Roising Gorman’s Open Letter… on home
‘I’ve more happy memories of Belfast street games, long summers and skipping, than the background hum of violence’
Ken Branagh’s movie Belfast is a love letter to the city his family left behind as it smouldered around them.
It’s either a young boy’s romantic retelling of his family’s Troubles struggle, or a saccharine and sentimental view of a fledgling civil war, depending on your point of view. I prefer the kinder interpretation. No one watched The Sound of Music to learn about the Nazis.
Branagh has said his family never spoke again about their decision to leave for England. Our family rarely ever talked about our decision to stay, thanks to a love letter of sorts to my mate Anne. We were too busy getting on with life amid the chaos for soul searching.
It was the mid-seventies, Northern Ireland was at boiling point, and we were heading south to escape. My father had a job lined up in Dublin, my nurse mother would always get work and they were searching for a house to fit their five kids.
No one was mad about the idea but when every news bulletin piled mayhem on top of misery, to the point where victims’ names were often overtaken by the next death, our safety was a genuine concern for the adults.
For the kids the worries were of a greater magnitude.
An older brother was concerned the move would wreck his chances with the girl of his dreams around the corner, and I’d miss my mate.
We’re still a bit woolly about what age everyone was but I was old enough to write a letter but too young to know how to spell Dublin.
I wrote to Anne explaining we were leaving Belfast and I’d probably never see her again, channelling an early inner drama queen and a scared child. The spelling of our new hometown was a sticking point, so my mother was consulted. She asked why I wanted to know and read the letter.
She cried, I cried because she was crying, and just like that, the move was off.
Like so many things which happened during the Troubles life hinged on a moment.
My parents couldn’t tear their children away from our lives in Belfast and compared to what others in the city and beyond were living through we were lucky. The fact that I called nettles petrol bombs - it didn’t last long, kids in Belfast were unforgiving - was more of a source of entertainment than genuine worry.
I have more happy memories of street games, long summers and skipping (just carbon date me) than the background hum of violence.
And around the time we were preparing to pack our bags for Dublin my husband’s family were heading the other way, moving back from England to a Belfast that was on fire following the death of the hunger striker Frank Stagg.
If we hadn’t stayed, if they hadn’t come.
I used to have moments of regret at not leaving, of self-flagellation for sticking by a basket case of a place, asking if it took more courage to stay than to go.
That doesn’t happen anymore.
Northern Ireland might be the mad uncle in the attic that no one quite knows how to handle, but it’s mine. It’s given me a home, a family, a life, and an accent which faintly unnerves the rest of the English-speaking world.
Ironically, my brother never got the girl and I haven’t seen Anne for decades, but her letter let me stay, and for that I’m forever grateful.
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