Mixed Emotions: Real Stories of Mixed Marriage
by Northern Ireland Mixed Marriage Association
Chapter 9: Not enough Christianity
Michael and Shirley live in a quiet cul-de-sac in Glengormley on the northern outskirts of Belfast. It is a mixed area. They are an outgoing, friendly and fun-loving couple who work as psychiatric nurses in the community. Both are in their late forties.
“No matter what, if you really love each other, that love will conquer all”, says Shirley when asked what advice she would give to couples contemplating making a mixed marriage. Michael echoes those sentiments, but says that hard talking has a major part to play in making any relationship, particularly a mixed one. “Talk to each other, talk to your peers, talk to everybody openly and honestly”, says Michael, “and that openness will pay dividends.” They have been married for more than seven years and their story is testimony to that openness.
Shirley was born in the tiny County Antrim seaport of Portballintrae and raised in Bushmills where she attended the local primary and grammar schools.
“I come from a family of three girls and Mum and Dad and my sisters would have been regular churchgoers at St John the Baptist Church of Ireland in the predominantly Protestant village where I was also a Sunday School teacher for a while.”
“My father would have regarded himself as a very loyal Protestant. He was a member of the Loyal Orders, the Orange and the Black, as well as the Freemasons but, as he worked in the retail trade, he had many dealings with Roman Catholics and would have been tolerant enough of them in his own way. I remember him occasionally saying things like ‘He’s all right for a Catholic’ about someone or other. That was the way it was then. A grudging respect I suppose. Mum’s aunt had married a Roman Catholic many years before and gone to live in London and she visited my mother and father over the years. This was a normal family thing, but maybe that marriage situation was only really possible then outside Northern Ireland.”
“I was never brought up to hate anyone for his or her religion and, like many another teenager, spent a lot of time at Kelly’s in Portrush where we danced away our weekends without ever wondering what religion anyone else was.”
Shirley left home at eighteen to travel to Belfast to train as a student nurse and soon found herself part of the intense camaraderie that was Purdysburn Hospital in the 1980s.
“I’d decided that this was what I wanted to do and really enjoyed my time there. I even met a young man called Michael, who was also a student nurse, and we began what would develop into a long-lasting friendship that took several twists and turns along the way. I didn’t attend church in Belfast. There was so much else to do, but I did when I returned on visits home.”
“I did actually get engaged to a Roman Catholic and brought him to meet my folks. They ‘accepted’ him to an extent, but somehow thinking back, I don’t believe my father ever thought for one minute that I would marry him. In the end, we grew apart. That had nothing to with any religious differences.”
Michael jokes that he was born on the ‘wrong’ side of the Newtownards Road in Belfast. His father ran a grocer’s shop across the road from St Matthew’s Roman Catholic church on the edge of a strongly Protestant area.
“A few Catholics lived on our side, but trade was very scarce during the marching month of July”, he says, “and redevelopment came at a good time in the early 1960s when we moved to another shop in the Clonard district of the city. We were happy there, my two brothers and I served on the altar in the local monastery while my father, who could be described as a true social democrat, was well respected. We lived above the shop and manys the time he would have opened up in the small hours of the morning to make sure that no customer was left without staples like bread and milk.”
“My father’s father and grandfather had served in the Royal Irish Constabulary before partition and in the late 1960s he had two cousins who were serving members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. One of them was a station sergeant just half a mile away on the Springfield Road. The onset of the Troubles caused upheaval for our family and the burning of Bombay Street around the corner from us was just the start. We were forced to move, not by loyalist mobs I have to say, after my father refused to ban police and soldiers from his shop. Our house was paint-bombed, then my father’s car daubed and we moved to the relative safety of Norfolk Parade off Belfast’s Glen Road. Ironically, before the Troubles, that was where the majority of Catholic policemen lived.”
“I grew up attending the local Christian Brothers’ Grammar School and I have no horror stories on that score. I got a good education and have fond memories of trips to the Gaeltacht in Gweedore. I turned down the chance to go into catering at the college in Portrush, took exams at Belfast’s College of Business Studies and eventually the road led to Purdysburn, student nursing and the beginning of lifetime friendship with Shirley.”
Michael married his first wife Theresa at 22. “Theresa’s mum had been a convert and was as Catholic as can be with shrines and statues and holy pictures all over the place, but Theresa had aunts, uncles and cousins who would have been terrified of that stuff. Northern Ireland is such a strange place that I suppose that, not too far under the skin, we are all mixed to a certain extent.”
Sadly, Theresa died at just 37 years of age and Michael was left alone. Well, not quite alone as he says, “I always had good friends and I remember at some of the darkest times before Theresa was so ill, Shirley and her sister would take me out for the evening and, better still, make sure I got home okay. They were true friends.”
Shirley remembers. “I was at Michael and Theresa’s wedding all those years before and also at her funeral. Michael came to my father’s funeral just six weeks after Theresa passed away and I appreciated his support despite his own pain of bereavement. We were there for each other.”
Michael and Shirley’s relationship developed over time, but even workmates who shared office space with them were unaware that they were ‘walking out together’ as Michael puts it. “I’m afraid their observation skills were poor as one of our bosses commented.”
Michael and Shirley went on to get engaged, courtesy of a ‘champagne and roses’ proposal on both knees after Michael had first asked Shirley’s mother for her daughter’s hand in marriage. His father had called it ‘observing the proprieties’.
“We were open with everyone once we had decided that we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. That meant my family, Michael’s family and, importantly, Theresa’s family.”
So it was that six months later, all three families were present when Church of Ireland rector the Rev Oliver Thompson, assisted by Roman Catholic priest Fr Dan Whyte, celebrated their marriage in Shirley’s home church. Fr Dan was invited to share in the marriage by Mr Thompson.
“We are older and hopefully a little wiser than many young people who contemplate mixed marriage and our openness with each other and other people, which can probably be attributed to both our upbringing and our professional training stood us in good stead”, says Michael. “I’m fairly sure that my mum and dad would have preferred me to have married in a Catholic church, but we knew what we wanted and it went really well. My little niece, Theresa’s brother’s child, was our flower girl and all the children who have grown up with us have been very supportive.”
Neither Michael nor Shirley is complacent about how things have turned out.
“We have been lucky because of circumstances. Our age, our friendship, even our families and a shared sense of humour that a psychiatric nurse must have to survive, have all helped us get through. We want other couples, maybe younger, maybe not, to see that, at the end of the day, a mixed marriage like any marriage is all about love and that”, as Michael says, “sometimes, there’s too much religion and not enough Christianity.”
Shirley & Michael