Mixed Emotions: You two against the rest

Martin and Sharon. 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 6: You two against the rest

Martin and Sharon, who are both in their forties, are from Derry/Londonderry, have been married for nearly 30 years and have two grown-up children. Martin is a successful businessman and runs a tour company in the city. They are a hardworking team and a resilient couple that has faced down both poverty and the violence of sectarian opposition.

Martin and Sharon live in a quiet suburb of the maiden city. Their home exudes peace and contentment, but it is a world away from the turmoil of the early years of their relationship. “W really went through the mill,” says Martin, who has spoken on mixed marriage on both BBC and Channel 4 television, “but we have a better and stronger marriage as a result. It is amazing, but this is the first time that we have sat down as a couple and actually talked through our time together, never mind to anyone else, but it has been very positive and we want to pass that on to other couples who are considering mixed marriage. Thugs, bigots and all those who simply turned away couldn’t break us and, arguably, made us all the more determined to make a go of it. It was always us against the world.”

Sharon is a quiet, thoughtful woman who remembers the past slowly, almost reluctantly. “I was born and raised on the Fountain Estate. Before the “Troubles”, around 13,000 Protestants lived on this side of the River Foyle, today there are less than a thousand. I suppose you can see where the siege mentality comes from now, but back then it was a bigoted place where Roman Catholics, far from being welcomed, would have been in physical danger.”

Today, the only peace wall in the city separates the Protestants and Roman Catholics that live on this bank of the river. “When I was growing up, there were no Catholics living on our estate, although some did attend my school, Templemore Secondary. In fact, my best friend there was a Catholic. There would have been a definitely anti-Catholic attitude in our district, with all the bands, flags and bigotry that goes with it but, thankfully, I didn’t have a problem with anyone’s religion or lack of it. I didn’t then and I don’t now.”

Sharon left school at 15 and started work at the local ‘Rollerdrome’. “Martin and I worked there together and, although I probably knew that I was the only Protestant in the place, I didn’t think about his religion when he asked me out.”

Martin is a confident, articulate man who has spoken at length about mixed marriage, but considers this opportunity too good to miss. “It’s all well and good recording 60- or 90-minute pieces for television”, he says, “but the final edited versions are at the whim of a director and most of what is important is lost as he looks for a sensational sound-bite. At least, that’s how I’ve found it and I haven’t heard others speaking up for themselves or people like us.”Martin comes from the Catholic Creggan Estate in the city and, as a boy, admits that he did not even meet Protestants. “It just didn’t happen. We lived in different worlds. There were no Protestant friends because there were no Protestants. My father, who was a bookmaker, would have had acquaintances and work associates of different religions in the business part of his life, but we boys had no contact, never socialised, never mentioned and never thought about people from the ‘other side’. I even had to make a long detour going to school to avoid a Protestant area, ironically a stone’s throw from where I live today, to avoid being beaten up on a daily basis. One of our teachers, who lived locally, kept a watch out for us and made sure that we were safe. It was a violent and bigoted time, but one that we were all used to.”

Sharon was 15, Martin 17 when they started going out together. “From the start, it was a difficult situation and the threat of violence was always there with a crowd waiting for me on more than one occasion”, says Martin, “so, our courtship was probably shorter and more intense because of that. We just put two fingers up to everybody and got on with it. Everything we did, we did quickly because we felt rejected and pressurised.”

Martin rented a sparsely furnished flat to get away from home and within a short time Sharon, under pressure at home and from her neighbours, moved in. She remembers, “I didn’t associate with the people on the estate, but I was still regarded as a ‘Fenian lover’ and was the butt of abuse and hassle. It was good to get away from that.” Martin says, “It was us two against the world.”

The couple married in the registrar’s office of the city’s Guildhall with some family in attendance. “My mum and dad went and one brother and one sister”, says Sharon, “and we went back to my parent’s house for tea and sandwiches afterwards. “Yes, it was poor”, says Martin. “We hadn’t issued any formal invites and Sharon wasn’t worried about missing out on a ‘big day’ and I suppose we were regarded as two renegades in this part of the world.”

Times were hard for the young couple – Martin was 19, Sharon 17 – and started from day one. “We spent two nights, our honeymoon, in an ancient caravan at rain-lashed Benone strand”, says Sharon, “soaked to the skin and with the use of an outside toilet.”

Housing was their first priority and, despite getting a home four miles outside the city on a mixed estate, Martin was to find that his real troubles were only beginning, “We loved the house and the area and the local people were okay, but access to the estate meant passing through a loyalist district and that was to prove painful.” Martin was attacked on a number of occasions during the next five years as he moved from job to job to build a life for them, but eventually, after a police recommendation, the couple were housed in the mixed Northland area of the city. They still live in the same house today.

“It was a Godsend”, says Sharon. “We felt safe and now faced all the problems that every couple faced in those days, but without the sectarian one to make things worse.” Martin says, “I was always a risk taker. I opened a wee shop, worked all the hours God sends and still found that it failed. Sharon was for giving up and playing it safe, but I went in again head first, with the backing of a Coleraine wholesaler, and eventually made it work. But, 12 to 15 hour days over sixteen years take their toll and we both decided to sell up a few years ago. We had done well and, in the meantime, spotted a niche in the market to cater for the growing number of tourists who came to the city. We started the Derry City Tour Company and it has gone from strength to strength.”

“I try to guide visitors on an ‘unbiased’ tour of the city”, he says, “and I’m sure that my background in a mixed marriage is a big help to me. I feel that I have got both perspectives when it comes to the history of this place.” Martin and Sharon have two grown-up daughters. She says, “the girls were baptised Catholics. I don’t practice my religion, but I still regard myself as a Methodist. They went to integrated primary and secondary schools and are a credit to us today.”

Martin agrees. “Like us, our girls have a wide circle of friends of all religions and none and we are all better people for that. This mixed marriage thing has been an enlightening experience for Sharon and me. I suppose it’s given us a broader outlook than we would have had had we stayed in the ghettos. It has certainly made us more understanding of the other person’s point of view.”

“If it has taught us anything”, says Sharon, “it has shown us that we are all the same and that religion, the great divider as far as I’m concerned, shouldn’t come into it.”

“Yes”, says Martin, “we went through terrible times where our private lives seemed to be the business of every bigot in this city, but we are stronger for it and I would strongly advise any couple contemplating mixed marriage to go for it regardless of what other people think. At the end of the day, it is you two against the rest if needs be. And those two are the most important people in any marriage.”

Martin & Sharon

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