"...stories birling through my mind..."
A literary journey
"...stories birling through my mind..."
What will happen if he ever stops?
I thought about this in May 2015 as I meandered around Georgetown with my cousin. The sun was glorious, the cherry blossoms in bloom and we paused to photograph the wreaths made from bulbous hydrangea on the cottage doors. Neither of us could picture Norman retiring, but he’d been talking about it since our arrival in Washington D.C.
Norman’s home in Georgetown served the public of Northern Ireland in the same way that Norman did. It was a meeting place where friends, family and dignitaries were treated alike. There was wine in the evening, and, on the Friday night, a visit to his favourite restaurant. He gave his time but never switched off. An email would ping at 10pm — politicians stranded at the airport -- and off he’d go in a taxi to sort it all out.
I first met Norman Houston in 1999 when I was an intern on the Washington Ireland Programme. The induction week was packed with activities as 30 students made their way around the White House, Capitol Hill and various other monuments of Washington D.C. A visit to the British Embassy came early on in the programme, and as the interns stood up and presented their competencies — horse riding, chello, sailing, law student of the year, student union president of this, junior party member of that — I froze and blurted out in a big Larne accent, “I’m Angeline and I’m from Larne.” Next up came the spokesmen from the panel, civil servants with distinguished careers in diplomacy, and among them Norman, who said, “I’m Norman and I’m also from Larne.”
Soon, I discovered that Norman’s favourite word was “posh.” His assumption that I was “awfully posh” by association with such talented students was immediately dispelled. And so we weaved our web of connections, not least the lovely auntie Helen, his second mum and a friend of my mum’s. Norman proudly stated that he was raised in a prefabricated house in Craigyhill —an area affectionately known as Tin Town — but the working class gentility in him was clear. He often told me that his Auntie Adelaide, who I got to know well on the school run, was a natural when he brought her to events in America, that she was bound to have been an aristocrat in a previous life. I think the same might be said for Norman.
Two of the thirty students went to work for President Clinton, while the others were scattered among a variety of impressive placements — from CNN to Senator Kennedy’s office. My placement was on the Project Children Programme with the much loved and respected Carol Wheeler. Carol also became close to Norman through the Washington Ireland Program, and I have been comforted by her memories of our mutual friend.
President Clinton aside, I wasn’t familiar with the names of any important American political characters. I once shook Al Gore’s hand, knowing that this was momentous, yet as I smiled and tried to make small talk, an inner girl Larne girl articulated silently, “I dinnae know this boy frae Adam.” I met many famous people, but cherish the memories of evenings with my host family, The Mylers; learning how to work like Carol Wheeler and the warm welcome to Norman Houston’s home, where I enjoyed the company of his wife and his young children.
News travelled fast when Norman was appointed Director of the Northern Ireland Bureau in 2007. This was important among our connections in Larne town and there were several dramatic conversations on Larne Main Street beginning, “Did ye hear?” Norman had secured the ultimate posh job!
One time, though, Norman forgot who I was. It was 2013 and he bumped into a colleague of mine in Brazil. They had been at a Trade Mission in Rio de Janeiro and I received a message along the following lines. “I met a very nice man from Larne, but he says he has never heard of any Angeline Kelly.” I called Norman and exclaimed down the phone, “It’s Angeline King!” We talked and laughed for a fortnight. A phone call to his auntie Helen regarding my "posh job" followed.
I got to know Norman’s family in recent years and had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of his oldest and dearest friends. One of the best moments of my life was travelling to Belfast with his family in 2017 to a Washington Ireland Program ball in his honour. If you had put me in a car with four Hollywood A-Listers — or Al Gore for that matter, I wouldn’t have felt nearly as special.
Since 2017, every communication with Norman pointed to a celebration of his life. There was something biographical about his last few years and I can see now that his house was in order. He told his life story and was awarded both an OBE and a Queen’s University honorary doctorate. Our last email communication was in November 2020, when I invited him to attend the Zoom book launch for Dusty Bluebells. (How I regret not hearing his voice on that call! He was on MUTE!) He had been supportive since I had ditched the "posh job" to become a novelist, although I know rightly that he thought I was bonkers. You see, Norman had a way of keeping you on your toes and had an interest in “pulling up” his fellow Larnians. When I said I was a doing a PhD as Writer in Residence of Ulster University, he was happy for me and immediately threw out a few names of people I should get to know. My last proper email to Norman, when he told me some funny stories about life in Belfast before moving into his apartment in Cherry Valley, ended, “P.S. You should write a memoir.”
The memoir was not to be.
I never had the chance to meet Norman’s mother, Margaret Houston, who passed away in November 2011. Regrettably, I missed her funeral, but he talked often about that day — the pride he felt that a wee working woman like his mum should have such a grand farewell. Leading politicians from all political parties in Northern Ireland, including Martin Maguiness and Peter Robinson, were there in the Old Presbyterian Church at the Head of the Town in Larne, which tells more about Norman as a professional, and indeed peacekeeper, than anything else. Norman’s unexpected death on 12 January 2021 came at a time of Covid restrictions, when the hundreds of people who would have lined the streets of Larne in his honour had to stay at home, but there’s something touching — and fitting — in the farewell accorded to his mother.
The memorial service for Norman, by Zoom, of course, was a whirlwind of dignitaries and friends providing insights into his life. I watched on in awe, realising that I only knew a tiny part of Norman. The addresses by his children, Chloe and Connor, were particularly emotional. Norman was a good father.
When Sir James Galway, our childhood family hero, appeared at Norman Houston’s memorial service playing ‘Danny Boy,’ it was so magical that I wondered after if I’d dreamt it. It was as though the man with the golden flute was playing for every Larne dad who had ever died.
The memorial, although moving, was incomplete. I wanted to be with his friends and family and have a wee yarn about Norman. I hope for many more years to have yarns about Norman, a great Irish peacekeeper, the most humble diplomat the UK has ever known — the boy from Tin Town who worked his way up to Northern Ireland’s poshest job!
Scene from Snugville Street
The Wedding Wisp
82 Waterloo Road
The Teacher Voice
The Children of Latharna
The Band Stick
The Bully up the Brae
History & folklore
Language Blog I
Language Blog II
Language Blog III
Language Blog IV
The linguist behind Ulster Scots.
Kailyard & Dusty Bluebells
Jean Park of Ballygally
Fiddles and Melodeons
Martha Taylor's diary
Jean McCullagh at 104
Ballymena & the McConnells
Arms in Irish Dancing
Catholics & Protestants in Irish dancing
Irish Dancing: The Festival Story
The Protestant in Irish Fiction.
The Protestant in Irish fiction II
Ulster-Scots in Irish Fiction
An author in Wonderland
Dancing in Victorian Ulster
Learning the Irish Language.
John Hewitt Summer School
Lesley Allen & Helen Nicholl