Mixed Emotions: Love conquers everything

Stephen and Ann and grandchildren. Book: Mixed Emotions by Northern Ireland Mixed Marriage Association (NIMMA) (2012). Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Mixed Emotions: Real Stories of Mixed Marriage
by Northern Ireland Mixed Marriage Association
February 2012

Chapter 10: Love conquers everything

Ann and Stephen live in a beautiful lake-front house in County Fermanagh. Stephen, originally from Belfast, is a former engineer and entrepreneur, while Ann, who was born and raised in Enniskillen, retired recently from a teaching career. They have been married since 1975, have two sons and a growing family of grandchildren.

“Mixed marriage can nearly be defined as an appreciation of each other’s cultures”, says Stephen. “We are culturally different in many ways, but similar in others and it is about achieving balance through listening, talking and compromise. I can’t stress too strongly the importance of education in helping to develop an understanding of difference.” Not surprisingly, Ann agrees. “We have based our marriage on mutual understanding and always encouraged our children to tolerate all creeds and none and to accept people for who they are and not what religion they are. We have made a successful mixed marriage and we want to show that love conquers everything.”

Ann, one of five children, was born and raised on a mixed council estate in Enniskillen. Her mother was a devout Catholic, but her father, a former British soldier, was not a regular churchgoer. “I grew up in a mixed area and had friends from both sides – although we didn’t think about ‘sides’ at all. My mother was the religious one and made sure we went to Mass and the sacraments, while my father, who was sport mad, looked after our leisure activities. I can tell you which was more fun. I went to convent school and, from an early age, teaching was always going to be the option. I loved sport and the thought of combining the two made bearable even having to leave home to train as a teacher in Belfast.”

Ann is modest about her sporting prowess. She is a former canoeist and represented Ireland at the Munich Olympics in 1972 while studying for her degree in English and PE at the University of Ulster at Jordanstown on the outskirts of Belfast.

Stephen, one of four children, came from the Donegall Pass area of Belfast. It was and is a predominantly Protestant area. “It was a respectable, working-class district”, he says, “and my family were of good Protestant stock. My father was a plater in the shipyard and an elder in Townsend Street Presbyterian Church where we worshipped every Sunday. Sunday was an austere kind of day in our house as it was in many others across the city in the 1950s and 1960s. A day for religious observance. Dad was a hardworking and fair man and I’m proud to say the best man I’ve ever known.”

After the local primary school and two years at Rosetta primary school in the middle-class Mount Merrion area of the city, Stephen went to Methodist College.

“I always had a sideline going to make a few bob while I was growing up. I sold sticks round the doors for a long time and even had three boys working for me before I was eleven years of age. It was a great time until I went to the grammar school. Suddenly, I found myself a working-class boy at ‘Methody’ who preferred Soccer to Rugby. It just wasn’t the right place for me.”

“My friends were the local lads I had grown up with in our street and, although there were some Catholics living in the area then, none of my friends was Catholic, just as none of my friends was middle class.”

Stephen enjoyed a very successful ‘second’ business venture during these years as the assistant of a local man who provided flowers and foliage for retailers as far away as England. “I was making great money”, he says, “and loving every minute of it. Travelling the country and learning about business long before I ever went to Belfast’s College of Business Studies.”

Ann met Stephen at Jordanstown while they were both in further education. “It was funny at first”, she says, “because, as a result of a misunderstanding of our surnames, I thought Stephen was a Catholic and he assumed that I was a Protestant. We were both wrong and we didn’t care. We got on great and started courting seriously.”

“Yes”, says Stephen, “we knew fairly quickly how we felt about each other. Finding out how other people felt came a little more slowly as, initially, we didn’t tell our families anything.”

“My mother knew that I was courting, as all mothers do”, says Ann. “Her reaction to it being with a Protestant was that of a worried parent. ‘It won’t be easy’, she said, ‘we’ll support you, but maybe it would better all round if you married one of your own’. My answer with all due respect was, ‘You don’t pick them off the shelf’. That was the end of that and, from then on, I had the full support of my family.”

Stephen’s father had already given him the ‘inquisition’ about his girlfriend, including the classic line, ‘What foot does she kick with?’ “My parents were trying to protect me and even my mother asked ‘Who’s going to turn?’ I explained that neither of us was going to turn, but that we were going to get married. I was going to marry ‘My famous Fenian from Fermanagh’ – so-called because of her Olympic achievement.”

Getting married was to prove more complicated than either of the couple anticipated.

“The local senior Catholic cleric made it clear that he would not ‘allow’ us to be married in the main church of St Michael’s in Enniskillen”, says Ann. “That was our family church and the natural choice for a bride from our area, but he was adamant. He said, ‘Those of my flock who are heading in the wrong direction will not be given the opportunity to parade their bad example’.”

“Adamant? The man was as near to the Anti-Christ as I’ll ever want to meet”, says Stephen. “He was rude, bigoted and small minded and actually said, ‘We don’t allow mixed marriages here’. He had the power and we had no choice but to marry in the much smaller St Mary’s Church in the small village of Lisbellaw.”

“We talked about the differences in culture at the start and that was evident at the reception where the Catholics seemed much more at home with the celebrations”, says Stephen. “Both our families were there to support us, but my mother was very reluctant to dance with me, even though it is traditional. I thought perhaps it was the ‘mixed marriage’ thing bothering her. She did get up eventually, but stood like a ramrod throughout and was relieved when the music finished. On asking her, I was glad and sad to discover that it had nothing to do with Ann and me. This was the first time my mother had ever been on a dance floor.”

Ann, who taught in a Catholic school at the time of her marriage, says, “The local clergy weren’t happy about it – one of ‘their’ teachers marrying a Protestant, but, thankfully, I had already arranged to move jobs to a state school.”

“Making a mixed marriage is probably the hardest thing I have ever done”, says Stephen, “but it is definitely the best thing. In life, you have to be true to yourself and honest with others and if that means leaving your comfort zone, then so be it. I would advise any couple to follow that rule, not to hesitate and to go for it.”

Ann and Stephen are not part of any organised religious group. “We were put off by the bigoted attitudes and negative experiences of people on both sides of the divide”, says Ann, “and Stephen, in particular, found the Catholic Church unwelcoming, negative and entrenched, but we compromised all the time to get what was right for us and our family. We had our boys baptised Catholic, but not confirmed, and sent them to state schools and they have turned out a credit to us. I like to think we have handed on a flame of tolerance as bright as any Olympic one.”

Stephen, Ann and their seven grandchildren

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