Peace Stories - Briony and Henry Marten

Conflict in Northern Ireland


Briony Marten

Briony and Henry Marten have both been members of Northampton Local Meeting for many years. They recorded this interview shortly before Henry’s death in 2009. At the height of the Northern Ireland “Troubles” Briony and Henry spent fourteen years living in Belfast, where Henry was a university teacher and researcher and Briony was a school teacher. In their interview they reflected upon wider attitudes to peace and war, as well as upon their own experience as Quaker peace workers.


Living in Northern Ireland

Briony: We went to Northern Ireland in 1965. We knew nothing about “the Troubles”. We had three boys and Henry’s boss went as Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Henry went with him as part of the team. And we stayed there for fourteen years until 1979. So that our youngest child, he was seven when we went there and twenty-one when we came back, which is a long time to be in Northern Ireland.

So you were really there during the worst of the Troubles?

Yes, of course it had been going on for years... I’ll just tell anecdotes. I mean, we had a woman who was cleaning for us, a lovely, lovely woman who was with the Salvation Army. And I said something to her once about the divide of Ireland, and she said, “Ooh, let them have us..?” And her father had been wounded near where we lived in the 1920s. It just goes on and on and on... and she was such a liberal, lovely person, you know. Wasn’t that extraordinary? English people would never have thought... I mean I was a mature student and my fellow students were about twenty-five or something, and some of them were Catholics and some were Protestants. The Catholic Church wouldn’t let married women train as teachers, and they had never been mixed with Catholics (or the opposite) for their whole lives! So no wonder you had trouble.

The Protestant Workers Strike

Henry Marten

Well, my main memory was of the Protestant workers’ strike, what happened about the Protestant workers’ strike. It was at the time when they tried to bring in power-sharing. It was... William Whitelaw. I don’t know exactly which year it was, maybe 1974 or something like that. So, where I taught was East Belfast, and it was near the shipyards, Harland and Wolff, and by that stage almost an entirely Protestant area. It had been mixed. So one day the UDA – Ulster Defence Association – which was an illegal paramilitary, also political probably, they organised a strike to stop power-sharing. So my school... they forced the schools to shut down. They forced the children not to go. The children would have been in families influenced by this point of view – “In no way are we going to share power.” I mean the slogan was a very odd slogan, but it was, “Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right”, meaning Ulster will stay British and loyal and in no way share power with anybody who’s a nationalist. So then came a day when the teachers at the school telephoned to each other – “what are we going to do?”. I think it was most of the teachers, certainly the ones that I knew, we decided not to take our cars to school because they would have been hijacked, because a lot of hijacking went on. So we met near the school and parked our cars at this friend’s house and we walked through these streets. Most of the children by this time were throwing stones at the soldiers from the barricades.

This was the Protestants?

There were no Catholics there by that time. There had been but there weren’t by that time, they’d all moved out. We walked through the streets together, about six of us, and it was quite frightening really. As I said to you, we sang Ethel Smyth’s song. You know: “March! March!” ‒ we sang that. When we got there the only children who came to school were the Jehovah Witness children, because they were always different. They didn’t sing the National Anthem, in all sorts of things they were always different.

They’d probably had a frightening walk as well?

They must have! So we had a very funny day with about three children in each class, and then I decided to drive home. I had a tiny little Fiat and I had to go through... By this time – I think that is what happens to you – I wasn’t really frightened, I was just determined not to be bullied! It was a bullying situation. And when you came to barricades across the roads, the paramilitary people would sit on the front of your bonnet, and ask you where you were going, and even a friend of mine who was a District Nurse and who had to work that day, she got treated the same way. So then we went home of course, and life was not really very easy. It was – dear Mr Paisley was really very much behind it, he organised that the electricity workers should strike, so we had limited electricity. We didn’t have power all the time.

Henry: It wasn’t a complete turn-off.

Briony: No, and also they tried – I mean, to blow up the sewers, that was the next thing they were going to do.

So your witness for peace was to try and keep on with your work as a teacher?

Yes, yes... just not to give up.

