By Francine Cunningham
Something about those hollow eyes, the serious but suspicious gaze and that pallid skin, speaks to me across the generations. It’s a picture of my hometown of Strabane in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, taken after the flood of 1910. Look closely and you can see the boy’s jumper held together by a safety pin at the shoulder, holes in the elbows of dresses and the well-practiced way in which older girls balance younger siblings on their hips.
The children pictured may be standing in the mud, but it’s clear that many of those feet were used to going unshod. Other pictures from the town at that time confirm that shoes were not a given. Sunday best, or earned when a child grew big enough to start work.
Born generations later, I grew up in comfortable circumstances, but my grandparents could be in that photo.
Strabane is a small, rural town of around 13,000 inhabitants. It is intersected by the River Mourne, which flows on to meet the Finn and turns into the River Foyle that runs through Derry. The Mourne would overflow its banks again, this time in my living memory. The flood which hit the town centre in 1987 wrought economic damage on what was once a bustling market town.
While in many ways this is a typical country town, surrounded by picturesque farmland against the backdrop of the Sperrin Mountains, Strabane nevertheless gained a place on the world map for dubious reasons. At the height of The Troubles, Strabane had the distinction of the highest unemployment rate in the industrial world. Hunched on the border with the Republic of Ireland, the town has also been named as one of the most economically deprived in the UK.
Two decades of bombings and shootings from the early 1970s to the 1990s, put the name of the town regularly in the press. In fact, Strabane was not only the most bombed town in Northern Ireland, it was also reputed to be the most bombed town in Europe in proportion to its size.
When I left Strabane in the Eighties to study and work in Dublin, Paris, Brussels and Boston, I discovered a world of possibilities that I could never have found at home. Many leave because they have no economic choice. Others leave because they no longer care. Some because they care too much.