Too Close for Comfort

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Our Daily Lives presents excerpts of women's autobiographies, essays, letters, journals, diaries, oral histories and testimony with the hopes our readers will respond to the authentic emotions and ideas and see a connection to their own lives.

This month, Our Daily Lives presents an excerpt from “Lurgan Champagne and Other Tales: Real-Life Stories From Northern Ireland,” edited by Kate Fearon and Amanda Verlaque. In “Lurgan Champagne,” young Northern Irish women write about growing up in a country torn by sectarian violence. In this excerpt, “Too Close for Comfort,” the author describes growing up in an environment where fear and violence are the norm. She mentions the 12th of July, the height of sectarian tensions in Northern Ireland. The date commemorates the defeat of a Catholic king by Protestants in 1690.

Too Close for Comfort
By Carol

The city of Belfast is like a big patchwork quilt in terms of who lives where, particularly my area of North Belfast. If you had orange material for Protestant areas and green material for Catholic areas you'd have a big green bit in West Belfast, with an Orange strip down the side, a big orange bit in East Belfast, and smaller green and orange bits in South Belfast. In North Belfast, you'd need individual strips for nearly every street. That's one of the first things you learn when you grow up in North Belfast-where you can go and where you can't.

Our estate is perched halfway up Black's Mountain, overlooking the rest of the city. There was a stage when we could walk through the neighboring Protestant estate, Torrens, with no problems, but now there's too much tension. There are still some Protestants living in our street but they're all quite elderly. That's the mad thing-you can get on OK with Protestants living in your street but it changes when you go into an area that's exclusively Protestant. It's the same for Catholics too though; it cuts both ways. If a Protestant walked into the Ardoyne, they'd have big problems. It would depend on what area of the Ardoyne it was, of course, and what else was going on at the time.

A Protestant going into the Ardoyne on the 12 July, well that would be just madness. Our street is so close to Torrens, round the corner, and it's completely wild around the Twelfth. Every year the Protestants come into our street. There's no peace wall, just some railings round the back and there's a load of deserted old houses the wee lads can come through to get on to our street. Other areas have peace walls to keep both sides separate, because it's too easy to attack each other. But we haven't got one. We phoned the Housing Executive and asked them to block up the houses but they wouldn't do it. And the police won't let us have a peace wall at the side of my house because they say it's not necessary. Try telling that to my step-daddy. He was beaten up in his own home about four years ago, the year after the first Drumcree.

It was Hallowe'en night. I heard shouting, so I looked out of my window and the next thing I saw was this man-I can still see it if I close my eyes-just lifting himself up and over our garden wall. There was another man with him and the next thing I knew, they'd started kicking our door in. I just froze. There was nothing I could do, it all happened so quick. They even closed the door behind them as they came in. They were that cheeky, they closed the door behind them. Everybody in the street was thinking, “Oh God, there's something wrong,” so the alarm was raised. But it was too late. They'd beaten my step-daddy unconscious.

The girl that lives next door to us was the first down at her door. When she came out she could see them jumping over the wall. The first one got away but she grabbed the second one by the leg and he turned around and he hit her. Her face was swollen up like a football.

There's not a year goes past that there isn't some kind of trouble. We get our windows put in with bricks all the time. Call the police? Don't make me laugh. There could be a full-scale riot on our street and no sign of the peelers. So then you get people standing guard outside your house for weeks, fellas our age, and some of them become really bitter. You can understand why.

Now, I just sleep through it all, but then I'd sleep through a bomb. If my mummy comes up and says the windows have been put in it doesn't scare me anymore, I'm used to it. But my sister, our child, she'd be shaking like a leaf. There was one time the lads from Torrens put her bedroom window in and she wouldn't sleep there afterwards-she still won't unless my wee brother, who's 10 and thinks he's a real hard man, sleeps there too. She won't go up to the toilet by herself, either. Even if she's in somebody else's house she still won't go upstairs by herself. You have to either stand at the bottom of the stairs or take her up. She was 2 when it started off. She's 6 now. She's been to counseling but it hasn't taken the fear from her. The counselor's full of shit-she doesn't know what it's like living here.

I had top counseling-NOT! With Sister Siobhan, what a laugh. God love her, she didn't really know what she was on about. I went to her for about five years and she's still trying to get me to come back. But I just get on with myself, me and my mates. We do just fine.

The editors Kate Fearon and Amanda Verlaque have extensive experience in Ireland. Fearon is political advisor to the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition and has been associate director of the political think tank Democratic Dialogue. She is the editor of two collections of essays: “Power, Politics, Positionings: Women in Northern Ireland” and “Politics: The Next Generation.” Fearon also wrote “Women's Work: The Story of Northern Ireland Women's Coalition.”

Amanda Verlaque has been a journalist for six years and has written for newspapers and magazines both north and south of the Irish border. She is presently concentrating on script reading and working as a free-lance unit publicist in Northern Ireland's growing film industry.

For more information, visit Livewire Books, The Women's Press Ltd., London, 2001: