We are in 1993 in the province of Northern Ireland; Ballymena to be precise. If you’re not familiar with the concept, Ballymena is a market town, 30 miles north of Belfast, known for producing chickens, Liam Neeson and a particularly tough breed of Protestantism (Ian Paisley is a pin-up in these regions). I’m 13, I have acne, curtains and a pair of canary yellow DMs.
I spent my birthday money at Woolworths, hesitating between a UB40 cassette and Blur’s Modern life sucks (my first musical tastes were quite confused). In the end, I choose Blur even though my heart really desires Suede’s self-titled debut album. I can’t take it home because there are two ladies kissing on the cover. My parents will have a conniption if they find such a thing in my possession. Three years later, I will finally have the courage to buy Sweden by Sweden, in the new CD format. I’ll flip the cover, just in case anyone thinks to dig into my music collection.
Like many other children in Ballymena, I live in an evangelical Protestant household. I am a born again Christian. I go to church four or five times a week. I attend scripture union at school and vacation at Bible camp. There are a few advantages to this. The Ladies of Ulster Church offer an unrivaled range of baked goods. We receive gift certificates to go to Sunday school. And, though the Troubles rage outside my door, I never feel anything but safe and loved in my church community. I am surrounded by people who think like me. I am convinced that we are right.
From just £3 per week
Grab a print or digital subscription to The Big Issue and provide an essential lifeline to our work.
The Internet is just a glimmer in the eye of the future. I haven’t traveled much – we spend summer holidays in England and fall semesters in Edinburgh – so it’s no surprise that I mostly ignore people, in places not far from the ‘Mena, who have values quite different from ours. I am facetious. I know there are people who are not born again. Our church sends mission teams to save them. We organize door-to-door evangelistic campaigns. There is a Roman Catholic family living on our street. Though mortified, I invited them to our Holiday Bible Club.
It’s not just our family that has taken an evangelical stance on everything from dancing (forbidden), to chewing gum (definitely free), to movies (spelled with a sinful capital “S”). Ballymena is against almost everything. Worried for our mortal souls, they just banned ELO from performing at Showgrounds. The park’s swings, previously chained on the Sabbath, have only recently been released. A large banner covers the wall of the Seven Towers Leisure Centre: “Ballymena always says no! I will be 17 before I realize that it is a united Ireland that we are challenging rather than the line dancing craze currently widely condemned in the local press. I’m starting to wonder about the meaning of it all.
Visit the Big Issue Store
Browse our range of books and support a social enterprise today.
I am no longer weaned. I went from ski pants to jeans. I stay up late, recording Britpop on the evening session (my ghettoblaster hidden under the duvet so no one else in the house can hear). I’ve had enough country gospel for a lifetime. I’m ready for music that asks questions and makes me feel like there are other questioners. I read. A lot. Especially pretty unsuitable stuff. A well-meaning librarian, anxious to have read everything in the children’s section, introduces me to adult fiction. I’ve read Agatha Christie, the Brontës, Martin Amis, Stephen King and, oddly enough, the biography of Tennessee Williams. In rural Northern Ireland of the 1990s, I might as well read science fiction. It’s like escaping into another world. I spend my lunch breaks in the school library copying poems into a pink satin notebook, embellished with sequins. I’m in love with TS Eliot. I look up Tess of the d’Urbervilles. I’m playing automatic for the people repeat. I feel things that I have never felt before. I think those feelings are sacred. But they don’t sit well with the tight, serious sanctity I grew up with.