Discussion rather than division
by Hugh NELSON (Northern Ireland Mixed Marriage Association)
1 March 2018
Six years and three books ago NIMMA decided to shine a light for the first time on what had been until then a ‘taboo’ subject. Secretary Hugh Nelson looks at the fall-out from this process.
Our long and often difficult project designed to open up the subject of mixed marriage is coming to a close. Our third book is nearing publication and plans are in place for distribution of all three books to teachers across the Province.
It has been a challenging process, but one that has been and will be worthwhile for years to come.
We have shone a light where previously none has been and I believe given our young people the right tools to challenge sectarianism and find tolerance.
It would, however, be remiss of me not to comment on what is included in the forthcoming book and the two that went before.
All three books will remain ‘live’ in the coming years as they are preserved in digital format and, thanks to our partnership with the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE ), distributed widely to schools across the Province and all three books have produced their fair share of shocks, sensation and serious content.
Perhaps the most significant impact of this series of publications has been its dramatic and groundbreaking contribution to the debate and discussion of a subject previously taboo outside academic circles.
Prior to the publication of ‘Mixed Emotions’ six years ago, it simply was not done to talk about mixed marriage and all of its ramifications. Mixed marriage people shied away from publicity and the parapets of prejudice remained well above the heads of all concerned.
The first book opened the floodgates for free and widespread discussion of mixed marriage and what started as a trickle became a torrent as the general population and the media became quickly accustomed to a new topic for public scrutiny. Those courageous people who took part in that ‘experiment’, for experiment is really what it is was, as we in NIMMA dipped our proverbial toe in the unknown are deserving of all the praise we can muster. Their bravery in coming forward with stories of prejudice, shunning and bigotry that were tempered with compromise, courage, tolerance and, most of all, love broke down barriers that had existed for generations.
We cannot thank them and all of our contributors enough. They shared their lives with us and in doing so changed the climate for mixed marriage people in this country. The cold house of the past was all but replaced by a hothouse of intellectual and emotional debate. The success of these publications has been a tribute to those who have shared their past and present to show the way to a shared future.
That wave of positivity has been offset to a degree by an unusual and unexpected outcome from our trinity of collected stories; namely those stories that never made it to publication and the reason they remain untold.
In every case where a story had to be removed, where an individual or couple withdrew their contribution, the families of the ‘mixed’ people, in some cases the extended families of which we in Northern Ireland are so proud, had asked, in some instances demanded, that those contributions be recalled.
Obviously, the feelings and sensibilities of all concerned in a project of this nature had to be taken into consideration and this code of ethics was adhered to in all cases. It is worth noting, however, that one startling outcome of our research, startling even to seasoned members of NIMMA well used to ‘horror’ stories of the mixed variety, came during the production of ‘Exiles for Love’. Several contributors withdrew their stories after pressure from families. Not unusual you may think, but in at least two cases, both couples had been far abroad for nearly 30 years, had put down deep roots in their adopted countries with children and grandchildren born and, initially at least, had been keen to tell their stories.
In both cases, love had found a way and exile a safe haven for that love to blossom and, in both cases, neither couple could see why those stories should not be told and celebrated.
Their families thought differently however and family pressure, even after all that time and in spite of all that distance, ensured that those stories would not see the light of day.
We in NIMMA found that startling as I have said. Startling because it turned on its head many of the assumptions we had taken as read. We had always imagined that the ‘problems’ associated with mixed marriage simply went away when the couple went away and that the entrenched attitudes of brothers, sisters and parents mellowed with time and distance.
Sadly this was not proven to be the case. In both instances, those attitudes appear to have been placed in suspended animation just waiting for the day when the light of publicity would threaten to reawaken old animosities. The fact that such differences had not been addressed directly in the first place, but rather avoided comfortably by exile seems to have kept them as fresh, as harsh and, arguably, as disruptive as they were many years before.
The choice of exile is taken for many reasons in the case of mixed marriage and in these cases, at least and who knows how many others, would appear to have been Hobson’s choice.
A pilgrimage is a journey that someone makes to a place that is very important to them, according to the dictionary anyway. I like to think that we in NIMMA have made our own pilgrimage through our trilogy of books about mixed marriage, if not to, then certainly toward a place of understanding and tolerance that is vitally important to us and the growing mixed community in Northern Ireland.
That pilgrimage has been long, often difficult and even a little depressing, but ultimately fulfilling. Fulfilling for those of us who have made that journey, but also fulfilling for those whose words we have followed and, hopefully, for those whose young eyes and hearts will know them eventually. The trilogy has now run the full gamut of mixed marriage, from the real stories of couples that tell tales of how love overcomes even the highest of obstacles, including alienation and rejection, through the children of such relationships that enjoy an enrichment most can only envy to the final piece of the jigsaw, the accounts of exile with love found and home forsaken.
There have been heartaches along the way. We have learned that the late Ruth McCreesh’s humiliating shunning due to her choice of husband brought tears and a terrible sadness, but also an unbeatable strength of relationship and character that fostered love and family and, finally, reconciliation within her extended family.
How Kit Wright’s childhood brought back memories of playing the Sash on a snare drum, hearing his mother called a turncoat and witnessing the tears in his brother’s eyes as he told, for the first time in more than 40 years, how, as a nine-year-old, he had been jostled and called ‘Vincie Wright’s wee bastard’ by a group of Catholic mothers. We make no apology for repeating both of those remarkable stories in this publication.
Many of the exiles packed up their disappointment and disillusionment for the trips away, perhaps hoping for a quick return, but preparing undoubtedly for new lives where that baggage of labels, denominational identity and prejudice would no longer be needed.
Some of the stories may be hard to read, hard to credit in this modern world, but they are all real and told in the words of the people who have lived them.
We in NIMMA have been honoured to join this pilgrimage of privilege. We acknowledge the courage and selflessness of all those who have taken part. Jimmy and Anne McLelland summed up that attitude when saying, “If our story can help young people understand and talk about their differences, then we will be happy’.
Mixed marriage has changed over the years. One in five relationships is now mixed and making a mixed marriage is now easier than ever, thanks in no small part to the work of NIMMA over the past 40 and more years, but such is one denominational nature of social housing in the Province and the absence of sufficient integrated educational facilities that obstacles do arise and are difficult to address.
Our young people are showing maturity way beyond their elders in many cases as they approach denominational labels and the question of identity in an atmosphere of stable discussion and debate. We have seen how ‘Both Sides Now’ can be a tool for reconciliation among our teenagers in particular at school workshops and seminars. Increasing secularisation of our society may be regrettable from a faith point of view, but a moratorium on sectarianism and divisive politicking and a healthy respect for diversity are surely to be admired.
We trust that we have in some way contributed, and can continue to contribute, to making diversity a subject for discussion rather than division.
More information on the Northern Ireland Mixed Marriage Association is available on its website: http://www.nimma.org.uk/
The above article is republished with kind permission from the Northern Ireland Mixed Marriage Association.