My great, great grandfather was called William Donaldson and he married my great great grandmother Martha Gordon on 16 July 1877 in Belfast.

William was a journeyman brass finisher by profession, principally working in shipyards. Shortly after their wedding, William and Martha left Northern Ireland for Scotland, where William found employment in the Clyde shipbuilding industry making brass fittings for ships. His job would have entailed casting pieces from hot, molten brass poured into forms created in a box of special sand.

The couple lived at this time at 62 Grace Street, Glasgow and it was here that their son, great grandfather, William Donaldson was born.

By 1881 the family had returned to Belfast, where William senior again found employment in the shipyards.

Both father and son William Donaldsons were Church of Ireland protestants. However, the course of my family's history changed dramatically when my great grandfather William Donaldson junior married a catholic woman, Teresa McCann on 10 March 1906. At the time of the marriage, the Donaldson family were living at 31 Chatsworth Street.

Teresa was the daughter of John McCann, who had died in 1901, and Margaret Smyth. and was living with her widowed mother at 13 Stanfield Street at the time she married William. However, Teresa became an outcast from her family as a result of her marriage to a protestant.





This photograph, is of my great great grandmother, Martha Donaldson, nee Gordon, and is date stamped "3 December 1929" and


William and Teresa had two children - William and John Francis Donaldson, my grandfather, who was born on 29 June 1909 at the family home, 33 Welsh Street, Belfast. Because their marriage was a mixed marriage, William and Teresa took the fateful decision to raise their eldest son William as a protestant and their younger son John as a catholic.

Given the anti-catholic prejudice which prevailed in Belfast just a few years later, this momentous decision had a hugely dramatic bearing on the course of their youngest son's life and that of his own family.

As a young man John Donaldson went to serve in the Royal Navy Auxiliary, a body similar to the Territorial Army.


John Francis Donaldson

James Donaldson, John's cousin, who died in June 2006, described John as "a very attractive young man, almost like a film star". No doubt he broke a few hearts when he chose to marry a catholic girl from another district.

It is not clear how he met Lily McGivern although she was a great dancer and John probably was too. They married in around 1926. Lily was just eighteen at the time. The couple had six children - John, Bernadette, Teresa, James, Arthur (who died at the age of four) and Kevin (born in England).


John and Lily Donaldson, with infant son John. This was taken outside the house in Carlisle Street where young John was born

The Irish civil war had ended in 1923. Most of the fighting had been in the south, but there had been serious sectarian rioting in Ulster, and Belfast in particular. In June and July of 1922 alone over 450 people in Belfast were killed in such rioting. Although violence on such a scale died down, it long remained a feature of life in Belfast.

 In 1925 the first ever general election was held in Northern Ireland, and returned a massive Unionist (protestant) majority. This helped to reinforce and "legitimise" the economic and political dominance of the protestant majority in the province.

As a catholic family, the Donaldsons were subject to both religious discrimination and occasional acts of sectarian violence. My mother Teresa recalls Lily telling her of one occasion when Protestant militants smashed the downstairs window of the house she and John were living in and set fire to the curtains. Lily, who was pregnant at the time with her eldest child John, was forced to jump from an upstairs window to escape.


Lily Donaldson (nee McGivern) aged approximately 21, with baby son John Arthur Donaldson

By all accounts, in stark contrast to her own mother, Lily Donaldson was a devoted mother. My mother describes her as someone who "made certain that each of her children realised how precious we were to her, who encouraged us to believe that we were unlimited in whatever we wished to achieve, and that she would love us forever and a day."

My uncle Kevin Donaldson recalls, "I used to stay at mom's fairly frequently, after going to the Waterworks Jazz and Folk clubs. She lived in a now-demolished block of flats at Lea Bank. Sometimes mom would talk of her early life. She said that her mother was not very interested in family life and wanted to be out doing her antique trading etc. I asked mom how she had turned out so totally devoted to her children, given that not-very-good example. She said she didn't know and went silent for a few minutes. Then, apropos of nothing in particular she started talking about 'Old Sarah'. That is the only name she used and I didn't get any clear impression of her age but perhaps she wasn't that old. Her mother [Lizzie] set the children up in a cottage with Old Sarah who looked after them like a mother, apparently in return for her board and lodgings. Old Sarah was very affectionate and seems to have been the source of the original "Eeh-Ah" hug!... Anyway the powerful sensation I had as mom described Old Sarah was that she was describing herself, so I'm sure she, Sarah, was the key role model."

