Bernice Cantwell (Dominick Street, Galway City to Liverpool, England)
Bernice Cantwell’s family left Galway for Liverpool in the seventies when she was just an infant. Although this move left her with a profound sense of loss in later life, she still has an inherent sense of her Irish identity and still feels a strong connection to Galway, where she dreams of retiring to live simply, to write and give readings.
Name: Bernice Cantwell
Now living in: Liverpool, England
From: Dominick Street, Galway
Galway is in my blood. I was born in Liverpool, but we all moved over to Galway when I was just six weeks old. I was baptised in Galway Cathedral, the same place that my parents were married, not so long after it was opened in 1967. All of my development ‘firsts’ happened there – first words, first steps, first fully-formed memories.
Barney Cantwell, my father, was one of eleven and grew up in a house in Fairhill Road, Beattystown. He and his brother, Paddy, used to sail to the Aran Islands and both of them were well known within the community. Paddy later captained the MV Galway Bay and Barney, my father, was a skipper on the MV Naomh Eanna. Virginia, my mother, was born just outside Liverpool to an Irish family who migrated after the famine. I have one brother and one sister. My brother is ten years older than me, he grew up in Limerick with his mother’s family, after his mother died when he was an infant. My father was away at sea at the time and unable to look after a small child, so it was thought that the best option would be for my brother to live with his aunt and her children. He now lives in the USA. My sister is younger than me, with a family of her own.
We lived above the butcher’s shop but I can’t remember whether it was Dominick St Upper or Lower. I went back in 1986 on a solo visit to see family and to wave goodbye to my brother as he was heading to the States and I looked up into the flat where I thought we had lived – the wallpaper was how I’d remembered it, pale blue – patterned. One of my earliest memories of Galway is being outside a shop in my pram while my mother was inside. An Irish Wolfhound put his head into the pram to say hello to me – I’ve loved them ever since. I also remember walking along Claddagh Quay, my father holding the reins, as we looked at the swans. I remember, though this is from a later age, when I was about eleven and we were back home for a holiday – getting on the bus at the end of Costello Road (where my Aunt lived) to go into town. As we passed the parish church, everyone on the bus would make the sign of the cross. But the thing I remember most is that everyone seemed to be happy to talk to each other – not just out of politeness, but out of genuine interest.
Mum and Dad were, to my mind, quite strict when we were growing up. Dad was older than Mum by fourteen years and as he’d been widowed, ‘our’ family was his second chance. My relationship with them wasn’t always easy. I was a very bold child, with strong opinions. I struggled with the hold Catholicism had over us, but even for all the doctrine, both of my parents encouraged me to think for myself and to make decisions based on my conscience and not my religion.
Moving back to Liverpool
I think I know why my parents left Galway, but I’m not certain. Between me and my sister, Mum miscarried several times and I imagine she wanted to be in Liverpool with her family. Dad was working for P&O by this time, so had longer trips away and I guess Mum was in a strange place, surrounded by family that were not hers, and with a toddler in tow. I have never felt settled since and have moved from place to place over the years, searching for something to fill the gap where my home should be. I think I was coming up on four years old when we moved back to Liverpool, but it might have been a little earlier. I loved school and did well. It was bittersweet though. We lived in a small street and knew all of the neighbours as Mum had grown up in the house we moved back to. There weren’t many children in the street, but they were all Church of England and so we went to different schools and churches. My accent also wasn’t local – Mum had never had a particularly strong accent and Dad’s was Galwegian – plus I’d learned to speak in Ireland. I just always felt very different – very on the outside looking in. We knew lots of Irish people – it’s impossible not to in Liverpool, but I didn’t have any Irish friends.
When we moved back to Liverpool, I lost my sense of place. I lost the opportunity to learn my mother tongue and there are simply no opportunities to learn it over here – even less chance to speak it. I have no contact with any Irish communities. I think I’ve always felt (and I hate this term) a bit of a Plastic Paddy. I wasn’t born in Ireland – but I’m the first generation in my father’s line not to be. I have an Irish passport, but I’ve spent so long in England that that’s how I’m defined by others. Since Brexit, I’ve become aware that if I rely solely on my Irish nationality, I won’t be able to vote in England in future. I don’t feel fully accepted by either British or Irish.
When we came back to Galway for holidays we would visit aunts and uncles but contact was sporadic and over time, it became impossible to maintain any kind of close relationships with extended family. I’ve met a few of my relatives and have made contact with a couple of cousins – only one of whom I have met, and that was back in 1982. It’s very hard to reconnect – to try to become part of a family again. We might share DNA and family stories, but other than that, we are strangers. Anyone with the Cantwell name is likely to be related but there are some cousins that I know only as names on a family tree. I lost the opportunity to know my family and be part of the day to day rough and tumble that comes with family life.
I left Liverpool when I was nineteen to move to Reading. I had a place at university, but I hated the course and left after only six weeks. I got a job with the railway and stayed for twelve years, moving to Swindon in about 1989. In 2012, I moved from Swindon to work in Lewes, East Sussex and now live to the east of Brighton in a small coastal town. Moving away was difficult. Swindon was my home for more than twenty years and I built up a life there. It’s been hard to start again, but I’m making friends and I’m happy with my own company. I have a dog, an Irish Setter call Caoimhe. In my spare time, I write. I’ve had several pieces published and I’ve just finished my first novel which has been accepted for publication in 2018. There is no Irish connection here at all and perhaps that’s why I feel the urge to move back so strongly – I’ve never felt more disconnected than I currently do. I dream of retiring to Galway, to living simply, to writing books and giving readings. My heart aches for the place that was taken away from me…a decision which others made for me.
Connection to Galway
My identity is fiercely Irish – it’s like breathing, it just is. I feel a strong connection to Galway, I feel like I must come back. It’s the only way I’ll know for sure if I truly belong there, or whether I’ll always feel like I’m standing just outside of the circle, observing. From the way I construct a sentence, to the way I know things about Irish folk lore and mythology, to the way in which I use humour to make my point. I believe the Irish are among the greatest wordsmiths in the world – there’s a rhythm to the language, a humour in the people, a quick-wittedness and mischievousness ready to surface. I think I’ve inherited that, along with a strong sense of justice – and a temper to match. Dad would sit and tell me stories about Irish legends and I have a fascination for them ever since. I don’t think he told me those tales to instil that identity in me consciously; they were just the stories he’d been told that he was passing on. The Claddagh was important in our household – Dad was born in Beattystown and so the motif was everywhere – even on their wedding china. I still wear a Claddagh ring and for me, that’s the one thing I can point to and say, ‘this means home – I’m from the Claddagh.’ I have to stop myself sometimes from saying very ‘Irish’ things such as the ‘hot-press, or going for the messages as phrases and words such as those are met with puzzled looks. But the more I suppress my Irishness, the more in limbo I feel.