Mixed Emotions: Real Stories of Mixed Marriage
by Northern Ireland Mixed Marriage Association
Chapter 3: Family is the most important thing
Chris and Roisin, who are in their mid-thirties, live in the Oldpark area of north Belfast. Chris is a bakery worker, Roisin a supervisor in a solicitor’s practice. They have been married for more than 11 years and are proud parents of seven-and-a-half-year-old Matthew. He says that the ‘half’ is very important.
“We keep politics out of our home,” says Roisin. “In Northern Ireland it is divisive and there is no place for it in our relationship. We don’t watch the news about this place and neither of us feels that any of the politicians have the welfare of ordinary people at heart.” “Obviously, we have our own views on many things”, agrees Chris, “we’d both lived in this society for more than 20 years before we met, so we have attitudes whether we like it or not. But, we’ve found that our family life is more important than religion or politics and it comes first every time.”
Roisin was born in the Ardoyne area of the city and is convent-educated. She has two brothers and two sisters and lives not far from her Mum and Dad. She manages a successful solicitor’s practice less than half a mile from her home and has worked there since leaving school.
“We bought this house despite the fact it was the first we had viewed”, she says, “because I knew it was right and it had the advantage of being close to my parents. Family is the most important thing in my life; my husband, my son and my extended family. Oh, and it’s also handy for work.
Her first memories are typical of many Belfast youngsters of her generation. “I remember bin lids being banged, deafening noise and burning. The first of the hunger strikers was dying and Ardoyne went crazy. It is not the sort of memory I would wish on any child, but in those days, where I came from, there was a constant atmosphere of tension and violence. I remember the strangeness of English accents and the constant harassment of older people in the street by the army who seemed to be everywhere, all the time.”
Roisin’s parents moved their family to the relative quiet of the Cliftonville Road area, but after less than five years and frequently smashed front windows, they were intimidated out of their home by loyalist paramilitaries. “It was sad and shocking at the same time, as we were forced to move back to Ardoyne after our house was bought under a vesting order, at a fraction of its cost, by the Housing Executive, but worse was to come. My father’s brother was murdered in his café on the Crumlin Road by unknown loyalist killers. We were devastated and my memory of my father’s tears will stay with me forever.”
“I had been sheltered from the Troubles, as they’re called, by my parents. They wanted only what was best for us. I’d gone from knowing no Protestants at all when I lived in Ardoyne originally to taking part in Girl’s Brigade activities regularly during our five-year stay on the Cliftonville Road. Then, it was back to Ardoyne again and a Catholic-only environment.” Through all of this time, Roisin was involved in Gaelic games. “I have been a member of the Ardoyne GAA club for nearly as long as I can remember. I was a Camogie player for more than 20 years at all club levels and, subsequently, I have taken up coaching some of the younger girls. It is a healthy and disciplined sport and one that I love.” Roisin has also enjoyed a successful county career with the Antrim team and still spends up to five evenings a week volunteering her time to help the young of her community. “The GAA was my life as a teenager: my sporting life and my social life to the exclusion of everything else I suppose. I didn’t venture into town much in the evenings, so it was really by chance, on the invitation of my sister and her friend, who worked together in the Northern Ireland Civil Service, that I met Chris. But for fate, I’m sure our paths really could not have crossed.”
Chris, who works in a busy North Belfast home bakery, comes originally from a townland outside the County Antrim coastal town of Larne. “We moved about quite a lot when I was a youngster”, he says, “mainly around the Carrickfergus area. So, as you can imagine, I didn’t meet a lot of Catholics for the first ten years of my life. I’ll correct that, I didn’t meet any Catholics at all.” That was rectified when the family, Chris, his mum and dad and brother, Scott, moved to Newtownbreda village in the countryside to the south of Belfast as he prepared for secondary school.
“Technically our family was Methodist, but we didn’t attend church and it certainly wasn’t a big deal in our house, so a person’s religion didn’t much matter to me either way. But Newtownbreda was a mixed area and, before long, I had taken a part-time job in a local petrol station, made Catholic friends and very good ones at that.”
Chris attended Newtownbreda High School and like most of the other boys gathered firewood for the bonfire and looked forward to ‘The Twelfth’ celebrations. “It was a season of the year, like the others we had for games and sports and one that I enjoyed, but that was it. A bit of a laugh. I wasn’t brought up to be sectarian or, to be honest, even to care what anyone else ‘was’. It just didn’t occur to me then and it still doesn’t today.”
“I had been socialising in Belfast, particularly around Lavery’s pub, which was totally mixed, for a few years when I first met Roisin. I already knew her sister and we all got along well.”
“We got on better than well”, says Roisin. “Chris and I walked and talked until five o’clock that first morning, and despite the fact that he had forgotten my Christian name by the time I rang him later that morning, I knew that this was the real thing or whatever they call it today.” “I was half awake when she rang”, says Chris, “I could hardly remember my own name after a night on the town.”
Chris and Roisin courted for four years before marrying. Chris says, “We were party animals in those days, trouble or no trouble, and we had a great time before we eventually settled down. They were often difficult times”, says Roisin. “There was tension with things like Drumcree and lots of sectarian trouble and Chris and I lived on polar opposites of Belfast. He in the far south, me in the extreme north. Both sets of parents were worried. It was only natural when you are going out at night and travelling so far, but we continued to meet in the city centre and somehow I think that adversity actually strengthened our relationship.”
“Our parents were never a problem”, says Chris. “They saw how we were together and were happy for us. As we have said, we are very family orientated – both sides of our family.”
Chris and Roisin, whose younger sister is also in a mixed relationship, married in her local Catholic church with both families in attendance. “We had talked through what we wanted well beforehand”, says Roisin “and the day went well. We had also discussed our attitudes toward children long before we were married. Like most mixed marriage couples, I suppose we talked more because we had more to talk about. Chris was happy for Matthew to be baptized Catholic, because he himself has no religion, and we both recognise that our son will make his own decisions when he comes of age.”
“We have always tried to compromise rather than argue”, says Chris, “because we love each other and we always remember that it’s easy to fall into sectarian traps. I’m not political, Roisin isn’t either and, while Matthew will make his First Communion soon, religion plays little part in our home life. I just know that we got on from the start and we have kept it going. That’s all the advice I could give any young people thinking about a mixed marriage.”
“Yes”, says Roisin, “love is love and if religion means anything, it should mean that it should never get in the way of two people in love.”
Chris & Roisin