I’ve never met either of my parents and I don’t know my father’s name. She was a Catholic from over the border he was a Protestant from Belfast and they chose to give me up for adoption in Manchester rather than face the respective wrath of their families. At home I have a copy of my birth certificate. It states I was born on 21 June 1959, that my birth name was Cornelius Brennan, my mother was called Mary and the space for details about my father is blank.
When my adoptive mother first wheeled me around our estate in Manchester, a neighbour and someone she had considered as a friend, glanced down into the pram and said to her: ‘Be careful with that one, bad blood will out’.
And I suppose I’ve been on a journey of understanding ever since, not to find my natural parents, but to understand more about the divided society of which I am a product.
The reason why my parents were unable to have children of their own was because my mother Norah had rheumatic fever as a teenager, a condition that nearly killed her and left her with an irregular heartbeat which meant she was physically not strong enough to give birth.
When she and Dad went to see her parish priest to say they planned to get married he refused to conduct the sacrament, telling them that as the purpose of marriage was to procreate and they were not going to, then, in his eyes, their union would be a sham and he wanted no part in it. They had to find another priest.
This incident, although it took place before I was born, angers me when I think about the humiliation and upset it must have caused, and it has left me suspicious of the unbending, inflexible and righteous amongst us.
I was sent to a Catholic primary school where every year our headmistress Mother Victoire organised a football match for the boys between England and Ireland. I played for Ireland, not because I felt Irish but because I preferred the colour of the shirts. Green seemed so much nicer than holier-than-thou white.
Mother Victoire was a very good friend of Sir Matt Busby, the legendary Manchester United manager. In those days, when he was still just Matt he used to bring the United squad down to watch these England vs Ireland matches: Georgie Best, Bobby Charlton, Paddy Crerand, Nobby Stiles, all those great players used to turn up. I can remember the girls screaming when Best arrived, just like they used to do for the Beatles, and subversively vowing that from that day forward I would be a Manchester City fan!
That apart, Ireland did not feature in my childhood, except that I remember that whenever something really bad had happened in the North, my mum used to switch the news off. I think that was quite a common thing for English people to do in the 1970s – whenever the Troubles got onto the news you turned over to ITV.
Yet for me there was always something nagging away, as I’m sure is the case for any adopted child. Simple, obvious things like: What am I going to look like when I’m an adult? How tall will I be? Will I go bald? Have I got any brothers or sisters? And on my birthday: I wonder what my mummy is doing today?
We had an old travel guide to Ireland in the bookshelves and I sometimes used to look at it to see if there were any pictures of people who looked like me, and whether they could conceivably be related.
But it also prompted deeper questions about identity: about what shapes us most, the people who surround us or invisible genetic forces? I felt different from other people, sometimes really blessed with a potential to do things unconstrained by family and background, at other times isolated and lonely, with issues I knew other people would never understand. Most of all, as I got older, I wanted to learn about conflict and division and all this in a very deeply personal sense because, no matter how loving my family was, I still felt rejected and cast aside and wanted answers.
That’s why I came to work in Northern Ireland in April 1990.
On my first evening in the city I went for a drink with a friend from Andersonstown I had met in Liverpool. We were walking to a bar when we passed Sandy Row. I asked him what it was like down there, and he replied: ‘I’ve no idea and I’ve no intention of finding out.’ It seemed to me then that Belfast was not one but two cities, and between those two communities the interaction was as close to zero as it was possible to be.
In my first week at work several things struck me. At 5.00 p.m. on the dot, as soon as the shops and offices closed everyone scurried home into their own communities so that by 5.30 p.m. the streets were deserted. It was confusing to be searched going into stores. In Liverpool we were always searched on the way out! Then there were the troops who were everywhere. I remember watching one patrol going up Royal Avenue. The soldiers looked twitchy and nervous, yet when the first man reached a pelican crossing, he pressed the button and they waited before filing across the road when the light turned to green. For me it was a surreal moment on the one hand normal and ordinary, on the other strangely menacing, and that’s how the city as a whole felt.
That week Brendan Murphy the Irish News picture editor took me for a tour of the north and west of the city. Somewhere in Ardoyne he slowed his car down as we approached a row of shops. Everyone immediately ran indoors. Strange men in strange cars spelled danger in those days.
