My father was dead to me day he walked out - Gerry Kelly
I was born in Thomas Street in Ballymena, of which I have little memory.
When I was three the family left to live in Downpatrick, the area which I now consider my home territory.
My parents originally came from Derry, where my father was working in the then-thriving shirt industry.
Promotion took him to Ballymena and then on to Downpatrick. We arrived in the Co Down town in the early 1950s to occupy a house in the newly-built housing estate of Ardmeen Green on the Ardglass Road.
Much of my early childhood was overshadowed by the fact that my father had a major alcohol problem.
I wasn’t aware in any great detail of his over-indulgence, but I sensed that all at home wasn’t quite what it should have been.
Being the youngest, the rest of the family tried to protect me from the reality of what was happening. I was too young to ask any questions and, even if I did, I doubt if I would have been told the truth anyway.
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So, oblivious to the adult unhappiness around me, my early years were as they should be, carefree and happy. But life in the Kelly household was soon to be turned on its head.
In the early 1960s my father left the family home on the pretext of going to Scotland to work.
Whether he did find employment or not, no one knows, because we never heard from him again.
He literally abandoned his wife and five children without a single thought as to how we would survive.
I’m sure my mother was distraught, but I didn’t know, nor was I allowed to see, the despair his departure must have caused.
When it finally dawned on us that he would not be coming back I think we simply stopped talking about him.
He had left our lives and that was that. I never asked when he was coming back.
I think that instinctively I knew he would never return.
I was not unhappy about that because I had experienced the rows between my parents and wanted an end to them.
He was a highly intelligent man with a very good job, but he was an alcoholic which so often has a devastating effect on families.
So I don’t remember my father with any degree of fondness. In fact, for many years, until fairly recently actually, I resented and hated him for what he did to our family.
I’ve mellowed only slightly over the years. But my blood still boils when I recall those nights I lay in my bed in Ardmeen Green as a child listening to arguments and raised voices from downstairs.
Although I am now aware of the nature of alcoholism, I can never forgive him for leaving the family.
I simply cannot put myself into the shoes of any man who could walk out on his children and his
family for whatever reason. Though I acknowledge the addictive nature of alcoholism, I cannot have sympathy for him.
He forsook his family of five, the youngest being myself — a mere 10 years of age.
He abandoned his wife, who had left school at the age of 14 with no qualifications, so had nothing to fall back on to earn money to feed us.
At the time Mum was in her mid-forties with only her grit and determination to get on with life and look after those now left in her sole charge.
A father who could do such a thing remains beyond my comprehension and I’ve never had any inclination to find out where he went. As far as I was concerned, my father died when I was 10 years of age.
How my mother coped is beyond me. Obviously, she needed a job, but the only work available lo
cally was in the Downshire Hospital, where she became a cleaner.
In the beginning it was a case of doing anything she could to make a living, but she was not the kind of person to fatalistically accept what had happened and wallow in self-pity.
She had the drive, self-belief and ambition to use her abilities to the full: she set her sights on becoming a state enrolled nurse.
For my mother, who had never taken an examination in her life, this was an entirely new and unfamiliar experience — an added pressure on top of being the only breadwinner in the family.
I remember her, tired after a day’s work, struggling with medical books far into the night.
I remember trying to help her, but I was unable to understand what she was studying.
I knew about passing exams, but that was not in itself much help.
She not only passed her SEN exams, but went on to pass the SRN examinations and worked happily as a state registered nurse to her retirement.
I have nothing but love, respect and admiration for what she achieved.
She kept the family together with the help of her own mother Nana, as we called her.
Nana lived with us and, in an odd way, it was she who raised me while my mother stepped into the shoes vacated by my father.
There was never much money about, but I don’t recall that.
I do remember there always being something in the house for us, always a welcoming presence in the home.
It was a real home.
Those two women, working together, did an immense amount for all of us and I will be grateful to the end of my days.
The two of them minimised the damage inflicted by the departure of my father as much as anyone could.
Having said that, I think being abandoned by him hurt me more than my older siblings, maybe because I was so young, but old enough to know that he had walked away from all of us.