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Unearthing Belfast's secret past

Growing up in the 1980s, the fear of violence prevented Kathy Curran from exploring her native city. Now the Cambridge-educated criminologist has turned detective for a guidebook on its hidden history, writes Stephanie Bell

Hidden gems: Kathy Curran discovered many new things about her home city
Hidden gems: Kathy Curran discovered many new things about her home city
Kathy Curran
NI landmarks: The Excelsior cinema
Shankill watch-house

She is a Cambridge-educated criminologist turned motivational speaker, and now Kathy Curran has turned her talents to writing a unique travel guide for Belfast, her native city.

Published as part of the renowned Jonglez series of guides, which are famous for exploring undiscovered attractions usually hidden from tourists, Kathy co-wrote Secret Belfast with journalist and travel writer Lorenza Bacino.

Now living in England with her husband, Charles, and two sons, Edward (8) and Patrick (11), Kathy has spent the past two years flying back and forth to Belfast on a mission to uncover gems about the city's past.

With an interest in social history, her research soon became a labour of love as she relished every detail of the many people, places and events associated with the city.

Growing up in Belfast during the Troubles, Kathy was prevented from exploring the streets for her own safety , but Secret Belfast has allowed her to satisfy that curiosity, which she has carried with her from childhood.

"Growing up in Belfast during the 1980s and 1990s, when the Troubles were very much present, I certainly felt unable, at times, to explore the city physically," she says.

"You were reticent about going off the beaten track, because maybe it wasn't safe.

"One of the joys of doing this book has been the ability to just explore, to speak to anyone, to learn so much about the different religions and how they actually co-operated with each other on so many occasions throughout history. That was really inspiring, as was learning about the beautiful architecture in Belfast, aspects of the city I wasn't particularly aware of."

After studying law at Queen's University, Kathy went to Cambridge to study criminology for five years, qualifying with a master's degree and a doctorate.

Afterwards, she travelled the world doing research on religious conversion in prisons, then worked in policy research.

She believes her fascination with criminology is what inspired her to satisfy her childhood curiosity and explore the hidden depths of her home city.

"When I started studying criminology, I became completely hooked and spent five years studying religious conversion in prisons," Kathy says. "I was always very interested in religion and crime. I travelled extensively as a researcher and spent time in Texan prisons. As a researcher, you are interested in exploration, people and asking questions.

"Criminologists are very interested in people, in human behaviour, in social history, so my hobby has been exploring the darker side of life - institutions, prisons and graveyards. Basically, anything that is a little bit quirky.

"It was very exciting to team up with a journalist, Lorenza Bacino, to write Secret Belfast, because there are so many hidden details that are missed, even by locals.

"The Jonglez guides are very famous. I had approached them, and they said they wanted a Secret Belfast guide, and that's how it started.

"It was my great pleasure to work with some brilliant local historians, such as Dr Desie Reilly, Tom Hartley and Raymond O'Regan, who are true experts on our city and its history. We started talking with them and ideas snowballed from there.

"Through people like them, we were able to draw the reader's attention to the hidden detail of well-known places and draw visitors to lesser-known, but equally fascinating, places that shed a new light on Belfast."

It is a world away from her current work as one of the UK's leading experts on parental engagement in children's learning. Kathy travels all over the UK giving talks on how parents can better engage with children's lives and learning.

She attended St Dominic's Grammar School on the Falls Road and had originally thought of becoming a barrister, which led her to study common and civil law with French at Queen's University.

One of three children, she says her own parents were a great influence on her.

Her father, Dr Peter Curran, was a consultant psychiatrist (now retired) and she credits him with developing her keen interest in people, human behaviour and social history.

Her mother, Dympna, who is originally from New York, established the Northern Life and Northern Woman magazines.

She met her husband Charles, a banker, in England. The couple returned to Northern Ireland to get married, and had their first child here, before settling in Hertfordshire.

As an academic, when she became a parent herself, it seemed only natural that she became fascinated by research on parenting. Translating it into workable advice and sharing it with other parents is now another passion.

"When I got married and had children, I became very interested in what is called 'parental engagement' in children's learning, so my normal job is empowering parents to help children thrive," says Kathy.

"If you are a criminologist, you are very interested in outcomes for children. Basically, I am a social researcher who now does motivational speaking and writes about parenting.

"There is a world of research out there, but parents don't have the time to read it. My job is to translate academic research into tips that parents can apply every day to good effect. I absolutely believe that what I am doing is making a difference.

"People might have different opinions on how to raise children, but when you look at the evidence base, then the tips you apply tend to work.

"For example, it is not a good idea to over-praise children, because if you tell a child they are absolutely brilliant at, say, art, then there is nowhere to go with that - there is no room for growth or improvement. Parents should praise a child's effort, rather than their performance.

"Engaging with children and supporting their learning at home will have a massive impact on their academic attainment so, for me, I believe parents need to be much more empowered to help their children."

Kathy draws on her own experience of school in Northern Ireland to inspire her largely English audiences.

"One thing I've noticed is that Northern Ireland is so aspirational. We all went to such fantastic schools and we had lots of faith in teachers in Northern Ireland and teachers were very highly regarded," she says.

"When I give my talks, I often tell them that, in Northern Ireland, you always did your home work and your parents made sure that you did.

“Everyone is always striving to do better and I think that is a brilliant legacy. Northern Irish people are always aiming high, and parents in England love the message that I bring.”

Although a frequent visitor to Belfast to see her family, Kathy has enjoyed every minute she spent here during her extra visits to research her book.

She has trodden the highways and byways which she now invites locals and visitors alike to explore, taking them off the beaten track to discover the well-hidden treasures of Belfast. Her book guides the reader through a wide variety of historical gems, from how the city stood up against the evils of the slave trade, to its stunning art deco facades and its beautiful stained-glass windows, which Kathy discovered were created by an accomplished, yet little-known, female artist.

The authors also ventured 30 miles outside the city to take the reader to windy coastal paths and peak into caves where smugglers once hid their loot.

Kathy says: “I’ve enjoyed every single second of researching the book and really hope that locals and tourists alike learning something new from it.

“To be able to expose, in particular, the work of female artists and sculptors, the incidents of different religious communities helping and supporting each other throughout the city’s past, as well as individual stories of heroism that capture the nature of the Northern Irish character — optimistic, resilient and enterprising — was fascinating.”

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