I think of the 1950s as the last time you didn’t have to be stressed out about identity. Maybe that’s because I was aged from between 3 to 12 at the time but I don’t believe that altogether explains it. Londonderry was a unionist town with a Catholic majority, a statement not only about the gerrymander but the atmosphere of the old walled city where most premises were Protestant owned, like the middle class suburbs. Working people on both sides huddled close together, separated only by a street’s width unimaginable today. Rationing was ending; we could freely buy ha’penny chews. To the extent that politics featured, it seemed to function as a kind of mutual apartheid: we got on with our business and they got on with theirs. A stack of seats at Stormont weren’t even contested. De Valera’s anti partition campaign had fizzled out by 1951. Most politicians on both sides were dull conservatives very reluctant to spend money even on their own, while civil servants got on with making the new health service work across the piece – except for the Catholic, non-state Mater Hospital funded by YP football pools in Belfast. Progress and development weren’t totally absent. The shirt factories were booming. The UK‘s first NHS hospital at Altnagelvin the “hill of the sparrows” was opened in 1959, a big feather in Derry’s cap. DuPont synthetic fibres plant opened in 1960 and survived for more than 50 years. Creggan, a big estate for Catholics was built up the hill by the infamous Londonderry Corporation and a smaller one, Irish Street, for Prods across the river in the Waterside.
Already I can hear the hyper politically aware among you jumping up and down. What, for instance, about the border campaign from 1956- 62? I’ll tell you about the border campaign. It gave us a bit of excitement unless you were living in or around Lisbelllaw in Fermanagh. The IRA, an obscure group of diehards, ran a steam engine into the GNR station in Derry and blew up an electricity substation near my primary school. My dad brought home a shellac disc of the Ballad of Sean South that honoured the martyred dead ( though not in our house) and a man threw a stone at the courthouse window opposite and yelled “ bomb.” before running away down the Long Tower.
One evening by the lamppost where people liked to just stand at the bottom of our street , a friendly RUC constable dug into his ammo pouch and gave me a big brass bullet to hold. I ran up to the house to show it to my Mammy. She had a fit and came down to belabour him. Nobody would have dreamt of making a complaint. There was a kind of guilelessness around, as the shadow of darker days had begun to fade and the spectre of worse ones had yet to form.
As a four year old I’d remembered the death of the George VI in February 1952 when the union jack was lowed to half mast at the Guildhall. I bet we won’t have that next time. Every year we celebrated Empire Day by gathering in the playground to sing Land of Hope and Glory and Rule Britannia.
The young Queen personified a new beginning after the rigours of war. Derry was still a base for the navy and the Americans. Gieves the naval tailors had a branch in Derry until HMS Sea Eagle closed in the mid sixties. The Coronation in June 1953 was a unique event. We had a party at school, for which each child was given a blue plastic beaker for orange juice served with marshmallows, a china mug with the Queen’s image and an similarly embossed filled tin pencil case. I presume Catholic schools didn’t take part although the offer would have been made, a point worth checking.
The Fountain, then a network of tiny Victorian streets held a street party for days, bunting partly supplied by my father who kept the flags made for the visit of Edward VII in 1903. Health and safety rules imposed for the Platinum jubilee were unheard of then. Television reception hadn’t stretched to Derry in 1953 and we plied into the Ebrington Hall in relays to watch the sumptuous colour film of the Coronation a few weeks later The high point of course was the Queen’s visit to the city later in the year in fitting tribute to its status, or so I thought, and its role in the war. We were indeed a privileged family. I got an exclusive view of her arrival by destroyer at the quayside behind the Guildhall because my dad worked for the Harbour board. My auntie who was the under sheriff’s secretary was presented to the Queen in Brooke Park beside Gwyn’s Institution which housed the City library later to be bombed and destroyed by the IRA. There was a great fuss about her outfit, the obligatory big hat, a fur stole and a new dress. The mayor a distant relative, was knighted. I made a big collage of colour photos of the coronation and her later Commonwealth tour that survived for years at school.
I suppose it all added up to a patriotism that took that status quo absolutely for granted as the norm. This was the dignified version that had little of the stridency of loyalist commemoration and as such appealed to me more. You can say if you want that the flummery concealed a multitude of sins. But in its curious way the Crown and she who wears it still after seventy years, stand for an ideal that for many survived far worse days than we could ever have imagined in the 1950s.
photo courtesy BT City of Culture project
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London