In my journey of understanding I’ve found my outsider status to be an advantage. My name Garbutt is Anglo-Saxon, it means spear bearer in that language and the warrior clans that spawned it were amongst the Germanic hordes that defied and defeated Rome, they were also early proponents of a primitive form of democracy. Everyone tries to label you in Northern Ireland as being part of one community or the other. In my case that proved impossible, because as nobody knew my story, there was no apparent motive for what I was doing here, especially as editor of the Irish News. Yes, there is a long tradition of people coming over from England and Scotland to involve themselves in Irish politics: James Connolly was from Edinburgh, and, in the interests of balance, Enoch Powell was from Birmingham but I was just trying to understand what was going on, and being hard to categorise suited me well.
In that context I’ve always felt a little sorry for people from our second biggest city because it is not possible for them to answer a straightforward question about where they are from without revealing their religion or cultural identity.
When people ask you questions like that it is usually because they don’t know you very well and are looking for something to talk about. So when people ask me where I’m from I say Manchester and that is normally the cue for asking me which team I support (City) whether it rains all the time there (yes) and what I think about the Gallagher brothers (not a lot).
If I were to preface those answers by saying, well before we get onto the weather I would first like to say that I vote Labour and do not have any strong religious beliefs, people would think I was weird, and quite rightly so.
So in that context I think it must be quite hard for people from Derry/Londonderry to be forced to identify the community they are from at the very start of any kind of relationship.
And yes, I’ve lived here long enough to know that there are those for whom any encounter is a sectarian guessing game and because our society is so divided, that Sean from Castlederg is unlikely to be a member of that town’s Loyalist Flute Band, and that Stewart from Newtownards will probably not be attending Sinn Féin’s ard fheis any time soon.
The challenge is to move beyond that.
More recently I’ve been doing some research on the history of the Suffolk/Lenadoon interface in west Belfast. I’ve spoken to members of both communities, many of whom were forced out of their own homes in the most distressing circumstances imaginable.
The burnings and evictions in Belfast, which started in 1969 and went on for more than a decade, were the largest forced migration in Western Europe since the Second World War.
I have spoken to a woman from Suffolk whose earliest childhood memory is of glimpsing the red stair carpet in her former home as she was plucked out of her bed by a stranger in the night and bundled into a van to be driven away to stay with her grandma.
I’ve spoken to a man from Lenadoon who, as an eight year old, watched his own MP lead a mob down his street, systematically setting fire to the houses as they went. And to a woman who still regularly passes the house she used to live in, which was bought and paid for by her own mother: where others live today.
The conflict did not spare children, people like Paul who lived in a flat overlooking the interface who was woken many nights as a young child by petrol bombs exploding against the iron grille that covered his bedroom window, and Joe who, as an 11 year old saw a soldier fire a rubber bullet at point blank range into the face of a neighbour, and remembers her eyeball bouncing off her cheek, still attached to the socket by the optic nerve. And there’s more and much, much worse as everyone who lived through that will attest. And all who did, seemingly without exception, shrug and say that was normal and it did not affect them. Yet it did.
The trauma of these experiences still resonates in working class communities. Research recently published by Professor Mike Tomlinson of Queen’s University demonstrates the lasting legacy of the conflict in many parts of the city: we have concerning levels of mental ill health, depression, self-harm and suicide in areas most impacted by the conflict, areas which are also those with the highest levels of social deprivation.
Despite this, much progress has been made.
An unsung hero in Northern Ireland is a community worker called Chris O’Halloran. He inadvertently provided the impetus that brought the communities in Suffolk and Lenadoon together.
He decided to conduct a survey in both communities to find out what their problems were, what needed to happen to make things better and what government needed to do to stimulate that.
He started in Suffolk. When he got to Lenadoon people told him that they would be interested in participating, but wanted to know what the results of the Suffolk survey were. There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing. The result was that the communities shared their results. And that led to the realisation that members of the two communities had the same needs, battled with the same problems, and worried about the same things.
This is how the dialogue started: people started talking to each other, at first through intermediaries and then directly, and when they did, boundaries started to break down, the rumours and the misunderstandings began to dissolve, and the communities slowly started to work together to resolve common problems.
Today the Suffolk and Lenadoon Interface Group is based on the Stewartstown Road in regenerated shops and office space which have created jobs for members of both communities.
It’s not perfect, there are still problems, just as there are in many other parts of Belfast, and nobody is arguing, just yet, that it is time for the peace walls to come down. Yet there are lessons we can learn from the progress we are making in Belfast which can be applied elsewhere.
