Entertainment Books

Sunday 22 September 2019

Write side... with historian Marianne Elliott


Marianne Elliott
Marianne Elliott
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Historian Marianne Elliott on 'Hearthlands', her memoir about growing up in Belfast before the Troubles

You grew up in a mixed-religion social-housing estate in Belfast. How did the Protestant and Catholic communities get on?

Before the Troubles, we were never as polarised as people like to think. The White City estate was totally mixed. We went to separate schools, but I believe shared housing is more important than shared education, and the communities got on well.

As a Catholic, did you have Protestant friends?

As a teenager, my best friend was a Protestant neighbour. I went to events in her school without even thinking about it.

Did the atmosphere change with the Troubles?

My parents left in 1963. Even before the Troubles, the estate began to change as a result of slum clearances. Families came from loyalist areas like the Shankill and Sandy Row. Now there are very few Catholics left.

Your book Hearthlands is part social history and part memoir. Was that different to your normal work as a historian?

Normally, I am a historian who works in archives. But this book also involved oral history. I talked to a lot of older people. At first I used a tape recorder, but they didn't like that. So I would just sit for hours talking to them.

Is it important to write well as a historian?

Yes, I believe the best historians have a lightness of touch. They want to reach a large audience and are readable.

Do you have any favourite books at the moment?

Patricia Craig's Bookworm is a spellbinding story of bookshops and libraries in 1950s Belfast. Roy Foster's Vivid Faces and Fergal Keane's Wounds are both fascinating evocations of the revolutionary generation.

If you weren't a historian, what would you be?

When I was 17, I flirted for a while with joining the police. I liked the idea of carrying out investigations. So I suppose, in a way, it is similar to being a historian.

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