‘We may lose or we may win, but we will never be here again…’

Yvonne Watterson and the Derry Girls (and the Wee English Fella…)

Like so many Irish stories, Yvonne Watterson’s is a migrant tale. Born and raised in Northern Ireland, she graduated from Stranmillis College of the Queen’s University, Belfast at the height of “The Troubles” and taught English and music in a secondary school on the outskirts of the city.

And like so many other Irish stories, after her first trip to America she was smitten by the country; subsequently making her home in Arizona, where she had a high-profile – and at times frustrating – career in public education for almost thirty years.

She’s also a widely-published writer and a few years ago moved from Arizona to find her own place in paradise – a small lakeside village near Guadaljara in Jalisco, Mexico – where she continues to write as well as singing in an Americana band and, like most of us, tries to make the world a better place.

During the 25th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement this month, she spent some time back in Northern Ireland, and reflects here on home, abroad, identity and belonging.


Read Yvonne’s full bio at the Conversations page


Steve – Usually I start these Q&As by asking the subject about their first baseball game. But you wrote a wonderful piece in 2018 for the Irish Times about your love affair with the Boston Red Sox, which I thought was a perfect summation of the power of baseball in popular culture beyond the US, and particularly as a point of reference and attraction within the  immigrant experience. 

Yvonne – Yes. I LOVE baseball – it’s basically rounders 😁. And, maybe because home is the quintessential underdog, I am a Red Sox fan. 

Steve – I was struck by a line you used about being at the ballpark: “In the end, everyone shares in the joy and the heartbreak.” Sadly, it seems that’s less true these days outside of baseball and sports in general – as a community or society we don’t seem to “share each other’s heartbreak” in the same way we used to. So I’ll start with a very big-picture question: do you think we can recover our mutual regard and empathy, or is politics just destined to continue in a place where two “camps” go on cancelling each other out?

Yvonne – I’m not sure how to best respond to that question. You mention empathy and regard, and when I think about the nature of respect, I think about how it is not automatic. It has to be modelled and learned. Having said that, if you were born and bred in a time and place like ours, you may have been taught not to respect the ‘other’ tradition. It’s the same with empathy – it’s a skill that has to be taught and practiced. You and I can probably both cite too many stories of brutal and barbaric violence committed during the Troubles, and we also know that often the response from some people would be that the victim “deserved it” or it was tit-for-tat – no empathy. 

Another way I think about it is is within the context of the United States and the struggle for equal rights – yes, slavery was abolished, women got the right to vote, and the Civil Rights Act passed. But laws alone cannot eradicate racism or sexism, which are still alive and well in much of the nation. There will always be some people who lack empathy. These things that divide us  and dehumanize us are systemic – it will take generations of work to change them.

Consider those who can place a bomb inside a letter that will end up being delivered through someone’s letter box, and explode killing or maiming  innocent men, women and children; but, from a distance, terrorists don’t ever have to look their victims in the eye. They can remain detached, as County Down poet, Damian Gorman articulates so well in his poem “Devices of Detachment”.

Spare and searing, the words suggested that the bombs and bullets, the “suspect incendiary devices” were far less deadly than the “devices of detachment, as dangerous as bombs” our people used to distance ourselves from the violence, to cope, I suppose. Aware of it, yet so removed.  We were, all of us, very good at “detachment.” We know how to cope, how to  turn a phrase, a word, a hint, around and around until we have successfully distanced ourselves from the subject.

As Damian says, “We have coped too well, the heart is numb.”

To share in heartbreak you have to be able to see another person’s humanity. 

There’s a great poem I remember from school – “Strange Meeting” by Wilfred Owen –  about a young English soldier who, to escape the battlefield goes to the underworld where he meets a German soldier he killed the day before. It’s about the pity and futility of war. I haven’t thought about that in years. And, maybe it isn’t until the very end that some people choose to see the humanity on the other side of whatever that line is that separates us.

As for baseball, if you’re watching your team lose you’re also watching another team in joy. And, another day, it will be the reverse.  You win some, you lose some. You’re all there in it. It’s like what Lou Reed said: “You can’t have the magic without the loss.”


Steve – Like me, you’re a dual citizen and an American by choice. From your writing I can tell that’s something that has been as precious to you as it is to me. What was the first US election you voted in?

