Written by Annie Caulfield

Lifestyle

Letter to my hometown: To Strabane, With Concern

Standard Issue writers are penning a letter to their hometown. In hers, Annie Caulfield reflects on idyllic childhood holidays – and three decades of unrest – in County Tyrone.

A photo of Annie and her brother and sister outside Granny’s house.

Annie (right) and her brother and sister outside Granny’s house. Annie is wearing a dress made by the wee woman. From the cover of Irish Blood, English Heart, Ulster Fry (Penguin, 2006).

Dear Strabane,

I was so hurt for you when I heard that people in nearby towns refer to your inhabitants as “Strabanimals”. Or to you yourself as “Strabanistan” because violence still breaks out on your streets. Only once in a while, to be fair to you. Nothing like it was. And often more to do with boredom at pub closing time than sectarianism.

They say the young men wearing shell suits who hang around the shuttered pubs and chip shops are drug dealers, car thieves or members of dissident groups. Oh Strabane. And the shell suits? If I had no work and 30 or more years of living in a fractured community, perhaps I’d wear one, to spite the world. I don’t know, you see, because at first glance you’re not the Strabane I remember.

My Strabane was a pretty market town in the sunshine. There was an air of glamour as I trotted around behind my Granny, a willowy local beauty, who knew fine well she really belonged in Hollywood but had to make do in Strabane. As she toured the shops, I was given free biscuits and was treated as the child star of the district. I was quite an unprepossessing child and I suspect the shopkeepers really wanted to be fussing over Granny, feeding her titbits and stroking her hair – but this was a good Catholic town and Granny was as fierce as she was beautiful.

We’d end the shopping trip having tea with a woman who seemed to have no name except “the wee woman”. She was a dressmaker, and a child tormenter. While Granny drank tea and gossiped, I was being measured up for a Sunday suit. I liked to wear shorts and roll in mud, but Granny was determined to make a lady of me.

In rural Northern Ireland, shop-bought clothes were a luxury, so everyone took their cloth to a “wee woman” to have it made up. I had to stand on a stool being fitted and pin pricked into a fully lined, brown tweed horror. Worse still, there was talk of the wee woman making me some dresses for winter.

I didn’t want winter dresses because they’d mean the long weeks of summer were over and we’d have to go back to exile in England, where we’d moved when I was five. There’d be no more climbing apple trees or making hay bale dens in the fields behind Granny’s house with my innumerable cousins. No more weekends spent across the border at the Donegal seaside.

The Sperrin Mountains.

The Sperrin Mountains.

The torturing wee woman lived on a square called The Bowling Green. Cult writer Brian O’Nolan, aka Flann O’Brien, was born and spent his early childhood in a tall house on The Bowling Green. A childhood he always referred to as idyllic.

In my childhood, having an idyllic holiday in the late 1960s, we were just up the road at Granny’s, watching on a little black and white television, when Strabane’s streets were smashed overnight and a rage broke out that lasted 30 years. We had to leave the holiday early.

In the 1980s I could barely see what there was of the town for metal hoardings, barbed wire, soldiers, armed police and gigantic checkpoints.

I didn’t go back until around 2004. Still some metal and barbed wire but I could see the town again. There were coffee shops, haberdashery stores, bakers and grocers. The marketplace had new decorative street lamps and flowerbeds.

Looking for the lair of the wee woman, I noticed that a blue plaque had been put up on the childhood home of Flann O’Brien. I started researching him and eventually wrote a play for Radio 3 about his life.

Soon after I discovered that an annual Flann O’Brien festival was starting in Strabane. I sent a copy of my play to the festival director. He invited me to call in to the new arts centre, the next time I was passing.

The Alley Theatre: Strabane’s arts centre.

The Alley Theatre: Strabane’s arts centre.

Strabane had an arts centre?

Oh yes, a great arts centre. Stylishly designed, with a library, art gallery, cafe, music venue, local history archive and theatre.

With help from a brilliant local drama group, and perfectly behaved children from the local school, we worked up a big rehearsed reading of the O’Brien play for the festival. This was in 2012. While we worked on the play I noticed that the town, apart from the modern sweep of the theatre complex, looked more run down, boarded up and charity shop-heavy than it had in 2004.

“It’s the out of town shopping centre,” the school’s drama teacher told me. “It’s done for this town the way nothing else did.”

Done for? She didn’t mean it. Strabane, look where you are: gateway to Donegal; at the foot of the stunning, seldom trodden paths of the Sperrin Mountains; full of artistic history and endeavour and a wry humour everyone, even the boys in shell suits, seem to cultivate – there’s a new life just a shift in tourist fashion away. Isn’t there?

The teacher had her own questions. Why would someone who seemed so very English be calling Strabane home?

“Because it’s where I remember being a child,” I told her.

“I couldn’t explain it either but I love Strabane,” she said. “There’s nowhere else like it.” Then she smiled a wry Strabane smile.

“I suppose that is a sort of explanation, isn’t it?”

For information on the Flann O’Brien festival and events around Strabane, visit www.alleytheatre.com

Sadly, Annie died in November, 2016. Please consider donating to the Macmillan tribute fund set up by her sister Jo Caulfield in Annie’s name. https://macmillan.tributefunds.com/annie-caulfield

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Written by Annie Caulfield

Annie Caulfield is a dramatist, travel writer and broadcaster. Originally from Northern Ireland, she lives in London or a Spanish cave. www.anniecaulfield.com