Before I came to Northern Ireland I worked in Liverpool, where my earliest experience as a journalist was covering the Toxteth riots. I also had a spell working in Bradford in West Yorkshire, where at the time there were frequent street battles between the National Front and young men who had settled in the city from Pakistan.
Today there are parts of Oldham in Greater Manchester, and indeed other towns and cities in England where communities are physically divided, kids go to different schools, and there is no interaction. All that is missing are the peace walls. And it is the same in Berlin and in Paris and in many other cities in continental Europe. Strange isn’t it that problems we thought unique to us are now manifesting themselves elsewhere?
One of the troubling aspects of the emergence of division in England was that an approach was developed which effectively demonised host communities who had reservations, asked questions or in any way expressed concern about others moving into their locality. They were simply branded as racist.
The reality of course is that those concerns and tensions revolve primarily around jobs and housing, and again, given our history, this should not be surprising as these were and remain key communal issues here.
I feel very strongly about this because from my own experience working class communities are welcoming, warm and generous. I do not understand why it has become fashionable to sneer at people from a so-called ordinary background – I suspect this is an import from the United States of America where your wealth seems to be an index of your worth.
It was interesting and very significant to notice that in the Equality Commission’s latest attitude survey it is middle class, middle aged, so-called well-educated men who have the most propensity to openly express views that most of us would find sectarian or racist.
The tragedy today, as we ‘normalise‘ is that a new division is opening up, not so much between communities set against each other, but between those scarred by the conflict and those who were not.
There are plenty of places in Northern Ireland which were never really impacted by the conflict. The day after inadvertently terrifying people in Ardoyne I walked from Bangor to Cultra along the coastal path and was struck by the wealth and tranquillity of what used to be called the ‘Gold Coast‘. The ‘professional classes‘, by and large, were not involved, and today simply want to ‘move on‘. For them the political compromises required to reach peace were a necessary evil. They have a clear conscience, they did nothing wrong. Today it is all about reducing Corporation Tax and the devastation the Troubles have caused are, quite naturally and understandably, an inconvenient truth. Paint over the gable walls, this is ‘Our Time, Our Place’, let’s forget it ever happened.
This after all, was a ‘low intensity’ conflict where most of the suffering was consigned to small, readily identified working class communities which is one of the reasons why it lasted, unresolved, for so long.
But it is not so easy to move on if you can’t walk any longer or if you have lost people you care about whose memories linger, or if you can’t sleep at night because you are haunted by the memories of what you have seen or what you have done.
In Britain there is a lot of focus on the ‘Help for Heroes’ campaign, which sets out to rehabilitate those members of the armed services who have suffered as a result of conflicts they were involved in. But in Northern Ireland, what of the victims? And here I am not just writing about story telling, finding the ‘truth‘ whatever that means and might involve, and getting ‘closure’, important though all those processes are. I’m wanting to see more practical support for the many, many victims whoever they are, to help them move on. It would not be as expensive as removing Corporation Tax. It would not cost very much at all. But it would mean a lot, and it would also mean a collective acknowledgement of the pain and suffering that the conflict has caused and continues to cause to victims, families and their children.
So there is a first conclusion here for me in my journey. I contrast people from Suffolk and Lenadoon who have suffered and have too many reasons to fear, distrust, and yes, to hate the people on the other side of the Stewartstown Road to make tentative steps to finding a common purpose with them – with those who were not directly involved in the conflict and would rather wish to pretend that what happened never did, people a bit like my mum when she switched over to ITV, who would rather we only talked about the ‘new‘ Northern Ireland.
And here we come to the nub of it. In a society where the gap between rich and poor is widening by the day, as wide today as it was in mid-Victorian times, and when social mobility has become as difficult as it was in the 1920s and when, even in our own city people in, for example, the Malone Road area can expect to live as much as 15 years longer than those from less privileged areas – is it any surprise that people in working class areas feel concerned and anxious about their futures?
To me this is a tragedy. Working people have been divided and weakened and forced into separate ‘tribes’, fighting with each other for a bigger slice of the cake, when what is really required is for someone to bake a bigger cake.
I used the term working people. Sadly many of those people are not, any longer, working. In the days when James Connolly and Jim Larkin were campaigning for the rights of people in working class communities in Belfast 100 years ago, that city was one of the most productive and industrious on Earth.
