Band of Sisters

And in the artists’s cream and wood and heart-lined kitchen sit a band of sisters. All dirty cackles and gentle laughs and squeals and whoops melding into a frenetic Concerto of voice. The air thick with hot, rich saffron and coriander and curry; vibrating with the releasing energy of eight women.

I join the table, sitting on the hand-painted purple chair fetched by Sharon. Shirley and I are folded into the company. Food pressed on us. Glasses pushed into our hands.

I know these sisters from home. A home I left a long time ago. I remember them, barely. Their names are like little rag-momentoes from a cloth I once wore tightly around me. My memories distort down the years.

I absorb their clamourous shot-fuelled energy. I bask in their heat. I press my nose up against the faultline of age and religion. It seperates us now as it has always done.

Their shared histories fill the air and I listen for little anchors of shared experience. The home that tumbles from their stories is a magical place of feral children camping for the summer in council territories; of borrowed tents burning down in Belgium and of school newsletters lamenting a ruined holiday for one child and a ruined tent for another. Of 4am milk and rolls stolen from doorsteps. Of Church Hall discoes and Ranas Nightclub and the hiss of hairspray and hormones which sizzled in the sticky carpetted anarchic Mukky Duck.

They race a meandering path through the past – remembrances splitting off into fast and high cadenzas which trill and twist and end raucous. Here is the day my mother’s new ceiling light was smashed by the exploding Asti Spumante cork. And here is the day I smashed her mother’s ceiling light and had to go to BHS to buy a new one. Here is the day Batty laughed and drank even more. Here is the day I found my sister’s durex – and gave it to my mother who sat purse-lipped and puritan for her return. Here is our school and that teacher who knitted and disappeared us into dunce-corners to face the wall and sent us for cigarettes and balls of wool. Here is the priest and our first communion. Here are our families: a tangled close community of blood and adversity; of time and of place.

There is no malice here, but a bouquet of love and welcome – yet I sense I am on the outside. We lived in the same village and knew the same people but we have arrived in this house and this kitchen by paths determined by our distinct clan belongings. There is a distorting veil of slight, mild, age difference and then there is different school and church and surname between us. We emerged from a community sundered by religious bigotry. A bigotry nurtured by seperate schools and Christian churches; originating from the same small Irish towns and villages. Our ancestors worked cheek by jowel, hating and loving and hating one another. Phalanxes of Celtic Begleys and Sweeneys and Hughes and Kellys lining up to face off the anglo-sounding planters, the Bells and Taylors and Halls and Stewarts.

We hide the inter-marriage and absorb the interlopers into our camps. Protecting our difference, fiercely.

My birthing tradition is Ulster, the signing of the Covenant, Orange Walks and King Billy. The anti-papist flute placed in my hand to encourage my musicianship. The shame of shipyard discrimination and the closed anti-catholic shopfloor and of Drumcree and the Victory Jig, denouncing me as Paisley denounced Pope John Paul with a bannered ANTICHRIST. Mine’s is the Red Hand and the Union Jack. The Shore Road where my grandparents lived and worked and marched and which gave birth to my mother. I am Keady. My fields are Freeland fields stolen by the Republic. My town become a Border no-go for gun-running and bomb-making. I am Omagh, outraged.

My warm sisters have hearts full of the Gervaghy Road righteousness of the oppressed minority. They have blood memories of famine and poetry. Theirs is the bravery of the fight for freedom against a British army operating a shoot to kill in occupied territory and colluding with the rank loyalist paramilitaries. Dublin and Easter Rising and the shame of partition. Shinty and the Shankill. The Troubles starting in 66 with the death of a shopkeeper. The death of the Hunger Strike martyrs: Bobby Sands’ face beaming Christ-like from the Falls Road Sinn Fein buildings and genuflecting to bless all those who would follow him. Of Ogra Shinn Fein in Derry and Christy Moore and the Wolfe Tones comemorating Francis Hughes. Misty romanticism versus English Protestant brutality. They are larks in barbed wire.