Henry: During the Protestant workers’ strike, somebody, some Protestant had understood that people were shooting from the tower of one of the churches in East Belfast, a predominantly Protestant area. And the local people thought that this wasn’t good enough, that they’d got to do something about these Catholics that were established up this church tower, shooting at people. And so they got up a march, by advertising it and that sort of thing. And I happened to go along with this. I can’t remember how I got involved, deeply involved. There was this march which consisted of a hundred people or something like that, possibly more. They were going to just march along the main road which went past this church tower, where the Catholics were ensconced and could shoot down. They were going to go and sort them out. And they were just getting ready to go, more or less, to start the march, when somebody with brilliant foresight said, “The only thing we can do to stop this...” Police were lined up across the road, waiting to try and stop these hundreds of people marching along the road. After which, of course, there would probably have been quite a lot of trouble. Somebody had the brilliant idea of asking Mr Paisley to see whether he could do anything to bring them to their senses. And so eventually, after they found Mr Paisley and persuaded him that he could help, he came and he addressed this crowd of Protestants. He said, “Don’t you realise that this would be counterproductive? It wouldn’t do your cause any good to go and attack the Catholics in the church tower.” And he more or less saved that particular day!

Quakers and tolerance

Briony: The people I was with were all very liberal. I mean you did have to be careful what you said in Northern Ireland, I mean in social situations. You had to be careful because most people had lived there all their lives and they couldn’t see much wrong!

So it must have been a very difficult situation to do active peace-making?

Yes, we kept quiet about it, we kept quiet about it. I can remember once we – the Catholics’ houses were burnt down, before the Army came in. Once we went with furniture, mattresses and things to give to various people who had lost their furniture and I remember, very bravely a friend of my son’s who was at school with him came with us into Ballymurphy, and his parents were horrified, you know, that he was going to do that, they were horrified. Most people we were not frank with, but the great thing was that we were members of the Society of Friends when we went there so we always had that support. We could always discuss things. I think one “witness for peace” was to listen to other people’s opinions, but we weren’t aggressively argumentative. We also gained strength from talking to people who did agree with us.

Henry: Protestants accepted Quakers, the Prods accepted them – that was because they thought they had grown out of the Protestant part of Ireland, stratum of Ireland or whatever. And during the Famine, Friends who had been quite successful as farmers were very... sort of generous.

They helped the victims of the Famine?

Yes, they helped the Catholics during the Famine. And that fact stuck with the Protestants, that they had done this – and also stuck with the Catholics. In those days they were careful not to discriminate against the Catholics, in the 1840s, 50s.

So would you say that both the Protestants and the Catholics had some respect for the Quakers in Northern Ireland?


The Maze prison canteen and Ulster Quaker Service

Briony: The Quakers were asked to run the Maze canteen, where they started to intern people without trial.

Henry: Suspects... of being in the IRA. Yes, we knew of people being arrested and having to walk over glass, horrible things. So the government actually asked the Quakers to run this canteen. Of course the relations came from all over Northern Ireland, and they were just being bussed there and dumped. So the government built a place with a canteen and facilities, places where they could wait, and later there was a crèche there which was... I think it’s now called the Monica Barrett Centre.

What part did you play?

Well we used to go and help...

So serving food and drinks, helping people – and talking to people?

Henry: Yes, and to some extent providing teachers.

Briony: And running the crèche. I wasn’t there very much when the crèche was being developed. I remember people saying that the next thing there would be a Long Kesh university, there was so much being developed there really.

You were teaching in a Protestant area but helping Catholics in the Maze?

There were Protestant and Catholic detainees in the Maze. Only – we used to go there on Saturdays or something. Henry was involved in the Ulster Quaker Service it was called, wasn’t it?

Henry: Yes.

Briony: It was really them who were asked to run this canteen.

So they were like QPSW (Quaker Peace and Social Witness), were they?

Yes, and they were supported by Quakers, and other people probably, from all over the world with money.

Henry: Including some from the Republic of Ireland, because there were quite a lot of Quakers in the Republic actually.

Briony: And America.

Henry: Some of the members of the Committee were well aware that one of the things that the clients, as it were, enjoyed was going out of their area to somewhere nice like the Mourne Mountains or the sea – all these things were quite close to Belfast. So we did what we could, and one of the things that we got was this minibus – we got the money from all over the place.