Yvonne – I’d never felt compelled to vote in a US election because I never considered myself “American” although I certainly aspired to the idea of the American girl, a Linda Ronstadt standing on the corner of Winslow, Arizona with someone  in a flatbed Ford slowing down to take a look at me.   My “America” was about the open road and all the possibilities that shimmered ahead. I loved and still love the idea of America, but what I have finally realized is that  “America” can be anywhere. 

In November 2019 – after almost 30 years – I became an American citizen. There were many reasons; two that mattered. First, that I was able to vote for the first time in my life, and secondly, I felt obligated to actually do something with my voice to stop Trump being re-elected. He was so far removed from my idea of America. I am still stunned by the fact that half the country might still vote for him.

I wrote here about my grandmother and why I became a citizen.

“Like my grandmother, I can barely remember a time when I did not feel the lure of America – the idea of it, the promise of a sunny day –  nor was I ever afraid to take what [historian] Doris Kearns Goodwin calls that “spectacular risk,” to emigrate. Having spent more than half my life in Arizona and the last three years in Mexico, there are still unguarded moments of dislocation that bring a crushing loneliness and a visceral longing for “home” and the rhythm of it. 

The moments pass. I find my way again. I am home…”


Steve – You lived in Arizona for three decades before deciding to move to Mexico. Politically, the state has been front and centre in recent elections – something that’s likely to continue at least for the next few electoral cycles. There’s inevitably been a lot of attention on individual political personalities in the state recently; where do you see its divided politics heading?

Yvonne – In an interview for NPR at the end of 2022 I tried to explain the extent of my disappointment in the division that exists, the personalities that are bigger than the people behind them. I have no time for election deniers and conspiracy theorists so I won’t even comment on Kari Lake or Donald Trump other than to say they offend me to my core. Soundbites about their right to bear arms ring a little hollow when every day there is another mass shooting.

I had an opportunity to get to know (former Democrat, recently-turned Independent ) Senator Kyrsten Sinema when I was a high school principal, a job that was the privilege of my working life.

Over the years, we made sure our students had opportunities to interact with community leaders, business owners, and elected officials during field trips, assemblies, community service, and our “career wise conversations” on Fridays. I can still see our students sitting on the floor, their faces bright as someone they’d seen on TV or heard on the radio spoke directly to them. I’m embarrassed to say I don’t remember right now all the people who visited, but every one of them made a mark on the lives of the young people sitting on the floor in front of them.

I remember once following a visit to our school, Carlos Flores-Vizcarra, the former Mexican Consul invited our Freshmen, many of whom were undocumented, to visit the Consulate in West Phoenix. He brought them into a conference room and told them with a wink that when their parents asked them what they did at school that day, they could say they were in Mexico. How they loved that!

Then-Representative Kyrsten Sinema was a frequent visitor as well. I’d invite her to talk to students – mostly high school Seniors – about the importance of education and civic engagement. She never declined. She was inspirational always, giving them reason after reason to believe that the Dream was right there within their grasp. The kids loved her – we all did. She was on our side.

She was always just a phone call away. So we’d call on her. An advocate for undocumented students, DREAMers, and for young women, she served with me on the board of an organization that empowered girls and young women to design, fund, and implement social change projects in their communities. She was a public servant, and I respected her.

She spoke passionately and persuasively to kids and community groups about participation in civic life. She encouraged them to volunteer at voter registration drives and citizenship fairs. They did. Undocumented, they were ineligible to vote, but they worked hard to register those who could, believing their efforts would bring them closer to the Dream. She invoked Gandhi – act locally – and they listened. They did everything right. And, she was always there to acknowledge their hard work. I recall the day she called to apologize for being late  to one of our assemblies to hand out certificates, her leg in a cast following a fall on one of her early morning hikes to the summit of Piestewa peak. I used to see her running on that steep and rugged trail with so many twists and turns that you never actually see the summit until you’re almost there. It’s unwise to run – loose gravel, broken concrete, dirt – and lots of hikers on the trail.

Most people who run, invariably will take a tumble – and Kyrsten eventually did too. But the injury didn’t stop her from showing up at school. She was there with a big smile, posing for pictures with kids who looked up to her. Some of them wanted to be just like her.

A former social worker, she had graduated from high school already with an Associate’s degree under her belt – a poster child for our early college. I believed her – we all did – when she said she cared about the marginalized communities in which they lived. I believed her when she spoke out against the inequities and injustices that affected them and their families, and I was happy to pound the pavement for her, campaigning for her even before I could vote for her – which I ultimately did after finally becoming a U.S. citizen.