A few years after being burnt out of a previous house, the Donaldsons were living in a large three story house near the Crumlin Road which was owned or rented by Lily's mother. By this time Lily and John had two young children, John and Bernadette. Also living in the house at that time were Lily's younger brother and sister, Jimmy and Bernie McGivern, both unmarried at that time. John's brother Willie also lived here as a lodger here for a while. One night in around 1934 or 1935 the house opposite theirs was burnt out by Protestant militants. The occupants of the Donaldson's house were issued with an ultimatum - "Get out or be burned out". Typically, Jimmy McGivern was defiant and marshalled everyone, including the children John and Bernadette, to a large room at the top of the house. This room contained hundreds of flower pots of varying sizes (one of Lily's mother's job lots). Under direction from Jimmy, the family used the pots as ammunition which they rained down on the mob in the street below. Despite being very young at the time, my uncle John can clearly remember throwing these pots.

Eventually a British Army patrol appeared. The soldiers knelt on the street end with a Bren Machine gun and bandolier of bullets whilst their Captain drew a pistol and ordered the crowd to disperse or they would open fire. My uncle John remembers that the captain had an Oxbridge English accent. The crowd duly dispersed.

In fear of further attacks, the family temporarily moved to Bellevue, a wealthy district of Belfast, where they stayed with a rich Jewish family who were friends of Lily's mother. My uncle John remembers their house being "very posh" and that he was confused because "the bed had two sheets and mom had to explain that one was for under and one for over - we only had an under at home!"

The family moved again for a short time to a slum area of the City near St Anne's church, known as the Markets area, before moving in around 1935 to Glenard Drive on the new Glenard estate. Here they survived an eviction notice served during the 1937 rent strike after which the road was renamed Holdene Gardens (my uncle John believes the house may have been number 48), in the Ardoyne district of Belfast.

The house in Holmdene Gardens was modern by the standards of the time, boasting an indoor toilet, a bathroom and a garden. But John Donaldson senior struggled to find work in Belfast. Discrimination against the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland was rife. The city now had a Unionist dominated Council which openly practised discrimination against Catholics in the way jobs and contracts were allocated and the Great Depression had seriously exacerbated the situation. John took work wherever he could get it.

My uncle Jim Donaldson recalls seeing his father's occupation listed variously on different official certificates as "fancy box maker" and "pipe fitter". At one time John Donaldson senior and his brother Willie managed to obtain work with a firm of painters and decorators owned by Alex Devon, the brother of Norman Devon who was the landlord's agent for the Glenard Estate. Willie eventually married Alex Devon's cook and housekeeper, Lillian, herself a catholic, an echo of the mixed marriage of his own parents.

By the late 1930s Northern Ireland had by far the highest rate of unemployment in the United Kingdom, and of course the rate was far higher amongst Northern Ireland's catholic minority. The final straw for John Donaldson came after he gained employment helping to build Belfast's Aldergrove Airport. He had only been in the job a short time when he was approached by some fellow workers who asked him "which lodge do you belong to?" referring to the militant Orange Lodge. He was swiftly identified as a Catholic and his protestant co-workers refused to work alongside him. His employers had the choice of either sacking him or facing a strike, and so they chose the former. Exasperated, John Donaldson chose to follow in the footsteps of many catholic men at that time and left Belfast for England in order to try to get work.

As my uncle John says, "at least in England your religion did not matter, although right up until the mid 1950s lodgings could advertise rooms stating 'no blacks, Irish or dogs.'"

