Being Irish Part One–Midnight Mission

The last time I went home to Northern Ireland was in December 2000 from San Francisco, and that was the first time since 1970, just before I moved from London to New York. In 1970 I was in Belfast only for the day, under the radar, to interview the wife of a psychiatrist, never mind why. I told no one this was the city I’d been born in.
We made the TV news when the evening plane returned to Belfast for an emergency landing. The young reporter for the Belfast Telegraph who interviewed me after we slid down the chutes got my last name wrong, and invented the words he put in my mouth, every word, comma and full stop. I supposedly told him the air hostesses stayed cool as cucumbers (the only one I noticed was shaking) and an old lady knitted calmly as we landed (old ladies with knitting needles risked becoming dangerous projectiles in a crash).
I stayed frozen from feeling during the landing, able to hold and comfort a small girl as we waited in the drizzle for the buses to take us back to the terminal, until she remembered she’d been told to avoid contact with strange men. I was still frozen when I went back in 2000 from my home in San Francisco. I went back to see the place where I’d grown up because that’s what you’re supposed to do, and a trainee at a therapy internship had assured me I had unfinished business there, and I thought maybe, just maybe, I might surprise any surviving family.
I’d booked a room in the Belfast city center for four nights, though I ended up staying that long only because I’d prepaid the hotel and the penalty to change the plane ticket was too high. On the two mornings I no longer wanted to be there I watched from my window as Protestant schoolboys trudged through the rain to Inst, the downtown grammar school where boys are offered an excellent education. I went to a grammar school in Holywood, between Belfast and Bangor, the seaside town where I grew up, and mostly refused the good education it offered.
I was born a 15 minutes’ walk from that Belfast hotel, in the Midnight Mission on Malone Place on October 20, 1939. I may yet go back for good: You can rent a three-bedroom terrace house for £600 a month on Malone Place these days, about a quarter what it costs to rent a studio apartment in San Francisco, which is becoming uninhabitable for anyone but the permanently wealthy and the temporarily rich IT workers. But the Midnight Mission is gone since 1981. It was founded in 1860 to provide a home for the night to the women and girls found by charitable ladies in the Belfast pubs. Later a room was set aside for the confinements of unmarried mothers. But my mother was not homeless or unmarried or drunk when she gave birth to me in the Midnight Mission. MORE TO COME

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