars and the fears that even worst annihilation could follow.

35 years old - "I was in two offices that were blown up"

Journalism gives even regional scribblers the opportunity to experience things they could never afford and one such for me was a flight on Concorde, which had been hired by this newspaper for a competition. It was the plane which was later to explode and end the era of supersonic passenger flights.

By this stage further children had been born and as violence continued unabated in the Eighties there was always the fear that a family member could be inadvertently caught up in it — I was in two offices which were blown up but luckily escaped without a scratch.

The dilemma as parents was how to educate your children on what was happening and why, while ensuring that you did not feed any prejudice. That seems to have worked and thankfully so.

42 and 49 years old

The Nineties was a decade of death for our family, me losing a mother, grandmother and other close family members, Eileen both parents and a favourite aunt as well as several other uncles and aunts. That is the price of coming from large family circles whose members reach the age of mortality with monotonous and close regularity. Suddenly life seemed very grown-up and unpleasant. Close ties with beloved relatives were severed eternally and the dawning of the new millennium brought not so much hope as realisation that our generation was edging up the queue.

56 years old

After some time spent as a freelance — with great variety from public relations to health journalism to Ulster University — there was a return to this newspaper. With children now in their own careers and beginning to create their own family it was a time for us as parents to enjoy greater freedom in travel or even simply nights out. There was the satisfaction of knowing that our children had chosen partners wisely, were showing more talent and had sufficient alertness to pick out and avoid the opportunists who would be obstacles in their careers. 

63 years old

Time to take early retirement, to plan how to spend the spare time now available and to put into practice what we had always preached — a job is necessary and if you enjoy it all the better, but life only gives you once chance to share your life with people you love, enjoy the time you have together and face whatever challenges arise together.

A fascinating look at life through a lens...

63 Up was the ninth instalment in the long-running documentary series, which many also consider to be one of the best social experiments of our time.

Director Michael Apted’s series is an astonishing work of factual filmmaking — real-life TV which began long before reality TV was ever heard of.

Back in 1964, the ground-breaking Seven Up! documentary introduced 14 seven-year-olds from a wide range of backgrounds across Britain and presented the fascinating proposition: would their lives pan out as one might expect given their own start in life?

As viewers found out, life is rarely as straightforward...

The latest edition, which has just aired on  ITV, caught up with 12 of the original 1964 participants. 

Two declined to take part and another died in 2013, the first of line-up to pass away. 

Perhaps one of the most compelling storylines has been that of Neil Hughes, the Liverpool boy who dreamt of being an astronaut, then segued from homelessness in his 20s, to local government in his 40s, to the Church in his 50s.

Symon Basterfield’s tough upbringing in a children’s home always stood out and, as revealed in 42 Up, he had become a foster parent, helping kids in need.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the advancing years has prompted some of those taking part to ponder the possibility that 63 Up might be their last outing in the series.

“Personally, and just speaking for myself, I am in a good place but things are going to get worse,” said Sue Davis.

“You are going to get sicker and older. Both my parents are still with me so I’m thinking ‘Another seven years, who knows? Am I going to be here? Are they going to be here?’

“There’s an element that thinks this would be a good time to finish, but another part of me thinks, seven to 70? It’s got a good ring.”

63 Up is available to watch on the ITV Hub

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