Here we are now, in this warm kitchen, in the early hours of an iced and frosted morning, sharing our stories and spilling our laughter and booze with an embracing generosity. We rise away from the past and feel our way to our shared experiences. We bleed and suffer and worry and love just the same.

And finally I sense our real bonds as women and mothers and creators of our own warm worlds assert themselves.

I hug my new friends to me.

And I am thankful for this road which led to my beautiful Sharon and her white and wood, warm artist’s home.

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12 thoughts on “Band of Sisters

  1. Thank you. I appreciated that post, both for the style and for the content.

    My father worked in Glasgow in the 20s and 30s and his memories are of the contrasts of Kelvinside and the Garngad, the Orange Walk when people who normally spoke to each other didn't, sewing machines thrown from windows onto the mounted police as the crowd led them into cul de sacs, and the Old Firm matches where one end of the ground was singing 'Hail glorious St. Patrick, dear saint of our isle' while the other end was roaring 'Tooraloorah, kick the Pope' and the referee left in a laundry basket.
    An outsider to it all he was detached, never entering into the blue and green cultures, but remembered it all vividly.
    Your post broght his tales back to me…so a third thing for which to thank you.

  2. Thanks Fly. I'm glad you got something from this fragment.

    Your father's memories remain today's reality. The West of Scotland and some parts of Fife and the North is riven – and the Good Friday Agreement is reviled by many on either side.

    I was in Belfast last year. The paramilitaries have diversified and run protection rackets and peddle drugs. And the bombs are appearing again.

    In my home village Mad Dog Johnny Adair addressed the Orange throngs and my neighbours (from different sides of the divide) were caught gun running for the IRA and the UDA/UVF (I never managed to work out what sect).

    My husband and I have sought to carve a middle way – our children little of the divisions which rent our childhood friendships in half beyond the nursery gates.

    Things change. Maybe the next generation will have put it behind them.

  3. I remember visting Belfast (working occasionally for the Belfast Telegraph) towards the last years of the sectarian struggles – and I remember the empty city streets at night, the roads with no parked cars; how strange it felt to have armed patrols. I have (in some ways) lived a sheltered life, and for that I'm glad.

  4. Your writing strikes at the heart and mind in a way that I can not recall happening for a long time. The words are both beautiful and ugly, relevant and irrelevant (to me), then and now, compulsive and repellant and all that whilst echoing both despair and hope. I am enthralled. Brought up in Liverpool a generation before you everything that you say is recognisable: notices saying that one or other religion's adherents need not apply for jobs; the teams; the docks; Netherfield Road North (green on one side and orange on the other with a white line down the middle) and so much more. I could go on….and on.

  5. Yes beautiful gutsy writing where the warmth in that kitchen rubs against the ugliness of those memories. What a lucky gal you are, embraced so. That history, I can feel it stirs deep chords within – my ancestors were partly poor Irish migrants, partly enterprising English from the north. Even a Scottish hotel owner with red hair! So for me, generations later, it's very diluted. I imagine all those rifts meant less and less once these hardy exiles endured the voyage out to Australia and struggled with life there. But so vivid now, so volatile all over, I did not know this.

  6. Wonderful writing. So powerful.

    And while this resonates with memories of such painful divisions and injustices yet this ends on a hopeful note. Women united in shared warmth and experience.

  7. I forgot GB – Merseyside really was just the same. The ferry proximity to Ireland I suppose.
    I have so many stories to tell of my childhood and the division I grew up with – for some reason they are just welling to the surface now.
    There was such an ugliness in it all – still is.
    For my own children it remains incomprehensible and in the past – though they know well enough the football fighting.
    Anyway, hope you are preparing for your visitor! Do you ever get any 'peace'? (I am laughing). Yx

  8. The violence continues chillcat. I grew up with such awful division and ugliness. And it has left its mark. I have spent years writing about it one way or another- but for some reason it is very present just now.
    There are times when I envy you your Australian roots. A New Country – where anything is possible.
    But in truth all societies and cultures have their own divisions , don't they.
    The ugly Protestant v Catholic is Scotland's still present shame.
    Progress is slow. But at least it's being made.

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