Today, thanks to the collapse of the linen industry and heavy manufacturing, exacerbated by the instability conflict brings, it is very far from that. The public sector in Northern Ireland now accounts for 70 per cent of GDP, more than the People’s Republic of China, more than the old USSR. That’s our economic legacy. Unless it is addressed there is danger ahead.
What would contribute most to community cohesion, between our two traditional communities and all our more recent residents, is to ensure that every citizen in Northern Ireland has the opportunity to develop and grow and to live their dreams. Communal discord is exacerbated when there is a lack of fairness, a failure to invest and engage in areas that need it the most, when health inequalities and the lack of social mobility are not addressed and when the gap between rich and poor is allowed to widen.
In the meantime we have much to offer the world. We can and should draw on our past. There is a way of showing that those who used to brand everyone here as barbarians and who are now experiencing at first hand segregated communities, communal disengagement and potentially starting off down the path we once trod, can learn from our painful lessons. We’ve lived through division, we know about separated and alienated communities, the anguish of sectarianism and the remorseless logic of the escalating violence that can lead to, and we are starting to learn how to bring people together. Northern Ireland is a special, if not unique place, because conflicts are so rarely resolved. Issues remain but progress, by any international measure, has been remarkable.
Both my adoptive parents are now dead. I feel therefore twice orphaned, by those who brought me up and by those who chose not to because of the pressures they felt from their churches and their families and division. I know that my own experience is nothing to what so many people in Belfast have been through. I just happen to believe that it is important to learn from it and to ensure that future generations never have to suffer the pain of rejection, of alienation, the feeling of somehow not belonging, that everyone inevitably feels when decisions are made about them that are not based on their merit, but on who they are and where they are from. There is no such thing as ‘bad blood’.
Before I came to Ireland I studied for an MA in Irish Studies, trying to understand how the past plays into the present and it is strange to see how positions that now seem fixed and immutable were not always thus.
The house next door to where I now live in Greyabbey used to contain the old police barracks and one of the rooms was the cell where the Presbyterian Minister and journalist James Porter was held before he was led out to be hanged, in front of his congregation, on an improvised scaffold at the back of his church on 2 July 1798 for his alleged role in the rebellion of that year.
previous month the people of the Ards Peninsula had been on the march,
attacking the military bases in Newtownards and Portaferry armed with pikes and
farming implements and forcing loyalists in Donaghadee to flee to Belfast by
From 10–13 June Newtownards and Donaghadee were run by ‘Committees of Public Safety’ styled on French revolutionary lines. The insurgency on the Ards Peninsula, though largely forgotten today, led to the establishment of the shortest-lived republic in history. The United Irishmen of that area were Ulster Scots planters who paid a heavy price for their sedition with the executions, reprisals and deportations that followed.
Not everyone has always been on the ‘same side’. Allegiances shift with circumstances and with time and when you delve into the past you do not always find what you expect.
My journey has been redemptive and revealing, I started off trying to find where I came from, what shaped me – and I suppose, what it means to be Irish or Northern Irish or both without any reference points, family stories or influences, and also, of course, what it means to be British.
And after hours of academic research and study and more than two decades in Belfast and speaking to so many people from ex-combatants to the politically disengaged, I’m led to conclude that it doesn’t really matter. Well at least not to me.
I mean by this that I would rather define myself by my interests and my talents and my love of family and friends and I am afraid that after all I have seen and studied I infinitely prefer an outsider status to being a member of any tribe, however warm and welcoming, because by being so it might exclude me from the other, and I like and respect both communities here. I have felt welcomed everywhere.
The obvious question that I have not addressed is the one I am constantly asked ever since I revealed the circumstances of my birth. Would you like to find your mother and father and any siblings? That’s one to which I have no answers, not because I’ve not thought about it, a lot. I’ve even written letters to both which are probably somewhere at the bottom of a drawer, never posted because, obviously I had no addresses, and in my father’s case not even a name to write to. I can’t exactly remember what they said, but it was to the effect that I was fine and have had a good life and had fun and that I hoped neither of them had worried about me. But I did not ask for a meeting.
This piece was first published in October 2012, in the fourth volume of the British Council series, Britain and Ireland: Lives Entwined, commissioned by openDemocracy Editor Rosemary Bechler. She would like to thank the British Council Northern Ireland, the British Council Ireland and the authors, for the chance to republish here a selection of articles from the series.