Briony: I'm sure the driver was a Catholic. I can't remember his name. The interesting thing about the minibus - a bit of Quaker history - was that two people came to help: one was English, Margaret McNeill, and Eileen Taylor, they'd both been at Woodbrooke and they'd both helped with displaced people after the War. You know a lot of Quakers did that. It was really their idea. And they had seen how wonderful, you know what a wonderful piece of outreach the Quaker minibus had been, and they were very keen to get one. And they were quite experienced really.

So once you got the minibus, who organised the trips?

Quaker Service, I should think.

It was your Committee, was it?

Yes, and we had a paid driver. They used to go into Ballymurphy, you used to take the children swimming, didn’t you?

Henry: One incident I remember very well, I was driving the minibus at the time, coming down a well-known road in those days, the Falls Road – does that mean anything to you? I was driving this minibus with a group of Catholic children as it happened.

Briony: They were all Catholic because they all came from Ballymurphy.

Henry: Yes, I was taking them swimming you see, to do something they enjoyed. I was driving down the Falls Road, and there was a bit of housing beside Falls Road which was predominantly Protestant, and somehow or other the Protestant boys from this place got to hear that Quakers were taking children to the swimming pool. Doing work for the Catholics was not accepted very well by the Protestants. And I can remember going past this little section of the Falls Road with a collection of children in the back – I don’t think there were any seniors. I think they were all Catholic children. And somehow or other news got around that there were Catholic children going past this little Protestant-dominated piece of the road, and as we were driving towards it we could see there were a group of boys on the pavement ahead of us. There wasn’t really any option but to carry on. And they had accumulated a store of stones. They threw them at the minibus, with the Catholic children on board. They didn’t actually do any serious damage, but that was more by accident than their intention.

Were the children very frightened in your minibus?

Somehow or other, I don’t think they were, I don’t know why.

Briony: The minibus had the Quaker star on it.

Henry: Yes, I think that’s how they probably knew it, the Protestant boys. It was a white minibus.

Henry: I was very closely involved with the Ulster Quaker Service Committee. They now just call themselves Quaker Service. I think that’s a bit presumptuous myself, but that’s what they do. And they do the same sort of things, something to help the social problems that there are.

How did that fit alongside your work? I was wondering how you found time for it all? And what your colleagues thought about it all?

There were – a few of them were English, some of them were Northern Irish, and several of them were from the Republic, Irish.

Briony: We didn’t mention peace work to some neighbours or colleagues.

Prejudice and rumours

Briony: Really, you can't talk about peace-making and your efforts without talking a little bit about the situation. I can add something about children. We used to have BBC programmes and sometimes a bit of news would come on while we were waiting for them, and it would say that some Catholic families had been killed. And these children - they were seven, nine, something like that - and they'd say "Good! More Taiges dead." They called them Taiges, slang for Catholic. "More Taiges dead!" It was absolutely shocking.

How did you deal with that?

I didn't dare say anything. I mean if you started spouting about the violence... Another thing that happened was that... Helen Campbell was a Quaker, and very much prominent in all this, and she used to say, it's a very well-known quote I expect, she used to say, "In war the first casualty is the truth." One day I was in the classroom and a plane flew over, in trouble - an RAF plane of some sort, right beside the windows of the school. This is rumours! At the end of lunchtime they all came back and said, "That plane was an IRA plane, come to bomb us!" - which was nonsense.

Henry: That’s the sort of thing that happened.

Briony: Over and over again.

Other Quaker social work

Which Quaker Meeting did you go to?

Briony: South Belfast.

Did it have particular projects that it became involved in?

Briony: Yes. I don't know if you know about Will Warren. He came from East Anglia, alone. He was a Quaker hero really. He had a heart condition and he went to live in Derry. He lived alone in Derry, and he knew Martin McGuiness, he really... nobody would talk to that family or Martin McGuiness at that stage. We did have at one stage - we did offer refuge to refugees in our Meeting House.

Henry: This was a fairly well-defined incident. Early on in the troubles, the latest eruption. I think it ‒ the little I know from first-hand ‒ I think it’s conceivable that the real shooting troubles grew out of the fact that at some point the group of Protestants were living in an area which contained one street which was Catholic, and it was more or less isolated in this sea of Protestants. And some of the wise men among the Protestants decided that they didn’t want them any more so that they went and burned the houses, they went and set fire to them. And the people living there, we don’t really know exactly what happened to them, but we – the Meeting – actually housed them for a short period of time.

