Joan Lingard

'I'm well-rooted in Scotland but for me it's more instinctive to write about Belfast'

Joan Lingard was born in Edinburgh but she is very much a child of Belfast, where she spent her formative years from the ages of two to eighteen.

Living in Holland Gardens in the predominantly Protestant east Belfast, Lingard grew up in a city at war with Germany and under constant threat of air raids. In a city in which everyone and everything is designated by the label of one or other religious faith, she grew up as a Christian Scientist.

Lingard’s first school was Strandtown Primary, or Public Elementary School as it was then called, in North Road in east Belfast. A shy child, she was not particularly happy there, but at the age of eleven she transferred on a scholarship to Bloomfield Collegiate School on the Upper Newtownards Road.

Her mother's death from cancer had a traumatic effect on the 16-year-old, leading to her rejection of Christian Science beliefs at the age of 18.

Lingard cultivated a love for reading during her schooldays, and read books such as Just William and the ‘Chalet School’ series. She stayed on at school to study for her Senior Certificate and after a brief spell working in the Ulster Bank joined her father in Edinburgh.

Here she worked in a public library before deciding to train as a teacher at Moray House. A teaching post in a mid-Lothian primary school followed, and by now she had settled into life in Scotland.

The Belfast years had left an indelible mark on her and were to prove the inspiration and the setting for much of her future work. Marriage and the birth of three daughters completed the Scottish identity, but in an interview with Tom Adair in the Linen Hall Review Lingard remarked:

‘I’m well-rooted in Scotland but for me it’s more instinctive to write about Belfast.'

A sense of place is strong in her writing, apparent in the quintet of Kevin and Sadie stories and the wartime story of Fräulein Berg, which ca[ture a city with its own cultural ethos and instantly recognisable identity.

Lingard is probably best known for the Kevin and Sadie stories, dealing with the fortunes of Protestant Sadie Jackson and Roman Catholic Kevin McCoy and their developing relationship in the hostile and suspicious back streets of Belfast.

Her first novel The Twelfth Day of July appeared in 1970, just at the time when Northern Ireland was facing up to the horror of shootings and killings, of street riots and bitter sectarianism. The theme of adolescent love flowering in spite of warring families is only hinted at in the novel.

Her second novel Across the Barricades moves closer to the Romeo and Juliet theme as the main protagonists Kevin McCoy and Sadie Jackson re-establish their old bantering relationship. Across the Barricades has become the best selling of all her novels.

The core themes of friendship and trust, betrayal and treachery, appeal to young readers, and although the love element risks being hackneyed the unusual setting gives it freshness and an element of surprise that carries the reader along.

The File on Fräulein Berg
strikes a different note from the Kevin and Sadie novels, set as it is in the Belfast of the 1939-45 war years. It deals with the often cruel behaviour of three adolescent schoolgirls who convince themselves that the German woman who comes to their school to teach German is a dangerous spy.

Other novels were to follow, for both children and adults, and Lingard today has a lengthy bibliography to her credit. Belfast and Scotland have been her main inspirations, although Tug of War is set in wartime Europe, and its sequel Between Two Worlds, published in 1991, takes up the story in Canada, a country with which Lingard has strong connections through her husband.

Lingard received the prestigious West German award ‘Buxtehuder Bulle’ in 1986 for Across The Barricades.

Tug Of War has also enjoyed great success and was short-listed for the 1989 Carnegie Medal, the 1989 Federation of Children’s Book Group Award, runner up in the 1990 Lancashire Children’s Book Club of the Year and short listed for the 1989 Sheffield Book Award.

Cathal Coyle