Excerpted from Kenneth Branagh, Seamus Heaney and Brian Kennedy On What It's Really Like to Be From Northern Ireland
In BBC broadcaster Mark Carruthers' new book actor Sir Kenneth Branagh, Nobel-winning poet Seamus Heaney, in one of his final interviews before his death in August, and singer Brian Kennedy give illuminating, and surprising, answers
Belfast Telegraph, 28 October 2013
Actor and director: Kenneth Branagh
The hugely successful film and stage actor grew up in Protestant working class north Belfast until the age of nine, when his family relocated to England to escape the Troubles. Now 52 he was knighted last year.
What was life like as a child in Belfast?
My sense of identity as a human being has never been as strong as it was in Ulster. I was growing up in the '60s in a volatile world, but my sense of security was total in the sense that it felt as though I could never get lost. I think it was highly likely that we literally knew everybody in the street and in many surrounding streets.
It was a life built totally around visiting and mutual childcare. I remember years of coming home from school and going to my Auntie Irene's, who lived two doors down, before my mother came home from work. My granny gave me my lunch from school every single day when I was at the Grove Primary School (in north Belfast).
I was walking to school on my own from a very early age, because it felt entirely and utterly safe and I would always be falling in to the company of other kids in the same street.
We went to football matches with the school and it just seemed like you knew everyone, and the city had the feeling of a village.
Large family gatherings was our entertainment -- my mother doing her song, my father would do his jokes, other members of the family doing their thing, so there was the sense of identity inside a community that unquestionably was warm. I've never felt so secure, or as certain of who I was since, to be frank.
But eventually you did go to England. Was it a culture shock at that stage to discover that your identity was so different to that of the other children at your new school?
It was a complete culture shock because I came from a school environment (that) felt very much rooted in its working-class community -- and then I went to a school that was definitely, by contrast, middle-class. It felt literally like one had gone to a different climate... I had a good time at the Grove, but it was strict, and then I came to somewhere which was completely alien to me.
And did your new classmates regard you as alien? Did they tease you?
Yeah, they literally couldn't understand what I was saying from day one. They couldn't understand a word, not for days and days, and I didn't even understand what it was they didn't understand. I felt that I was being surrounded by people who spoke as if they were Blue Peter presenters. I don't know that they teased me in the first instance, but they certainly didn't understand what I was saying.
But could you identify with Billy (from the Billy plays) as a character?
Definitely. There were lots of pressures on my family contemporaries, so I was aware that being a young man living through the Troubles in Belfast at that time was a very intense experience.
I did have a lot of sympathy for Billy Martin and I did feel as though I knew who he was -- there but for the grace of God I certainly would have gone.
The argument is often made that the Billy plays were the first time that particular Ulster identity -- working-class, Protestant and loyalist -- was portrayed to the wider UK audience. Does that ring true to you?
It does. It was my very first job and so my instinct was that I would show this script to my mum and dad. My father said: 'That's the last thing you want to do. You don't want to touch that'.
He was quite upset about it and I didn't understand why. I realised that it was because it was so authentic.
It also came from somebody away from home who was very, very protective of the place's image and his concern was that it would somehow reflect badly on the people of Belfast and on that particular community.
But in the end when they saw it, well, they both were amazed by it. Quite aside from me being in it, I think they felt that it did talk very powerfully about working class life.