An Irish family history

It’s now just over two weeks until I get on a plane to Ireland.

welcome to NI

In preparation for my trip back to my birthplace, I’ve been talking at length to my father about our life in County Armagh, Northern Ireland. Around two weeks ago I asked him to give me directions to our old house, my old school and the churches where he used to preach every Sunday (for those who don’t already know, my father was a Presbyterian minister in charge of three parishes, one in Northern Ireland and two in Southern Ireland), and to send me anything else that might be useful.

IRA sign and girl

My father being my father, only two days later a carefully wrapped and labelled package arrived in my letterbox. (Nope, he couldn’t possibly send anything by email.) It contained these things:

1. A letter – yes, a typed letter – outlining the places I might like to visit, with some directions and commentary and interesting tidbits – such as the fact that seven of his parishioners were murdered by the IRA during his time as minister, one of them tortured horrifically first. It is dated and formally addressed to me. It is so rare to receive a letter like this these days, I may display it in a glass case.

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2. Two little booklets my father wrote some years ago, outlining the history of the churches where he was minister. Dad has always been interested in history, so I imagine writing these booklets was a labour of love.

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3. The best thing: photocopied sheets of my father’s closely handwritten notes, recording family “highlights” of the years between the birth of my older sister and when I turned five. Oh, they are priceless. Apart from the fact that my father was apparently obsessed with health issues (he documents everything from his stomach bugs to my impetigo to tooth extractions and German measles), the little details he notes are at times hilarious, at times bizarre, and at times ever so slightly disturbing.

Here are some highlights. My comments are in [ ]:

15 April 19–.  Alison [my sister] born 12.45am. Saw Elspeth [my mother] at 9.20am. [Ha! Back then, the father only arrived when all the hard work was over.] Stray cat Suzie had kittens same day. More later, wild. Suzie hunting for food, ate Mrs McM’s chickens and cakes; Mrs McM caught and choked her.

7 March 19–. Alison ate cigarette. 10 March. Alison takes first steps. [No lasting harm from the cigarette, then.]

10 February 19–. Psychic experience. Knock in manse, loud “policeman’s” knock. I and Mrs McC [my mother’s mother] heard it, but not Elspeth, calm, fine day, no one about, waited for knock at 3am but no repeat.

Skipping over a few years now…

13 March 19–. Elspeth had baby girl about 10.25pm. [Me!]

22 May 19–. Septic tank cleaned out.

7 July 19–. Tricia started playing with rattle. Bells. [very advanced, obviously]

14 September 19–. Tricia to clinic to see why not walking.

1 February 19–. Elspeth took Tricia to see specialist, Belfast. Only lazy and overweight. Elspeth got goldfish. [Thanks, Dad – and great non sequitur there. He pulled that story out at my 21st, by the way.]

23 July 19–. Tricia threw facecloths in the toilet this week. Unscrewed cycle valves. [Not THAT lazy, then, hmmm?]

4 October 19–. Tricia fell and cut face badly on pencil. Stitch. [I still have the scar.]

2 February 19–. Tricia sick four times, perhaps due to spraying air freshener in mouth. [Do ya THINK?]

23 April 19–. Tricia to Sunday School first time. Ran down aisle to see me and thought her offering was for piggy-bank.

21 July 19–. Tricia nearly fell out bedroom window.

24 July 19–. Tricia seems to have mumps. Took her to my parents in Belfast. [Dump and run, Dad. Dump and run.]

23 August 19–. Army patrols in manse far more often, from Mrs Meeke’s murder. Cheerful company.

1 December 19–. Tricia carried off by pony at a gallop, Mary had to run holding her – quite cheerful. [Who – me, or Mary?]

19 December 19–. Tricia to Jill Smyth’s – different to Alison and Iain [my siblings] – Jill her one pal.

8 April 19–. Tricia and Jill went for walk to Clarksbridge [Church] in fancy dress. Elspeth very frightened by absence.

28 July 19–. To Belfast with Tricia, fridge, chest of drawers. [That’s quite a carful, Dad.]

For all that we laugh at our father for being so pedantic and obsessed with the written word, I feel enormously grateful to have this document. OK, knowing that my sister had a peanut removed from her nostril in October 19– or that I had a virulent case of diarrhoea when I was two probably won’t inform my upcoming trip to Ireland, but it has enriched me simply to read these words, written over 40 years ago, by a young father and husband and minister. There is something incredibly moving about holding these notes in my hands and thinking about my birth, and the difficult life my parents led in a country torn apart by violence and hatred, and the fact that my dad cared enough to keep such a painstaking and detailed account of his children’s early years.

The document is all the more precious for the fact that the handwritten word is now practically obsolete. Virtually all modern communication is by email, tweets, snaps or posts, which makes holding a piece of paper somehow more special, and ever so slightly surreal. (Although some of Dad’s short, at times unintentionally hilarious sentences would make perfect tweets today. The irony has not escaped me.)

The document is irreplaceable. Just like my dad.

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