Opinion & Features

The friendships that history forgot

Belfast 1969: the Troubles drove people into separate enclaves (PA)

The first time I attended a service in a Catholic church I was 19 years old, and it was the funeral of our friend, the artist Kieran McGoran. He always used to call in on us over Christmas – you couldn’t quite predict when – but that year he had taken ill and died on Christmas Day. The book I had bought him for his present was still sitting on the sideboard at home, wrapped.

Kieran was one of my favourite people to come to the house. He was thin and thoughtful, with very dark hair, and he drank whiskey and smoked heavily: one had the sense that the dull bureaucracy of life, bills and parking fines and suchlike, stacked up around him unheeded. When he came he often brought a painting with him – his paintings were hung all over our walls – and he had a talent for capturing the different kinds of light that happened in our part of Northern Ireland: the subdued gleam of sunlight strained through pewter clouds at the horse races, for example, or the thin grey-blue sky of winter over the Lagan river. He loved the Impressionists, in particular Degas and Pissarro: in fact, he said that as an artist he preferred Pissarro to Picasso. I was not well-versed in art, but I was aware that people generally thought Picasso the man to beat, and I was impressed by his confidence in stating otherwise.

There wasn’t much talk about Kieran’s Catholicism: we had other Catholic friends who visited, so it wasn’t remarkable in itself. Still, it was another aspect of him that was tinged with something interestingly beyond my immediate ken, like the fact that he had worked as a graphic designer in New York. His funeral was entirely in keeping with his own aesthetic: a relative from the South who was high up in the Catholic Church conducted the service, which was beautiful and sad, with incense misting the air. Later, under a wintry sky, with the sprinkling of snow on the burial ground, it looked just like a scene from one of his paintings.

Our own, Presbyterian church in Belfast was plainer in style, although it wasn’t ostentatious in its austerity. Nor did it go in for sectarian preaching of the type thundering from the pulpit at Ian Paisley’s breakaway Free Presbyterian church. At communion time the servers brought around trays with cubes of bread, and wine in small, individual glasses. The whiff of Scotland clung to the service: towards the end, the elders read out minutes from their assembly, known as the Kirk Session. There was an emphasis on the text of the Bible and on a kind of personal directness. Morally, one absorbed, the great aspiration was to be straightforward, honest, to stick to your word.

Did Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland see the world differently? In many ways yes, and in others not at all. The two groups were interested in how they themselves were reflected or distorted in the opposing gaze. In Seamus Heaney’s poem “The Other Side” he remembers an older Protestant neighbour who regularly came calling to the house, hesitating shyly outside the door as the Heaney family said their rosary. The child Heaney felt both a connection with him, and a separation: “His brain was a whitewashed kitchen/Hung with texts, swept tidy/As the body of the kirk.”

Yet both Catholics and Protestants often feared being constrained and belittled by larger structures and cultures dominated by the other: many Northern Catholics felt entrapped in a predominantly Protestant, Unionist Northern Ireland, while Northern Protestants were wary of being engulfed by an explicitly Catholic, Gaelic Republic (an anxiety felt even by a Southern Protestant and avowed Irish nationalist such as WB Yeats, when he railed in 1925 against the divorce ban.) When sectarian warfare broke out fully in the early 1970s, the structures of paramilitary groups darkly mirrored the form – if certainly not the content – of the religious background from which they sprang. The Provisional IRA was hierarchical, spoke with one official voice and retained a close authority over its members, while the loyalist paramilitaries were in perpetual rolling dissent from one another, always splintering into ever more acronyms.

The breakdown in relations between Catholics and Protestants – the IRA and loyalist outbreaks of murderous sectarianism – was plain to see: such incidents strutted their stuff on the nightly news, segregating communities by fear. But warmth between ordinary people frequently still expanded between closed doors: in homes, in pubs, in workplaces, in relationships and marriages unremarked by history.

Warmth often gets written out of the narrative: who formally documents a shared joke, when film footage of rage is easily available? Not long ago I interviewed the Labour politician Ken Livingstone, who confidently told me that the pre-Troubles Northern Ireland had been “an apartheid-style state”. That would have been news, I said, to my Protestant parents and their Catholic friends and neighbours on the 1960s housing estate they shared, before the tribal policemen of the paramilitaries intimidated people into separate enclaves. News, too, to my Protestant great uncle Robert, who was killed aged 23 on the battlefield at Neuve-Chapelle, mourned in Belfast by his pregnant Catholic widow Brigid.

Few could doubt that bigotry between Protestants and Catholics was part of Ireland’s history: I have no desire to whitewash it. Yet there is a hardening veneer of false history that denies our intertwining and affection. It is often most vigorously polished by people who never lived there.

Still, buried truths are also truths, and they need remembering occasionally – which is just one of the reasons why I like to think about our friend the artist, and his fondness for Pissarro.