I was born and raised in Belfast, christened and confirmed in the Irish Presbyterian church that I attended from a young age. My parents were not regular church goers but sent my sister and I along to Sunday School each week. I embraced the various youth groups available in the church community joining Brownies, Guides, Crusaders, the Scripture Union and Bible Study groups. This was my social life for the majority of my youth.
As young children we accept what we are taught by our parents and what we absorb from the attitudes of our local community. I was taken along to the 12th of July parades in the city and enjoyed the bands and the spectacle. How I envied the girls of my age in their pretty, shiny dance dresses who could twirl and throw their sparkly sticks as they walked in front of the various Orange Orders. I never thought to question what any of it symbolised.
When I discovered that a couple living a few doors up from my parent’s house were Catholics I was quite shocked. To my knowledge I had never met a Catholic before. Some of the children in our road called them names that I did not understand. The names sounded fierce and I felt uncomfortable and puzzled by the unexplained hate. The couple had a boat and I once asked them if I could go out on it with them. They said yes but it never happened. Although there must have been Catholic students at the extra curricular music school that I attended for years I did not mix with them. I was not to get to know any Catholics until I went to university.
The friends that I made through my teenage years were linked through the various church youth groups that we frequented. I am still in touch with many of them today. Some talked openly about the faith that we were all now questioning but which I still accepted. It was a way of life as much as a belief. We would get together at the meetings, on organised trips away, at church concerts and at each others houses. We were young people having fun and enjoying each others company.
By the time I went to university I was questioning everything about my life but especially aspects of my faith. I was fascinated by what appeared to me to be the shady world of Catholicism and worried my mother by befriending a large family of Catholics who lived on the wrong side of town. There were sixteen children in the family, some married with children of their own. They introduced me to an underworld that I knew existed but had never experienced. I was intrigued.
It seems strange to think that we all accepted as normal being stopped and bodily searched before being allowed to enter the central shopping district in Belfast. Checkpoints could be set up on roads without warning and ID demanded at any time. Parts of the city were entirely blocked off and riots commonplace. I was frightened when I had to lie down on the floor of a bus when it was stoned and the windows broken as the driver tried to get us to safety through the crowd that had suddenly appeared to block his route. A girl who had gone to school with my sister was shot dead as she left church one Sunday evening. The father of one of my good friends was shot dead as he left work one evening in a case of mistaken identity. One of our teachers had lost a leg when the coffee shop she was visiting was blown up. A neighbour who was a policeman was shot but survived and recovered from the attack. The Troubles affected me in these ways but could somehow, largely be ignored.
The Catholic family that I befriended were much more closely involved. To my knowledge they were not members of any sectarian forces but they seemed to know a lot of people who were. They talked of a friend who was worried about a favour he owed because he had asked for a boy who had messed with his sister to be kneecapped. They laughed about leading the army on a merry dance through a community’s back yards as they smuggled those being searched for out through the front. This friendly, welcoming family offered me endless cups of tea and chatted away about the events I read about in the paper with a knowledge that should probably have frightened me. There was no bravado or boasting; this was their way of life.
I did not stay long in this environment. Welcoming though they had been, I knew that I did not belong and the alien culture lost the appeal of novelty in time. I had other avenues to explore with my new found student freedom but my eyes had been opened to a religious intolerance that I had blindly accepted. I was questioning the rights and wrongs of the whole Irish situation and finding no easy answers. There were none. My parent’s attitudes, as much as I could understand them, now seemed archaic.
A few old friends from my church were starting to talk about the good loyalists and the bad republicans. They were agreeing with the views of their parents and vociferously taking sides. I began to feel the first stirrings of despair that supposedly intelligent people could not consider alternative opinions. These young people were hell bent on perpetuating the issues that I saw as causing the Troubles in the first place.
I wanted out: out from the strictures placed on me by family expectation that I would conform; out from the potential condemnation of the still strong church community that so many both admired and feared; out of a a country that offered a warm welcome to those who appeared to be the same as them but a cold shoulder to any suggestion of change; out of the country that I no longer wished to be my home.
The God that I still believed in was a God of love, not hate. I did not wish to raise my future children in an environment that I now viewed as toxic. I was young, ambitious and felt no ties to this troubled place. I moved away.