When We Were Kings and Queens of the Road: Sheena Wilkinson

1974.

I’m six and I walk to school alone, like all the other kids in the estate. P1s are allowed to be walked there by their mummies, but they’re only babies. P2s and over would die of shame. There’s a boy in P4 and he lets his mummy walk with him and hold his hand. Obviously he gets bullied.

1980.

Nobody else from our estate is going to my secondary school. It’s a girls’ grammar in faraway posh South Belfast. I have to take two buses across town, hoping there will be no bombscares or hold ups. On my very first day, with plaits and a beret and an oversized leather satchel, imagining myself en route to Malory Towers, I underestimate the time taken to cross the barricaded city centre, and I am the only girl in first form to arrive late.

A childhood photograph of Sheena


‘Not a very good start,’ says my form mistress, and the other girls, who arrived in their mummy’s Range Rovers, or who walked through neighbouring leafy avenues with their pals from the prep school, look at me with scorn.


I square my shoulders in my bought-to-last blazer and say, ‘I had to get two buses.’


A flicker – not sympathy, but surprise. ‘Surely your mother drove you, on your first day?’


‘I’m twelve,’ I say. I can be as scornful as them. ‘And my mother doesn’t have a car.

The other girls do not try to hide their amazement. Someone giggles. This is not a girl I will ever become friends with.


For the rest of the year I am the first pupil in school every day.

Sheena Wilkinson, 2023

Described in The Irish Times as ‘one of our foremost writers for young people’, Sheena Wilkinson’s eight novels for young people have won many awards, including the Children’s Books Ireland Book of the Year. She has been nominated three years running for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, the world’s largest children’s literature award. Recently she published her first adult novel Mrs Hart’s Marriage Bureau, described in The Irish Independent as ‘a gem’. She has also won awards for short memoirs. Sheena lives in County Derry, and when she’s not writing she’s usually dog-walking or singing, sometimes both at once.

On behalf of the Museum of Childhood Ireland and Robert Burns, we would like to extend our heartfelt gratitude to all of our wonderful participants for their time and their stories. We are thrilled to be presenting this project and we hope you will enjoy following along with us in the coming weeks.

Have a story on this topic and want to get involved? Contact us on our social media sites, or email us at cbrowne@museumofchildhood.ie – we would love to hear from you!

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of the Museum of Childhood Ireland.

By Chloe Browne

Chloe Browne is an Irish writer, curator and Art Historian, with a keen interest in objects and social history.