Briony: I think there were two separate incidents, but it doesn’t matter.

They were refugees, basically, that you housed at the Meeting House?

Briony: Yes, and there were other places where houses were burned down. Different parts of town.

Henry: Yes, oh yes, but this was the first time that Friends got really deeply involved, because they took in the families, or as many of them as they could, Catholic families from this street, and protected them from any further terrible things. I don’t know to what extent that fact got around. It was well-known to local Quakers of course.

Were you afraid of reprisals from the Protestants?

Well, yes – that was the thing.

Briony: The place where we lived was near Stormont, and pretty liberal. If you went further into town, that was the place where all the kerbstones were painted, red white and blue, flags everywhere.

Henry: They were loyal you see, red white and opposed to orange and green.

Briony: The only time I think I felt frightened was when our son was washing up in a Quaker work camp in a school and a strange voice rang up to check whether my son’s identity was genuine.

What other work did Quakers do?

Briony: Let’s think, well you certainly did the minibus and the Maze. The Maze was a full-time job for some. There had to be volunteers every day.

Henry: They used to provide transport for people living in the centre of Belfast, out to this Maze prison.

Quakers provided the transport?

Quite a lot, yes. They provided the transport there and back.

You say that resources came from all around the world. Was it a problem raising the money?

Briony: No, not at all, not at all. It was a well-known cause. Not at all.

Henry: I mean, Americans and Canadians, a lot of them are Irish.

Briony: I think the money flowed in actually. The money flowed in, and also we had a lot of... a lot of young people came, didn’t they, volunteers.

Henry: And it’s still going on!

I’ve heard you talk about Quaker Cottage.

Briony: Oh yes.

Was that founded when you were still in Ireland?

Henry: Yes, not very long.

What’s it for?

It’s a farmhouse, right on the outskirts, the edge of Belfast. Further down the Black Mountain from where Quaker Cottage is, is quite a large housing estate. A lot of the people living there have been transferred from troubled places. Most of them have got some problems of some sort or another.

Catholics and Protestants?

Predominantly, yes both.

Briony: That was the point.

So people living on the housing estate were invited to Quaker Cottage?

To spend... they used to go there several times a week, I think.

Henry: The way it worked was that Quaker Cottage was upon the social workers’ list of possible places to take troublesome people, or people who had troubles.

What did they do when they went there?

Well a lot of them, the ones they took were women with children. I mean in comparison with some areas the people were fairly civilized. The children were felt to be at risk, of what I’m not quite sure, because the Cottage was in contact with the social work people, and they used to get women with, normally speaking, a few children – kindergarten age children.

Did you go to the Cottage, Briony?

Briony: I have been there once, just to visit, but I didn’t work there. Well they have been taken up by Quaker Service, so they’re supported by Friends all over the world.

Will Warren’s Quaker peacemaking

When you were in Northern Ireland did you ever feel that there was anything Quakers could do to actually end the Troubles? Or was it always trying to help with the consequences?

Briony: You see, Will Warren was somebody who actually went into the politics, got to know Martin McGuiness, which was a very unusual and dangerous thing for anyone to do. I mean - it was very dangerous really. This is not really relevant, the most extraordinary thing is that Will was very supportive to our youngest son. Our son went and stayed with the McGuinesses and had breakfast in bed there, I remember. I mean they treated him as... Martin McGuiness wasn't there of course, it was his mother. We only realised later, Will Warren was a most extraordinary person. Books have been written about him, haven't they? He had a minibus as well, then he eventually had ours, and he used to bring mixed parties of children . take them everywhere! He didn't care what he did. He was just so...

Henry: I think most of the children came from Derry.

Briony: He came from East Anglia, just came. We did know him, he came to stay.

He was a member of your Meeting, was he?

No, I suppose he was a member of the Derry Meeting. We knew him and of course he was supported by lots of people in our Meeting. Just one of those people who gets up and goes, you know.

