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Saturday, September 24, 2022

Mary Delargy reflects on life in Derry, becoming a mother and losing a sister

All my claims about being a Derry Girl, I have to admit, are not quite true. I would love to be a Derry Girl but I’m actually even better – I’m from South Armagh. My father was from Newry, so when my mother married she moved down there for a couple of years. My brother, who was a year older than me, and my sister, who was a year younger than me, were both born on the County Down side of Newry. I, by some spectacular move, got into South Armagh. A rebel I came and I’m still the same.

Every Derry woman gets home eventually, so my mother moved us back to Derry when I was a year and a half. When we came back, we lived with my granny for about six months before the house that we moved into in Oakfield was ready. After a few years there, we eventually moved to West End Park, where I spent most of my life. My mother had spent most of her life there and her mother and the unmarried one of her sisters were still living there, along with my grandmothers brother. The thing about having a three generation family, you learn a lot more about different experiences. I was always really glad that my son had the same opportunity of having my mother there. I think the experiences older people have makes you understand that you can live through stuff that is really difficult and come out the other side. You may be a different person, but you will make it.

I remember being about five, sitting in Brendan Quigley’s Dentist. The surgery was over Tracey’s bar at the bottom of William Street. They had the doctor there to give me the gas and the dentist said, ‘you know who she is, she’s Tommy O’Doherty’s wee granddaughter.’ I started to howl and squeal because my grandfather died before my parents were married – they had to put their wedding off because he died quite unexpectedly – and I couldn’t work out how the doctor knew him. How could he know him because he was in heaven? We always said prayers before bed – a prayer for my granny and granda in Newry, granny in Derry and granda in heaven. I kind of thought, when I was older, I would get to heaven to see granda, just like how we went to Newry to see the other one.

Mary Delargy with her son Padraig.

The troubles started when I was still in primary school. Everyone’s life was pretty much the same because you were all living in the same area. My first year at Thornhill, looking back on it, was nightmarish outside of school. The first week I was there, was the week Annette McGavigan was killed. The Lough Swilly busses just stopped somewhere on the Northland Road and you got off but I had no idea where I was. I was a bit of a panicker when I was in first year, I was afraid of not having what I needed, so I had all my books for the whole week in my schoolbag. I was very lucky because Paddy Bogside’s daughter Eileen was in my year in school and she knew what she was doing. When we got up, there was a barricade at the bottom of West End, so she took me down to their house. One of her older brothers, God love him, was sent to walk me up to get the barricade moved – but worse – the mother said, ‘and carry that wee girls schoolbag, it’s too big for her’. So, he had to walk up in front of his mates, carrying my schoolbag and me literally tripping behind him in my too-long skirt, because your mammy bought you a uniform that did you until you were 16. Bloody Sunday was only a couple of months later and that was awful, no matter how you look at it. I turned 12 two days after that and I was old enough to know to say nothing in the house and young enough to be put off by the fact that nobody acknowledged my birthday. The schools were all closed and, when you look back, the place was completely silent for days. I remember four priests coming to our door after the funeral, asking if there was somewhere they could get something to eat. My mammy told them that everywhere was closed but that she could make them something. There wasn’t much in the house but she made them a cup of tea, Doherty’s sausages and a couple of slices of bread. I remember watching the sausages go in and thinking that we were getting bread and butter for dinner. One of the priests wrote to her at Christmas every year for the rest of his life. It’s things like that that make you think, yes, we went through some awful times but there was always people there who helped each other out.

I did Celtic Studies in Queen’s and as well as doing Irish, you did Gàidhlig, Welsh, Manx and Breton. I was absolutely terrified when I started at Queen’s. I was very quiet anyway and, even though I’d been to Rann na Feirste for a few summers, I wasn’t used to having boys in the class. I was in a class with two boys who were big and loud, but those boys were the making of me. I would have spent my life hiding but I was in with people who were loud and I learned to be loud too. The other thing that made me really different was becoming a mother.

My Padraig was born when I was 36. I didn’t expect to have a child because I was that bit older and he wasn’t the child I thought I was getting – he’s nothing like me! He’s very much my late husband’s child. He’s a real Delargy. He’s also a lot like my mother’s family. Once you have a child, the word embarrassment goes flying out the window because you just have to get on with what you get. Because I only have the one child, we do get on very well. Now, don’t get it wrong, Little House on the Prairie it ain’t, but I’m really grateful for having that opportunity later in life to become a mother.

I spent a long time working as a librarian in the Linenhall Library, which was a great experience for most of the time I worked there. I started there at the beginning of 1988, so I had been in the job for three months when Gibraltar, Milltown and the Corporals happened in the space of a week. At that stage, we would have a lot of politicians coming in and out and a lot of judges, who you could always tell because they had to bring a minder with them. Bill Clinton was just across the street at the City Hall one time and we were told that there would be a bit of security but we wouldn’t really notice. About a week before he came, myself and Gerry were working on the top floor. I said to Gerry, ‘don’t look now, but there’s a leg coming down the top of the window’. The American security team were going on the roof but this was only Saturday and he was coming on Thursday!

Mary Delargy.

One thing I will always be remembered for in the library is that Brad Pitt came. He was in Belfast with his entourage and his voice coach while working on a film. He had designer stubble and a wee woolly hat and I failed to recognise him. No matter how good I was at that job or how many things I achieve, I will always be remembered for asking Brad Pitt his name!

I started the cross-community Irish classes in the library, not long after starting. My boss swore afterwards that what actually happened, was I asked if I could start the classes and while he went away to think about it, I started putting posters up. Looking back on it, it was the end of 1989, beginning of the 1990s, so the troubles were not over. It was quite dodgy but I loved doing it. 
I have two brothers and my sister, Patricia. There was only five years between the two ends of our family so we would have all been close. Having one sister, I would have been really close to her. It wasn’t all rosy, we would have argued the bit out but we were so close that we shared a double bed for years and she gave me everything – including head lice! That’s one of my Padraig’s big issues – mental health – because Patricia took her own life. I was the one who got the police coming to me and I remember my first thought was ‘what are they talking about?’ And my second thought was ‘how do I get out of here?’ I was lucky because we had an awful lot of people supporting us but nobody can make that different. It’s something that we still feel very, very strongly – there just isn’t enough help.

I’ve been working at the front desk in An Chultúrlann and teaching a bit too. I smile and say hello and organise people for classes. It’s lovely to be able to use my Irish, it’s a great thing to have. A lot of people are not there just to do a class in Irish, they’re there for the social aspect too. The cafe there is for people who don’t necessarily speak Irish but it’s a very safe environment for people and they know that the staff are going to be welcoming and friendly, see them as people and remember things about them. That is as big a difference as we’re going to make; we’re not going to change the world but we’re going to change someone’s world. That’s a lovely thing to do.

*If you are over 60, living in Derry and would like to share your story, email [email protected]

Mary with her parents, brother and sister in West End Park.
Mary Delargy on her First Communion day.
Mary Delargy
Mary Delargy with her sister Patricia. Mary remembers this picture being taken, she was showing Patricia how to open the clasp on their auntie’s purse.

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