What’s Normal

My cousin went to Newbridge, County Kildare for a holiday in the summer of 1972. Not your usual holiday destination. Newbridge is not Portrush or Tramore and not even remotely like Cork or Waterford, but it was the chosen destination for a selected group of schoolchildren from Belfast, whose fathers were interned without trial in Long Kesh. The trip was organised by a group of well-meaning women, based in Newbridge, who had opened their homes to this group of ‘underprivileged’ schoolchildren. The rest of us were envious as we waved goodbye from our street in Belfast. We didn’t know our cousins were underprivileged. Neither did they, but we all knew that Belfast was not the ideal place to live.

Let me put it in context. 1972 was the worst year of the ‘troubles’ with 479 deaths. It was a year that witnessed riots, bombings and shootings, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the 1920s. Our estate, just off Finaghy Road in Lower Andersonstown, was barricaded at each entrance and manned by the men who lived there to try and protect our homes and families. I remember vividly the night our community paid the price with a drive-by shooting that resulted in the death of one family man and injured four others. The British government decided that no-go estates in flashpoint areas were a bad idea, so they came up with Operation Motorman. On 31st July all the homebuilt barricades were dismantled, and armed soldiers patrolled our streets.

That was our normal. Each time a unit of British soldiers appeared on our streets, whistles were blown, and dustbin lids were banged off the ground. Homes were raided by the British army, randomly and without warning, my own home included. We were wary of strangers, fearful of parked cars, terrified of anyone in a uniform, but I couldn’t say we were frightened all the time. We still played hopscotch and kerbs, but we learned to drop to the ground the second we heard a loud bang or the crack of a shot. So, when our cousin was selected to go on a holiday to Kildare, we envied her. A few weeks later she got back home and told us of walks by the River Liffey, of chips from Fusciardi’s, hops in the Town Hall and day trips to the Curragh Camp. The group was composed entirely of children of internees.  They were wary of soldiers but were so well looked after by the Irish army that they were won over. They all had a great time and learned, at least for a little while, that a different normal life existed outside of Belfast.

Then my uncle was offered a job down south and he moved his wife and children to Newbridge. In 1973 my parents packed us into a little Morris Minor, and we made the six-hour journey to Newbridge to visit them, all nine of us. My aunt and uncle had five children at the time, making that sixteen of us in a 3-bed mid-terrace house in Pairc Mhuire for two weeks in August. I can’t remember the sleeping arrangements, but we must have had at least four to a bed and used the floor as well. We had such a good time that we went back the next year and the next year after that as well.

In 1976 we were on our annual summer holiday in Newbridge when the news broke about the Maguire children. Anne Maguire was walking on Finaghy Road North with her children when they were hit by a car, driven by a dying IRA man who had been shot by British soldiers moments earlier. Eight-year-old Joanne and two-week-old Andrew died instantly, while two-year-old John died the following day. The six o’clock news carried the story and my parents watched in horror as the news unfolded. For them, it was the last straw. Those children had died outside our local school, on the road we all walked every day. The adults talked for hours that night and decisions were made. Six weeks later we were living in Newbridge. Looking back on it now as an adult I can finally appreciate what a courageous act it was by my parents. They moved to Newbridge with seven children and no money and they built a new life, for themselves and for us.

Our cousin came back to Newbridge in 1977. This time to stay with us for a holiday and we had great fun. The weather was warm and sunny, and we spent lots of time by the river where we met a boy. I can still see him, a Johnny Cash lookalike with a handsome smile and a pushbike. We were both smitten, but he chose her. It was a holiday romance though, and she went back to Belfast and met her new boyfriend, soon-to-be husband. Our Johnny Cash lookalike was single again, so I got my man (or boy), but it fizzled out. I didn’t like being second choice.

The next time she came to Newbridge for a holiday, it was for her honeymoon. They spent a few days with us before heading back to Belfast to start their married life in a little terraced house beside Clonard monastery on the Falls Road. In 1978 I met my husband and introduced him to my Belfast cousins.  After we married and set up our own home, they came to Newbridge to visit us. As our households grew with the addition of children, she would bring her family to Newbridge and we travelled to Belfast with our family to stay with them.

Unrest in Belfast was ongoing and sometimes we had to leave abruptly whenever violence erupted suddenly, as it frequently did.

In or around 1997, about a year before the Good Friday Agreement, our cousin and her husband were sickened, worn down really, trying to raise a family amidst the fear and the ongoing violence and decided that they wanted a better life for their children. She had very fond memories of Newbridge and they decided to sell up everything they possessed and move here. They bought a house, enrolled their children in school and they both found work. However, they learned quickly that holidaying in Newbridge was quite different to living here and they never settled. The banter in Kildare is different than Belfast, the sharp black humour of Belfast and the laidback chat of Kildare are poles apart. By the mid-2000s relative peace had been restored in Northern Ireland and they missed their family and friends. The violence that made them leave Belfast was gone and the pull to go back was strong. About eight years after they moved to Newbridge they left again, back to Northern Ireland, where they remain still. They haven’t been back to Newbridge since, but she still holds sepia-coloured memories of the summer of ‘72 and her first holiday in our town.

I wonder sometimes if it is only our good memories that are sepia-coloured. Those memories of a time of innocence and fun, of love and laughter; those memories are soft and fuzzy and bring a sense of warmth and happiness. Are the other memories, those we would rather forget, images of fear, of violence, of pain, are they the memories that are imprinted in our brain in stark black and white? Do we banish them to the farthest recesses of our minds only for them to re-emerge in our nightmares? I suppose it depends on what your normal is.


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