1970 was the beginning of a new decade but not the beginning of the end of the conflict.
1970 was the beginning of a year that would see me marry and take a step into the unknown, crossing the sectarian divide, unsure of what would be on the other side
1969 had ended on a personal high knowing that at long last Gordon had been accepted by my family and I had been accepted by his.
Plans were being made for an August wedding in my local church in Rostrevor, with the reception planned for Ballyedmond Castle hotel ( now the home of the late Eddie Haughey or Lord Ballyedmond to give him his full title ). The date was set for the 19th August which was also my parents anniversary and so that box was ticked. I turned 21 on Valentine’s Day and had a small party for a dozen of my close friends. I was allowed to serve my male guests a beer each and my female friends a Babycham. My parents were under the mistaken illusion that my friends and I were teetotalers. If only they had known. We didn’t however shatter their illusions. They accepted that I smoked and as it was not considered dangerous in 1970 they did not object. We all thought we were super cool sitting with a cigarette in our hand. Little did we know what the long-term consequences for some of us would be.
On the political side there were now two divisions of the IRA, the Provisionals and the Officials. In March the Police Authority of Northern Ireland was set up together with the RUC reserve. The reserve was not phased out until 2010.
My wedding plans continued. My bus route to work in the morning took me from Botanic Avenue to Howard street and then a walk to Chichester Street to get a bus to Dundonald House. Every morning I passed Robinson and Cleaver. Their corner window featured bridal dresses and one morning I stopped in my tracks . I looked in the window as I did every morning and there it was. I had found my dress. It was the most beautiful dress I had come across and I was determined that it was the one I was going to walk up the aisle in. At lunch time clutching my 3p I waited patiently for a telephone box to come free. I dialled home waited for the beep, beep and put in the money. Mammy, I said, I’ve found my dress. You’ll have to come up to Belfast so you can see it. No mean feat in those days. My mum didn’t drive and dad wasn’t too keen to drive to Belfast so she had to take the bus. Luckily she loved the dress too and the little bonnet with the veil that the assistant suggested would go well with it. It cost £29 and looking back I know that was quite a lot of money in those days. Probably around £600 in today’s money. Another box ticked
Riots took place in Ballymurphy in April between the Catholics and the army. As a result the UDR was formed. The UDR was seen by the Catholics as a replacement for the notorious B -Specials. They were mainly Protestant and many ex B- specials joined. They were despised by a large section of the catholic community. In the UK Edward Heath was elected Prime Minister defeating the Labour Party.
Continuing with the wedding plans, a request was made to the local Parish Priest for permission to marry in Rostrevor. This was around the middle of May. At the beginning of June or thereabouts I was returning from Sunday mass ( I went to humour my father, after all he was paying for my wedding ) when I saw the local Parish Priest, Monsignor Boyle, hovering at the church door. He called me over and summoned me to go to the Parochial House and wait for him. I did as he said and the house keeper showed me into the parlour. He came in. He was quite old, very doddery, deaf as a post and all in all quite intimidating. I was waiting for him to say that all was fine and of course I could get married in my local church, where I had been baptised, sung in the choir and distributed petals on Corpus Christi ( It’s a Catholic thing ). I’m sorry, he said, but if you persist on going ahead with this marriage I will not permit you to get married here in Rostrevor. However, I am prepared to marry you in Killowen ( a small nearby parish ) but you will not be allowed any guests or congregation. I was feisty then. I still am now and I had no intention of letting him talk to me like that. I shouted at him that he could threaten all he liked but it would make no difference. It was something you just didn’t do to a priest in those days, to answer back, but I did and when he was in mid sentence I got up and walked out leaving him gobsmacked. I’m pretty sure he had never been challenged like that before and possibly never was again.
I marched through the village and headed home. I just about held back the tears until I saw my mother. She was fit to be tied when she heard what he had said. It was Sunday and I headed back to Belfast distraught that all my plans were in disarray. My bridesmaids were making their own dresses and we had decided on an all white wedding and they had chosen a lovely pleated georgette. I had to let them know that plans had changed and the wedding was now in jeopardy. A ladder and Gretna Green were looking more inviting. However, on return from work on the Monday evening my mother phoned. She and my dad had been working hard all day and had managed to contact a cousin who was a priest in Ardoyne. He was happy to marry us and the date was free. They had contacted the Dunadry Inn at Templepatrick and they could accommodate the reception. No daughter of mine, my mother said would ever have to marry in a church without a congregation. All arrangements for the wedding now moved to Belfast.
Meanwhile the situation in NI and particularly in Belfast was getting worse.
In June loyalist groups attacked the Short Strand. The IRA defended the Short Strand from the grounds of St Matthew’s church, the very church I had lived beside for almost a year. A close friend who was a volunteer with the Knights of Malta ambulance service was behind the lines in the church and told of his fear as a gun battle raged on the Newtownards road. Three people were killed that night with each side declaring they were attacked by the other side. The day after 500 Catholic men from Harland and Wolff were told to leave by their fellow Protestant workers. They never got their jobs back.
Thankfully a lot has changed in the intervening years but we are still a long way off from a society that can live side by side in peace and harmony.
Next time: The wedding. In jeopardy again ?