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Mix 'n' match: Crossing the religious divide for love -

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I was aware from an early age that my Catholic aunts had not approved of my father's choice of wife, or rather, her denomination. Indeed, my mother only recently told me that when my teenage father declared to his mother that they were seeing each other, she responded by saying he would get nowhere going out with 'that wee Protestant girl'.

I spent a lot of my childhood with my maternal grandparents in Bangor, where we experienced the strong Scottish flavour of my mother's heritage. He was a liberal man with working class roots, who didn't warm to the unionist government or the Orange Order, but he was Scots Irish to his toenails. When my parents married, he advised his daughter not to give the children Catholic names because, as he said, they wouldn't get a job.

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So we all have somewhat neutral Christian names to go with our English surname of Wright, from my Catholic father's Protestant grandfather. We lived in a religiously mixed housing estate, although predominantly Protestant. All my childhood friends were Protestants and I collected for the local bonfire on the 11th night. One of my friends taught me to play The Sash on the snare drum - I can still play it today. However, not all our neighbours were tolerant. We got away and into the house, and strangely I understood what the fuss had been all about.

I knew what the contentious issue was even at that young age. I was the first born after my mother converted and attended a convent primary school. I can vividly remember a nun telling us that only Catholics had guardian angels, and that Protestants didn't believe in them and they would go to hell. I remember being upset that my maternal granny wouldn't be going to heaven …. I stopped going to Mass at 16 and any time I've been back since, searching for something, I've come away angry. My eldest brother Jeff lost his faith completely. He was only nine when he was confronted by four women, around our parents' age, outside the parish hall.

Of course, Jeff didn't understand this. They grabbed him and shoved him from one to another until the parish hall doors opened. Jeff had lived all his adult life in England and kept that incident locked away for 41 years. He could still recall the women's names when he told the story for the first time, sitting on my settee drunk, with tears streaming down his face.

It had affected him deeply for all those years and I wonder if a child psychologist would have attributed Jeff's lifelong stammer to that incident. During the loyalist strike our house was petrol bombed and we were forced to move to a new housing estate on Portadown's Garvaghy Road, which was gradually becoming a Catholic area, due to increasing intimidation on both sides at that time.

I never liked it there, as I always preferred mixed cultural company, but that was restricted due to the tensions of the time and the risk from a minority of bigots. Looking back, my father regarded himself very much as an Irishman, even though - having served in the British Armed Forces - he would have been a 'soft' nationalist. But he despised Irish republicans who used their Catholic faith as some kind of credential for their political beliefs.

When his RAF service ended, he went to the British Legion hall in Portadown to socialise, but hard-line unionists in the hall made him unwelcome because he was a Catholic. On the other side of the family, many of my mother's uncles and first cousins were in the RUC.

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I would have been happy to do so, but the Troubles started and it didn't happen. However, the family connection gave me a degree of empathy for police officers that would not have been appreciated by some of my Christian Brothers' classmates in Armagh. Not that I was stupid enough to tell them, given the number that hailed from South Armagh.

Three of my schoolmates were later killed 'on active service' in the IRA.

Mix 'n' match: Crossing the religious divide for love

It's funny to think of it now - my mother's Girl Guides experience came in handy for me at times. I started working for the Post Office in the s and at one point, my duties included raising the Union flag over the local Post Office on the days designated by government. Given my upbringing, I didn't have a problem with this, but when I told my mother she was careful to explain to me the right way to raise it - that is, not upside down.

She also taught me the words to God Save The Queen, which I needed to know - back when I played in a band - for the last number of the night.

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One unexpected issue with being the child of a mixed marriage was medical history. When I was diagnosed with cancer on the eve of my 52nd birthday - and when my brother received the same bad news a few years later - my GP advised me to speak to the cancer genetics department at Belfast City Hospital to determine if there was a trend in the family history.

If a trend was found, this would enable us to alert the next generations of the family and they would be aware of the need for early checks. However, as my parents had largely been distanced from their immediate and extended families, we didn't have any information on how relatives of previous generations had died. I did eventually source the information through a cousin of my mother who lived in Canada and who had remained loyal to my mother through all the years.

Belfast Burning: Religious Divide in Northern Ireland Between Protestants and Catholics

Of the six children my parents gave life to, three married Protestants, one a Buddhist, one a Catholic who, ironically, later divorced , and the other never married. We experienced an overall happy life. However, standing at my dad's bedside during the last days of his life, and witnessing his torment over his virtual excommunication some 70 years earlier, it brought me back to my early memories of the family discomfort that I had long since forgotten.

Dementia had erased almost a lifetime of my father's memory, but it couldn't impact upon the deepest wound on his psyche, the torture he had to endure for loving my mother. The theme of mixed marriage has made for some compelling drama on stage and screen, most notably in the hit film A Love Divided, and in the famous Billy plays. The second play in the legendary Billy trilogy, A Matter of Choice for Billy, set in , traced the shifting relationships within the Martin family after the death of their mother and the emigration of their father.

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Billy has to decide about the nature of his commitment to Pauline, his 'Fenian nurse-friend', when she gets a job offer from Canada. Once she decides that she would rather live in sin than Toronto, Billy moves in with her. The play got all of Northern Ireland talking about mixed relationships, unfortunately still as contentious on certain bigoted circles, but now more common and accepted than ever before in wider society. A Love Divided is based on the true story of Sean and Sheila Cloney and the bitter boycott that followed their mixed marriage in Fethard-on-Sea, Co Wexford, in the s.

Catholics refused to buy goods from their Protestant neighbours after Sheila refused to honour the infamous Catholic Ne Temere pledge to send her daughters Eileen and Mary to the local Catholic school. Under immense pressure, Sheila fled to Belfast and then Scotland with her daughters. Her defiance led local priest Fr William Stafford to order a boycott on all Protestant businesses in the area.

Protestant shopkeepers in Fethard lost customers, a Protestant music teacher lost 11 of her pupils, and a Catholic teacher at the local Protestant school was forced to resign. The boycott was eventually broken when Fr Stafford bought a packet of cigarettes in a shop owned by a Protestant. From receipts and bills, to household chores and more fun stuff like booking a holiday, 'life admin' is a daily task in some way, shape or form for most of us. I first became interested in the subject a number of years ago.

It stemmed from the fact that my grandfather, grandmother and great aunt all served at Larne Naval Base during the First World War. January is of course the month we ditch bad habits and embark on new ones - ones that are supposed to be healthier, better for our mental wellbeing, more efficient, economical and joy-bringing. Which sounds like quite a lot of hard work.

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