Growing up in Belfast, Ireland, Kenneth Branagh says, he experienced life as fun, frivolous and carefree — the idyllic way childhood should be. But on August 15, 1969, everything changed. The young boy was in his hometown when he thought he heard a swarm of bumblebees coming his way. Instead it was a mob rioting in the streets.
It wasn’t just any ordinary disturbance. Tensions had long been mounting between Protestant loyalists and Catholic nationalists, and they had erupted into unimaginable violence, especially traumatizing in the eyes of an eight-year-old boy.
“They picked up the paving stones,” he told NPR station WBUR’s Here and Now. “Those paving stones a few hours later became barricades, and the world was literally turned upside down...Certainly my life was never the same again.”
What started then led to a three-decade-long period from the late 1960s to the late 1990s known as the Troubles — sectarian violence resulting in nearly 3,600 deaths and more than 30,000 injuries. Ireland was fighting to regain Northern Ireland from British rule, with the Protestant unionists and loyalists resisting the effort while Catholics nationalists generally wanted Ireland to reunite as one nation.
For a young Branagh growing up in the midst of all this, the political turmoil was a turning point for his life — and one that he’s now captured in his film Belfast.
Branagh's neighborhood was very close growing up
To say that Belfast was a tight-knit community before the Troubles is an understatement. Branagh captured it best when he explained that when a mother needed to call their kid back home for tea, they would simply yell out their name, which would set off a chain reaction as neighbors also called out their name until the child came home, he told WBUR.
“My Belfast childhood was characterized by freedom,” he said in 2018, according to the BBC. “Here was a city—a big city to my child's eyes—that always felt like a village. It seemed like you couldn't get lost. Everyone knew you, or someone who knew you.”
While his early days were rich in community ties, they were modest in every other way. “My dad was a joiner and my mum worked in a chip shop, and there wasn't much money about, and even back then, I was interested in the arts,” he said, according to Irish News. As a boy, he visited the former Grove Theatre on Shore Road, where he was able to absorb the wonders of the theater with productions like A Christmas Carol.
His life changed forever when the riots began
Priorities completely shifted the day the riots came. “That rupture was the most significant event in my personal life,” Branagh told The New York Times. “There was a sense that before that mob came up the street, I knew who I was and that I was at peace. From that point onward, a whole series of identities and masks was constructed…. From that moment, there was a guardedness, there was an inability to roll with things in the way that one had done before.”
After all, the basis of it was hard for him to understand, since he had always been taught to embrace all people in the same way, regardless of their religious or political views. “My father was always clear with me that if people are honest, decent and true, then it didn’t matter where they came from or what they were and what they did,” he continued. “As rosy-tinted as that seems, that’s how I feel.”
The young boy had started to see Catholic neighbors start to be targeted, but couldn’t understand why they were suddenly gone, WBUR reported. Technically, the Branaghs did fall to one side. “We were always nominally Protestant in the sense that that’s where we came from and that’s the church which we were sent to, but my father was essentially an independent,” Branagh told The New York Times. “He encouraged independent thinking.”
His family found a new start in England
In the end, despite their open-mindedness, the Branagh family decided to move to England when Kenneth was just nine years old. They landed in a town about 40 miles west of London where he worked to “rub the edges off” his Irish accent, as he told The Washington Post.
The big move was all action, and little emotion, perhaps masking the hurt of leaving a place and life they loved so much, but that no longer existed in the way they knew it.
“What did happen was the family unit and the individuals all sort of closed down and went in on themselves,” Branagh admitted to The New York Times. “Maybe there was a fear of talking about it. I think my family had to believe that the sacrifice was worth it, and how flawed as a solution it was or whether it was the right decision never came up. But it must have been under the surface in quite a significant way.”
Branagh has never forgotten his roots
Though he spent the rest of his formative years in England, that hometown love — despite the tragedies — never subsided. “I'm proud to say that you can take the boy out of Belfast, but you can't take Belfast out of the boy,” he said, according to the BBC.
In 2018, the city honored him with the Freedom of Belfast honors in a special ceremony, in which he wrote in the program what makes the city tick. “You could see and feel the limits of where you lived, and you knew exactly who you were — Belfast, working class, proud,” he wrote. “To come back home, and receive the freedom that so symbolises my experience of the city, is a humbling honor.”