In England, John Donaldson senior took work wherever he could find it - Wigan, Coventry and London amongst other places - and in 1939 he found work in Scotland helping to build naval defences at Scapa Flow. Throughout the period that he was working in England he would return to Lily and the children in Belfast for a few weeks every six months or so. In the interim he and Lily would write to one another. His trips back to Belfast however stopped suddenly upon the outbreak of the Second World War. For a long time Lily refused to contemplate leaving Holmdene Gardens to join her husband in England, fearful for the children's safety because of the intense bombing raids on English cities during the early war years.

But it soon became clear that Belfast was also not safe.

In January 1940, food rationing was introduced in Northern Ireland. At first only bacon, ham, sugar and butter were rationed, but later many other items were added to the list such as milk, coffee, fat, eggs, cheese and jam. Ever the entrepreneur, Lily's mother Lizzie made frequent trips across the border into the Irish Republic to smuggle back butter, eggs and bacon to feed to her extended family (as a result of its wartime neutrality, the Republic of Ireland did not suffer from the same food shortages as Northern Ireland).

During the war years a great deal of this cross border smuggling went on. Many people were able to smuggle goods to sell on the black market. Prices were extremely high but it was a price many people were willing to pay and so the risks for the smugglers were worth it. My uncle John often accompanied his grandmother on these trips (despite her apparent disdain for children, his grandmother took a shine to young John Donaldson. John says this is because he was "precocious" and grown up for his age). John recalls that as the train crossed the border back into Northern Ireland the customs man would salute the 6 to 8 returning traders and wish them "good evening ladies!" This was a signal for the woman to extend to him their hands, each holding a half crown coin. He would pocket the bribe and in return the bags tucked under their long black dresses were never inspected.

Out of the blue, over Easter 1941, several tonnes of explosives were dropped on North Belfast by the German Luftwaffe in two separate air raids. Belfast was home to the Harland & Wolff Shipbuilding yards and to the Short & Harland aircraft factory, which would have made it an important target for the German bombers. Next to the Glenard Estate were mills and factories manufacturing parachutes, tents and uniforms to assist the war effort. The Donaldsons were hit in both of the Luftwaffe raids.

During the first raid, which took place on Easter Sunday, 13 April 1941, a land mine attached to a parachute fell on the house at the corner of Holmdene Gardens and Highbury Gardens. The explosion demolished a dozen houses in Holmdene Gardens and another six in Strathroy Park, killing five people at numbers 73 and 75 Holmdene gardens and setting fire to all the houses in Etna Drive that had faced the blast. These houses were destroyed, including the house occupied by Jimmy and Kathleen McGivern (Jimmy had by now been released from Crumlin Road Prison. After the bombing the McGiverns were relocated to Bangor, where they lived for several years before returning to Glenard).

Lily Donaldson and her children had managed to shelter underneath the table in their kitchen in Holmdene Gardens and were unhurt by the blast at the end of their road.


List of fatalities issued by the Belfast Civil Defence Authority on 20 April 1941, recording three members of the Stewart family killed at 73 Holmdene Gardens in the landmine explosion that forced the Donaldsons to leave Glenard.

After the first air raid, the majority of Glenard's residents fled the area as evacuees. The Donaldson family climbed up into the Divis Mountains, the hills surrounding Belfast, and spent the night in the heather watching and listening as Belfast harbour burned.

The following is an extract from an article written by my uncle John Donaldson for the BBC's "People's War" archive ( which describes what happened next:

"The next morning, after the "all clear" siren, we walked back into the city to the reception areas set up for those like us whose homes had been destroyed. In the panic and the crowds my sister Bernadette (aged 7) was lost. Leaving my mother and baby Arthur and toddlers Jim and Teresa at the reception area, I went to search for her among the crowds streaming down the from the hill; fortunately she had been picked up by a neighbour. That night, Easter Monday, we went to stay with my mother's great-aunt, a midwife who lived in a grand house on the Crumlin Road"

In fact the house where the family temporarily relocated was that of Lizzie Dougan, the aunt of Joe Brown, Lily's brother in law. John's account continues:

"And on their second visit the Germans blew up our refuge. We were now truly homeless. Our maternal grandmother was a market trader, with lots of contacts all over Ireland. She arranged for us to go a farm near Newry in County Armagh, owned by a Mr Toy. He gave us a barn to sleep, with a cold water tap outside for washing, I can't remember how we cooked. We could only take this for a few days, granny moved us to a different farm. I slept on a truckle bed, sharing a room with two brothers in their thirties. On my first night I was desperate for a pee, one of the men handed me an empty Ostermilk( a powdered baby food) tin telling me to pee in this. My embarrassment was overcome by shock when he opened the window and emptied my effort over the sill!"

