Larne woman and her mother tell remarkable story in new book

A Larne woman and her mother have published a book telling the remarkable tale of their ancestor’s escape from persecution in Russia, uncovering a story of survival, faith and courage in the face of great adversity.

Geraldine Connon, who lives in the town, first moved in with her beloved mother Beryl in 2018 as Beryl’s health began to deteriorate.

When the two women found themselves reviewing family photographs and sharing old stories during the first Covid lockdown, and as Beryl’s 90th birthday approached, Geraldine, a fashion designer, realised that her mother had a story too good to remain untold.

They put their isolation to good use, carefully piecing together their family history.

Geraldine Connon with her beloved mother Beryl

‘The Russian Tailor of Belfast’ tells the true story of Beryl’s grandfather, Philip Lepar Leopold, a Jewish immigrant forced to flee his home in then Imperial Russia 130 years ago.

In the midst of the repressive laws of the Tsars against the Jewish people, 17-year-old Philip boarded a ship in Riga, Ukraine, then a part of Western Russia, and sailed to new beginnings in the USA.

But fate intervened and, as the ship docked in Hull harbour, Philip changed his mind, urged by some hidden force to stay and take his chances in Britain, herself on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution and the explosion of large scale manufacturing.

Philip discovered a talent for the rag trade, working as a master pattern cutter. His tailoring business took him to Belfast and four years later he met and married his wife and raised eight children on the Emerald Isle.

The Russian Tailor of Belfast by Geraldine & Beryl Connon

The family’s story continues through two brutal World Wars, civil and political unrest in Ireland with Partition and the Troubles, and the unending curse of religious division and persecution.

‘The Russian Tailor of Belfast’ is full of over 100 beautiful and evocative images, thanks in part to Beryl’s devotion to keeping every card and letter she was ever sent, preserving hoards of photographs, household bills and personal mementos through the generations.

Handbags and tin boxes brimming with insight into the past took the women over a month to sort through at the kitchen table.

Theirs is a story about reinvention, self- reliance, creativity and serendipity, and a great legacy for one family to have been able to record, curate and now share with readers. It shows that even generations on, your roots can remain your greatest strength.

Tragically, and before they had completed their manuscript, Beryl collapsed in the kitchen of their home in October 2021, suffering terrible injuries including a bleed on the brain and a broken neck. Hospitalised in critical care, before finally being moved to a rehabilitation ward, her family hung in limbo for three long months.

Beryl could not recover and passed away in December 2021. As Geraldine finalised the book, Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine.

Much like her great-grandfather, Geraldine Connon founded an independent bespoke fashion business in 1985 and has been designing clothes for private clients for almost 40 years. Her designs have been presented at innumerable fashion and hair shows internationally and in 2018 she was a guest at the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange at Buckingham Palace London.

Growing up in Larne, Geraldine was a pupil at St, Mary’s for a year, then St. Anthony’s in Craigyhill, and Larne Grammar School before studying at the Ulster University, successfully graduating in Fashion Design in 1982.

After working for over two years in different areas of fashion she established her Bespoke Design Business in 1985.

Initially working from home, then Ledcom Industrial Estate for the next four years at which time she then invested in a business property on Glenarm Road in Larne. Geraldine has remained an independent designer catering to private and commercial clients for 36 years ongoing.

‘The Russian Tailor of Belfast’ by Geraldine & Beryl Connon published by Clink Street July 28, 2022, RRP £12.99 paperback, £3.99 ebook, is available from online retailers and can be ordered from all good bookstores.