But I would not vote for the Senator she has become. I no longer  recognize Kyrsten especially on the day she delivered another betrayal of so many Arizonans who trusted her, campaigned for her, contributed financially, and ultimately voted for her, Arizonans who forgot perhaps about that time she had been adamant against the recall of Senator Russell Pearce, architect of SB1070, the Bill that empowered local police to stop brown people – like my students and their parents – on “reasonable suspicion” and inquire into their immigration status.

On momentous days when we honor the legacy of Dr. King, Senator Sinema will tweet a quote from his “I Have a Dream” speech, but it rings hollow with many people, especially his family. Following her remarks on the floor of the Senate last year  Martin Luther King III had this to say: “History will remember Senator Sinema unkindly. While Sen. Sinema remains stubborn in her ‘optimism,’ Black and Brown Americans are losing their right to vote . . . She’s siding with the legacy of Bull Connor and George Wallace instead of the legacy of my father and all those who fought to make real our democracy.”

She could have been great.


Steve – The 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement is upon us. A few years ago, after 30 years away, I moved back to Belfast to care for my elderly parents, and was struck by two things: how much progress has been made since 1998; but also how much hasn’t changed and how much work there still is to do. Are you generally optimistic or pessimistic about the future for the place we were born?

Yvonne – I was in Northern Ireland  for my 60th birthday and spent two weeks in Belfast. It felt more optimistic than last year when I was worried about what I saw. Then, it almost looked like it was fading from color to black and white again. Maybe the ravages of COVID had something to do with that, but I had never seen so much homelessness on the streets, drug use on Great Victoria street  in front of The Europa, despair on many faces.

Then again, I walked every morning – to Titanic and the Big Fish, to St. Annes, to Queen’s and through Botanic. Did you ever imagine that one day we would walk freely on Royal Avenue without being searched; that there would be black taxi tours; or that the city would be split into trendy ‘quarters’?  Like a theme park. Perhaps I’m being cynical, but all of that looks like a reason to be optimistic BUT there’s money being made. 

On the surface – and maybe more to people who’re not from there – it looks like we’ve changed, and we have, but the recent shooting of Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell would suggest that we really haven’t changed enough. Even with the dignitaries in town – the Clintons, George Mitchell, Joe Biden and others – there’s a feeling that the other shoe might drop. The New IRA saying that families of police officers are legitimate targets – that is language from days I thought were behind us.

Steve – One of the things I’ve been most encouraged by in recent years has been the prospering of all aspects of our local creativity; with maybe the best-known example being Lisa McGee’s Derry Girls. What does the success of something like that mean to you, making your life in a different context, but knowing what it means to people from home?

Yvonne – For myself, Derry Girls and Stuart Bailie’s book “Trouble Songs” should be required reading and viewing for all students back home. I really believe that.  I’m not sure just how much young people know about what ordinary people did to make the GFA happen. I think we all learned more about the huge compromise individuals made to pass the GFA by that one scene when Liam Neeson casts his vote wordlessly. I’m tearing up just thinking about it.

Liam Neeson in the final sequence from Derry Girls

Steve – You’ve also been a freelance writer and I’m curious about how you reflect on how the media industry has changed over what has been its most traumatic quarter-century? How do you see the relationship between writers and readers developing in the future – in terms of trustworthiness and – especially as an educator – amid the seemingly relentless growth of AI?

Yvonne – I think we need to figure out how to use AI in ways that will encourage kids to want to write more and better. I’ve always said that we all need to expand our view of literacy – it’s not just reading hardbound books from the library or writing five-paragraph essays. It’s blogs and poetry and AI and figuring out SEO.

Everything is cyclical though; just like vinyl records have come back with a vengeance, I think we might also embrace letter writing again and real photographs in frames as opposed to the thousands we save on our phones. I don’t know. Nostalgia, a longing for the way we think we were, is a powerful force.


Steve – Finally, back to baseball, and to come back around to that initial idea of baseball’s place within the broader immigrant experience.

Phoenix just hosted a qualifying group in the World Baseball Classic  and the Mexican team played what were basically four home games for them, surrounded by passionate, knowledgeable fans who gave them an incredible boost on the field. It was great to see.

Mexico fans interact with local law enforcement before a game in Phoenix

The internationalization of baseball – and sports in general – necessarily encourages national pride. How important do you think it is these days for sportsmen and women to represent their countries?