Different Quakers, different views

Briony: I think one of the things that was interesting... You know the powers that be in Northern Ireland asked the Army to come in eventually, to stop the Catholic houses being burnt. And we went to Meeting the next day, and nobody said anything about it. I can’t remember anybody saying anything about it. It was a very controversial situation, wasn’t it? I’ve always wondered why. I can’t remember anyone saying anything about it. One Friend was more supportive of the IRA situation than other Quakers. She would say that there were two armies, the IRA and the British Army. That they were right, I suppose. So there were different opinions. What it really meant was that it absolutely took over the Meeting. It was the concern of the Meeting, wasn’t it? And you wondered whatever people were thinking about in England, you know. It just took over.

Henry: Well in the original Meeting in Belfast, which started probably in the 1700s or thereabouts, its members were traditional Protestants.

Briony: They were Huguenots.

Henry: But then, largely at the instigation of two or three members of the congregation, they decided, these few members, that they wanted to bring peace, that they really did. The Meeting we went to had a large amount of English influence.

Briony: It was a breakaway.

Henry: From the locals.

So having an English influence, what was that? Was it from the University staff?

Briony: The University staff and some other people. We had some locals.

I think it’s very interesting that different Quakers had different feelings about the Troubles.

Yes. I think you’d hear somebody saying something different. Of course there were the very, very evangelical country Meetings as well, they were different, used to get up and say about being saved by the blood of the Lamb and all this. The “country” Friends were more evangelical and more Protestant in Northern Ireland terms, which meant they probably did think of two different communities. The incomers like us ‒ and there were others ‒ had no axe to grind so it was easier for them to be tolerant. The incomers were less inclined to think of Protestants and Catholics as two communities than some locals, even amongst Quakers.

Were all the Quaker Meetings united in supporting the Peace Testimony?

I imagine so. I imagine so, but some went further than others I suppose. It was a whole “them and us” situation you know, when some are going to think “them” are worse than “us”, who are wonderful.

Frightened underneath

So after you came back from Ireland, did you keep in touch with what was going on there?

One of the things was that we used to come here sometimes for holidays, and although you were fairly calm when you lived there... You did seem to have ordinary lives. The children went to school, and you had ordinary lives, and you didn’t talk about it too much. It was kept from children quite a bit, what was going on. But when we used to come over here for holidays sometimes, you just realised how frightened underneath you were, all the time. I can remember being in Marks and Spencers once, here, when there was a sudden puff up of smoke... And the sort of stupid things like, if you see a stray car parked in a street, in fact a parked car which had a Northern Ireland number, you came and asked what it was, where we went to live in Greens Norton. And people were really, they were remarkably calm, remarkably calm. I can remember a hijacked bus with a bomb in front of a shop you know, and people just walked out. Another thing, our attitude, I can remember coming home from holiday, from the South somewhere, and they said, “Oh there’s a hoax bomb in that street, you’ll have to go a different way.” And you just went, “Don’t think about it, just go a different way!” And I can remember another time, a sniper – hearing a sniper. Well I was terrified, but all the other Friends were frightfully straight up, British sort of thing... I was terrified!

Looking back

I know that after your years in Northern Ireland you did other peace work?

We did supporting refugees in Northampton, which is really “them and us” as well, isn’t it?

You’d had experience of that already, hadn’t you?

Yes. I mean you just thought it was daft, the whole thing...

Where were the refugees from?

Somalia mostly, and that wasn’t particularly Quaker, it was more the Justice and Peace Committee. But you know you did just think it was... I mean we couldn’t see why Ireland shouldn’t be united. You know, we couldn’t see that at all.

Did your views on Ireland change while you were there?

I think English people were very ignorant about the situation, and thought they were all crazy. They thought it was all a religious thing, and it’s more than that. They thought, “Why waste all that money on Ireland?”

Had you been to Ireland before you went to live there?

Yes. What did Dennis Barrett say about Ireland? He wrote a book.

Henry: Well, one of the best known sayings within it was: “The Irish have a problem for every solution.”

Briony: Of course, he was in our Meeting and he did a tremendous lot, didn’t he?

Henry: Yes, he had been born there.

Briony: The people that I really admired were the people who had been brought up there and who had thought very, very differently. They were behind reconciliation and just didn’t think in terms of “them and us”. And there were some of them!


Northampton Peace Vigil

Left to right: Briony Marten, Theodore Sturge and Roger Sawtell at the Northampton peace vigil