Mixed Emotions: Real Stories of Mixed Marriage
by Northern Ireland Mixed Marriage Association
Chapter 1: Say all you have to say
Fermanagh couple Tom and Sarah, who are in their early thirties, live on a farm in the hills near Enniskillen. They both work for an electronics company in the town and their newly-built house, which overlooks Topped Mountain, has a very special occupant.
“You’ve got to be open-minded, completely honest and say all you have to say if you are ever going to make a relationship, maybe especially a mixed relationship, work,” according to Tom, who was raised on a farm in the townland of Ballyreagh in the Fermanagh countryside.
Tom speaks quietly as ‘the special occupant’ of his home dozes contentedly in his chair-cum-activity centre. Seven-month-old Conor, a chatty, chirrupy bundle of fun and energy has nodded off after entertaining us.
“He’s definitely the boss around this place”, says Sarah, “And we’re blessed to have him. He has made our house a family home.”
Sarah comes from the village of Killadeas, a mainly Protestant area on the shores of Lower Lough Erne. She was raised in the Church of Ireland and has fond memories of the church and her community.
“I suppose that our social life revolved around the church and, to that extent, we would have played with mainly children of our own denomination. I don’t feel this was a deliberate thing, because we had good Roman Catholic neighbours, including the lady who babysat me as a youngster, but in rural Fermanagh, like many other country areas in Northern Ireland, both sides of the community tend to spend an awful lot of their time in church-orientated activities. That’s just the way things are.”
Sarah went to the local primary school, but made a best friend of a Roman Catholic when sharing a bus to the secondary school.
“I’m lucky in that my Dad is English and doesn’t have a lot of the preconceived ideas that others might and he and my mother brought us up to take people as we find them. They ran a residential home for the elderly for more than 15 years and I hope that a little bit of that caring has rubbed off on us. I know that I never felt that a person’s religion would make one bit of difference to how I thought of them.”
Sarah left the Lakelands for Belfast and became a business and finance student at Belfast Institute for Further and Higher Education.
“That was an education in itself. I left the beautiful and relatively peaceful surroundings of Killadeas to live in Belfast and, for two years, on the sectarian flashpoint of Roden Street between the Grosvenor and Donegall Roads. Our accommodation was cheap, and although it wasn’t a very pleasant area to live in we never had any bother. I remember being shocked when my housemate told me that the neighbours probably knew everything about us, even though they’d never met us. It is a very different culture to rural Fermanagh.”
Sarah had many friends of all denominations at college, and came away with a Higher National Diploma and harboured ideas of emigrating to the United States when she finished in Belfast.
“I have an Aunt and Uncle out there and I suppose the grass is always greener on the other side. Anyway, I started work in Enniskillen and fate took a hand.” She looks at the slumbering Conor and suddenly the attraction of America, once so strong, is forgotten.
Tom was born and raised on a farm in the townland of Ballyreagh. It’s just five miles or so from Enniskillen town, but, with no mobile phone coverage, can seem much more remote. It is a mixed area of small farms where Protestants and Roman Catholics tend to work together to the exclusion of socialising.
“The whole church thing dominates life on both sides of the divide”, says Tom. “On the Catholic side, the parish is the most important thing and the social life of the area revolved around it and the Gaelic Athletic Association. Everyone gets on well, but there has always been that kind of separation.”
Tom has spent all of his life in this area. Local schools, agricultural college for four years, Gaelic football for the local team. Only the ‘bright lights’ of Enniskillen made things look that bit different.
“My social life changed when I was old enough to travel to pubs and clubs in the town. This was much more mixed than anything I had been used to although, to tell you the truth, a person’s religion was a subject that never entered my head anyway. We were having fun and religion didn’t come into it.”
Tom and Sarah had been workmates for nearly two years before their first date and Sarah thought a romance highly unlikely. “Of course, I’d seen him around the place, but I sat next to him at a Christmas dinner and he was a right bore with hardly two words for himself.” Tom laughs at that. He did have a different girlfriend with him that evening.
Eventually, they did date – always in the relative anonymity of Enniskillen – and soon found they were in agreement. “We both knew this was something serious”, says Tom, “but I felt held back by what I thought would be the reaction of my family, particularly my father, and just tried to play things by ear.”
“My mother is from Dublin and reasonably open-minded, but my father has never been out of Ireland and his life has been all about this farm. It’s true to say that while he has never mixed socially with Protestants, he has worked with them successfully and is a quiet country man at heart. I was sure that he would be a bit ‘iffy’ about Sarah and me.”
Sarah and Tom even split up at one stage with Sarah taking a three week holiday in America with family and still entertaining thoughts of a new life out there. “We decided to stop seeing each other as boyfriend and girlfriend”, she says, “but somehow continued to see each other just as much as before as ‘friends’.”
“Our break up gave us the chance, and even the little bit of space, to realise what we had together and how much we had to lose”, says Tom, “and we talked a lot because we had a lot to talk about.”
The results of their talking led to the decision to tell both sets of parents. “It’s only natural for parents to worry about their children and mine while, of course, concerned for my happiness, wished us well. Tom was less certain that his father, in particular, would come to terms with it. “I assured Tom that once his father had got to know me, he would like me. And so it turned out. My parents think of Tom as the son they never had, while my relationship with his family could not be better.”
Tom and Sarah were eventually married in the Church of Ireland church in Killadeas.
“A lot of the problems to do with attitudes toward mixed marriage and religious differences in general are to do with ignorance”, says Sarah. “For instance I had never been in a Roman Catholic church and Tom had never been in a Church of Ireland church prior to our getting together and we didn’t consider ourselves bigots.”
“Today, I feel more comfortable with my faith and, ironically, probably more aware of it. I go to Mass sometimes and church in my home village as often as I can and I find very little differences between the two. I know what I want, I know what I believe and I realise the things that are important to me.”
“We talked through as much as we could imagine before we even got engaged”, says Tom. “I think it is essential for mixed couples, certainly it was for us, to be completely open and completely honest with each other, to really care about what the other person feels, to be prepared to compromise and to remember that there are no guarantees with marriage, no matter who you marry.”
Sarah and Tom consider themselves lucky in that they appreciate each other’s culture and denomination and took the time to learn about each other. “We were married in my church”, says Sarah, “Conor was baptised in the Roman Catholic church and when the time comes for him to start school, we have already decided that the best school – no matter what denomination or none – will be our choice for him.”
At that, with a gift for timing that should stand him in good stead in the years ahead, young Master Conor woke with a smile that lit up the room.
Tom & Sarah
Mixed Emotions was originally published as a book by the Northern Ireland Mixed Marriage Association (NIMMA) in 2012. Shared Future News is grateful for the kind permission to republish it as a serialisation. More details about Mixed Emotions and the work of NIMMA can be read online.