A new five-part Masterpiece series on PBS opens with an older man’s voiceover recollecting the summer of 1943, a time when his mother fancied a man other than his father, and when thousands of strangers from America bumped up against his tiny village in Northern Island. Set in World War II, My Mother and Other Strangers explores the culture clash between the local Irish and the Americans stationed at a U.S. Army Air Force Base, and the tensions within a marriage and family of five.
Hattie Morahan (Sense and Sensibility) stars as Englishwoman Rose Coyne, mother to Emma, Kate and Francis. Owen McDonnell (An Klondike) is her loving husband Michael, a Northern Irishman who realizes he never lived up to her dreams after first winning her heart in England. Into their lives steps Aaron Staton (Mad Men) as Captain Ronald Dreyfuss, the honorable American officer who upends Rose’s life.
Rose and Ronald share a love of literature and neither fit into their communities — an ache where they find common ground. Northern Ireland may be part of the United Kingdom, but to be born and raised in England does not a local make, even if you’re a local school teacher and shopkeeper whose native husband owns the pub and hardware store. Captain Dreyfus is a Tennyson-quoting former journalist, and like many American men at the start of World War II, must adjust to the ways of military life, in his case, as a liaison officer for the US Army Air Force.
The Lay of the Land in World War II
The Republic of Ireland became defacto independent from the United Kingdom in 1921 and was neutral during World War II. In 1939 Northern Island, a country of the United Kingdom, declared its support for Great Britain in World War II. Among Northern Ireland’s contributions to the war was serving as one of the main bases to prepare for the Normandy landings in June 1944. Just over 10% of the 38,000 Northern Irish enlisted in the armed forces died during the war.
The “two Irelands” share the island of Ireland, with Northern Ireland’s borders encompassing the northeast of the island. Five of Northern Ireland’s six counties have a shoreline along the central Lough Neagh, Europe’s 15th largest freshwater lake.
The US Army Air Force arrived in Northern Ireland in January 1942. Its largest presence was on the eastern shores of Lough Neagh at Langford Lodge [AAF Stn 597], a base that provided logistical support for the Royal British Air Force. The civilian Lockheed Overseas Corporation operated the base for the US Air Force until May 1944. According to the Ulster Aviation Society in Northern Ireland, a “snapshot” survey of the base on January 1, 1944 totaled 6,900 personnel: 2,913 locals, 2,883 Lockheed Overseas Corporation civilians and 1,104 US military.
My Mother and Other Strangers is a production of BBC Northern Island and filming locations were both true to historic settings and a bit farther afield. The former USAAF Langford Lodge on the shores of Lough Neagh is still part of the aircraft industry as Langford Lodge, manufacturing ejector seats for various air forces around the world. Will Lindsay, author of Wartime Langford Lodge and an employee, recalls “My Mother” filming the USAAF’s former living accommodations, just off the airfield. The normally dark hours of the early morning and evening were transformed to daylight by the massive floodlights. See Lindsay’s site www.langfordlodge.webs.com for wartime history, archival photos and videos.
The series’ village Moybeg is fictional, but its set location is a genuine Irish village, albeit on the Irish Sea instead of Lough Neagh. The traditional 19th-century fishing village on the southern tip of the Ards Peninsula is maintained by the National Trust. BBC Northern Ireland contributed a fresh coat of white paint on some of the houses for Kearney’s role as “Moybeg”. If you decide to visit, here’s a suggested Kearney walking trail along the Irish Sea coast.
Filming also took place in and around the capital Belfast, roughly 19 miles east of Lough Neagh.
Pocket Guide to Northern Ireland
Americans in 1942 were largely familiar with Irish-American culture, though even those with Irish heritage weren’t necessarily up to speed on Irish etiquette or the stark differences between the two Irelands. The US government-issued Pocket Guide to Northern Ireland is a fun read as a travel guide and book of manners intended for military men. One of the many words of advice covers the topic of religion:
The five-part My Mother and Other Strangers begins Sunday, June 18 at 8pm on PBS. Episodes will stream for two weeks after broadcast date.