Yvonne – I think it is so important, but against the backdrop of division – Northern Ireland and Ireland having separate football teams – it’s hard. I am always reminded of the Loughinisland Massacre. It was such a blow to the very heart of so many people back home to see on the one hand that jubilant scene when Ireland beat Italy in the World Cup and then to find out that Loughinisland happened. I spoke to Colm Smyth who survived that night. Terrible.

It’s important to have ambassadors who don’t politicize their sport – remember how we all got behind Barry McGuigan? It was wonderful. And then there’s Rory McIlroy – I think he has been and continues to be a great ambassador for home and for sports.

So maybe the American Dream isn’t really about being in America. I know I’ve said that before; but there’s something about it – and the idea of baseball – that still resonates in spite of the politics and the ridiculous amounts of money being made in both those arenas.

I love the quote from baseball writer Thomas Boswell about being “Born to an age where horror has become commonplace . . . we need to fence off a few parks where humans try to be fair, where skill has some hope of reward, where absurdity has a harder time getting a ticket.”   

In spite of all of it, baseball endures.

In spite of sectarianism in Belfast, in spite of the current troubles back home, Windsor Park rings out with “Sweet Caroline” when the Green & White Army score a goal. Maybe it has to do with an idealism that we all have. We all know what ‘could be’ – the Miami Showband was a blueprint for what could be – Catholics and Protestants making music for communities the length and breadth of Ireland, but they were massacred.

But music endures. 

Maybe there is just enough goodness to keep all of us pushing for that idealism – but some days it feels terribly out of reach. We’re all Van Morrison’s dwellers on the threshold, wondering what’s next, figuring out how to get there and who might be able to lead us.

I think maybe that’s why John Hume was and remains so important. He was so resilient, so committed to peacemaking, able to see something bigger about us – and for us – that the rest of us couldn’t see,  if that makes sense.  

When I was in Derry I went to The Guildhall to see Damian Gorman’s play about John Hume . Accompanying me was  Stephen Travers from The Miami.  It was deeply moving, and it will stay with me for a long time.

Yvonne and her partner Scott with Stephen Travers and Damian Gorman

The play centers on the lives of John and Pat Hume and takes the audience on a journey with them over 32 scenes from the late 1950s to the 2020s.  As I watched it, I thought about how John Hume had said in his Nobel speech, “We owe this peace to the ordinary people of Ireland.”  One particularly and deeply affecting moment for me was when Kathleen Gillespie’s cameo. She walks on stage as John Hume is arguing with Gerry Adams about the death of her husband, Patsy Gillespie, who was infamously forced by the IRA to drive into a British Army checkpoint with a bomb.

As you know I am working on a project right now that leads me into stories like Kathleen’s. You and I are both of the generation that knew the sound of a bomb in Northern Ireland. Even though I was always, by nothing other than luck, in the right place at the right time, it was from a safe distance, that I learned to recognize the dull thunder-clap of an explosion, the tremble of our kitchen window in its wake, and the stench of days-old smoke from rubble that used to be a hotel, a supermarket, a restaurant.

One morning not long ago, sitting at my kitchen table in Mexico, I typed the paragraph below, matter of factly, far removed, still at a safe distance. I’ve been staring at the blinking cursor on my computer screen and the blank space beneath it wondering what on earth I could possibly write next. What I do know is this – and I’m incredulous –  that whatever I write next will NOT be that Kathleen Gillespie got answers and prosecutions and justice and some kind of resolution.  

“For no reason other than to make more money, Kathleen Gillespie’s husband took a job working as a civilian cook at the Fort George British army base in Derry. For this, the IRA deemed him a legitimate target and made an example of him. They chained him to the steering wheel and pedals of a van containing over 1,200lbs of explosives, held Kathleen and the children at gunpoint in their home, and ordered him to drive the van into a British army checkpoint on the Donegal border. Thinking he had time to warn the soldiers, he opened the window and shouted out a warning, “Run boys! I’m loaded! Run.” He was blown to bits along with five others. Patrick Gillespie was identified “by a piece of flesh attached to a bit of a zip of a grey cardigan, and they found it on the roof of a bar over the border.”

So as the dignitaries at Queen’s University reflect on the 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement , and all that it promised us, I am thinking about Kathleen and all the others – all of us –  for whom that fragile vision has struggled to be realized.


Yvonne and Scott at an Arizona Diamondbacks game


You can follow Yvonne’s writing here and on Twitter here


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