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Writer Barry Devlin on BBC One’s My Mother and Other Strangers

Barry Devlin

Writer, My Mother and Other Strangers

A new BBC One Drama My Mother and Other Strangers, starts on Sunday 13 November. Set in Northern Ireland during World War Two, it follows the fortunes of the Coyne family and their neighbours as they struggle to maintain a normal life after a huge United States Army Air Force (USAAF) airfield, with 4,000 service men and women, lands in the middle of their rural parish. Writer Barry Devlin blogs about his background and how he came to create the drama.

I was born after the Second World War in the parish of Ardboe, a flat alluvial region on the western shore of Lough Neagh: the nearest high ground was Slieve Gallion 20 miles away: fishing for eels was the livelihood of 60% of the parish.

Ardboe was unremarkable except for two things. It had one of the finest Celtic crosses to be found anywhere in Ireland, dating from the ninth century and it had a vast airbase slap bang in its middle, dating from 1942.

USAAF Station 238 – Cluntoe airfield - was a Combat Crew Replacement Centre which trained B17 and B 24 pilots to fly in the cloudy skies over Europe. It was a big base with more than 4,000 servicemen stationed within its perimeter. The Americans left in late 1944 but the RAF took over and No 2 Flying Training Centre stayed there until 1955.

That’s the version of Cluntoe that I remember vividly. The way home from school ran along the perimeter of the airfield and the planes took off and landed directly overhead.

It was impossible not to be excited by how low they flew, so close that every panel and oil streak and stencil mark was visible, so close that the faces of the instructors and the (sometimes whey- faced) students could be clearly seen.

To this day I can still remember the fluttery burble of the Gypsy engines of the Prentices and the vivid rasp of the radial engined Harvards (the ones with the hole in the nose, as the local boys called them).

Even more unforgettable were the heart-stopping moments when the Harvard engines cut out at the top of a loop directly above and it seemed like they might never start… and then the reassuring chainsaw buzz as they headed off across the lough.

Those are my memories. 

But there were other memories in play: the recollections of my mother and father and of the local men and women who vividly remembered the Yanks: even my oldest two sisters, Anne and Marie had been taken for a quick taxi in a bomber on VE day and sent home laden with goodies by the jubilant airmen.

It was these stories – and the sense of loss that permeated them at the way the parish had been divided and the community at its centre had been uprooted and moved - that started me thinking about a series set in the period when the airfield was at its busiest.

I imagined a family facing two ways: outwards, towards the airfield and its exciting but hugely intrusive new life: and inwards towards the parish which had remained the same in essence for hundreds of years.

My father owned a pub and I remember the RAF officers who came to drink there, sometimes bringing their wives: the locals drank there too and sometimes - packing bottles for my father - I caught a glimpse of the incongruity of two sets of lives in a juxtaposition desired by neither and often heightened by the ongoing matter of the Six Counties and Irish nationhood.

So I made Michael Coyne a publican/farmer. My mother was a teacher and so I made Rose Coyne a teacher. I knew the body language, as it were, of both occupations backwards, so writing their diurnal tasks was easy: second nature.

At the same time I took care to distance my creations from these people whom I knew so well.

Rose Coyne is English: wilful and volatile and exotic: a blow in, a stranger. She is a creature entirely of my imagination.

Michael is closer to my father in that he is a local hero. But my father’s moral compass was even stronger than Michael’s: he did what was right whatever people thought about its wisdom or utility.

There was no Emma. I had six sisters but none of them is a bit like the geeky ingénue of the series.

If anyone is close to a person who really existed, it’s probably Francis: geeky, priggish, wanting to be loved and usually a yard or two off the pace. Now, what small boy does that remind me of..?

My Mother and Other Strangers, starts at 9pm  on Sunday 13 November on BBC One.

Barry Devlin is writer, My Mother and Other Strangers

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