German bombs never again fell on Belfast but nearly 900 people were killed, 1500 houses destroyed and 26,000 people evacuated as a result of the raids of 1941. After the second bombing, the family relocated to a primitive cottage in Garvaghy Lane in Portadown, County Down. Needless to say, the cottage had been acquired through one of Lily's mother's contacts.

John, in his article for the BBC website describes it thus:

"it had a kitchen living room with an open hearth for cooking and two small bedrooms. It was on its own, up a lane a quarter of a mile from the main road and the same distance from the water pump; the daily job for Bernadette and I was to fetch the water for cooking and washing. The rent was two shilling and sixpence (12.5 pence). We thought it was paradise, surrounded by fields, on the edge of the town, with the sight of the Newforge Meat Packing Factory across the pasture".

My mother recalls that there were cows in the field behind the cottage, and that Lily used to talk about the cows coming up to the window of the cottage whilst she was combing her hair. Bernadette was once chased up the lane by some of the cows when they escaped from the field. There was also a big tree at the end of the lane upon which the Donaldson children would climb and swing.

The family were occasionally visited by Lily's mother at the cottage. My aunt Bernadette, who would have been around seven years old at the time, can remember on such occasions being made to read aloud to her grandmother from a newspaper, presumably because her grandmother's sight was failing.

Although the children were very happy here, things must have looked quite different from Lily's perspective - she had lost a brand new, modern house in Holmdene Gardens and was now trying to cope alone with five young children in a primitive cottage lacking the most basic amenities such as water and electricity. Eventually, after ten months of this existence, she told the children, "if we are going to get bombed out here we might as well go to your father in England", and she and the children set off for England on a boat carrying cattle and troops as well as civilians.

On arrival at their new home, 63 Oldfield Road, Sparkbrook, Birmingham, the family found that it too had suffered from German bombing raids. The windows had been blown out and my uncle Jim remembers that there was evidence of recent repairs to the brickwork of the house. Not long afterwards, John and Lily's fifth child Arthur contracted meningitis and died very suddenly, all within the space of a weekend. My mother recalls that there was an argument between her parents when her mother discovered that John had given permission to the hospital to carry out tests on Arthur's dead body. Later on, and after some small advance in the detection of meningitis, Lily admitted that maybe John had done the right thing after all.

In 1943, at around the time his youngest son Kevin was born, John Donaldson senior was conscripted to serve in the British army. He served with the Royal Engineers for about three years in France, Belgium and Holland. At one time he was stationed in Eindhoven, where he was billeted with a French family. John Donaldson junior remembers being pen pal to their son Pierre.



Jim and Teresa Donaldson outside the family home in Oldfield Road, Sparkbrook, Birmingham. My mother was about 11 years old at the time this photograph was taken. Note the house number chalked onto the wall.

After the war John Donaldson senior worked for Wilmott Breedon, a company which made locks. But he was a heavy drinker and was physically abusive when he had been drinking. He also had a tendency to disappear every so often for a few days at a time.

One Sunday in around 1950, my mother recalls a woman calling at the Donaldson's home in Oldfield Road asking to speak to Lily. My uncle John was away from home at the time, on National Service with the Royal Air Force in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). My mother believes the woman told Lily that John senior had fathered several children by her and that she was looking for some maintenance money.

It was not long after this episode that John Donaldson senior left the family home for good. Jim Donaldson recalls that once the children finally realised their father was not returning they were jubilant. Neither Lily nor any of his children ever saw him again. I believe that he died in around 1980.

Lily and son John in 1951



Lily in later life.

 Lily Donaldson died on 14 March 1983.