Ireland - Stories from Belfast

The Little Sisters came to Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1966 when the first community was established in Limestone Road. Subsequently two communities became inserted in the Falls Road area and later in Divis Street Flats. Over the following forty years they were to experience at close quarters the consequences of injustice and the struggle for equality. Working in deprived areas in North and West Belfast, had the added reality of active discrimination against Catholics. In 1968 a civil rights movement organized peaceful demonstrations to highlight grievances relating to voting, housing, employment, where Catholics suffered acute discrimination. The Unionist government banned these demonstrations. This gave rise to severe tension in neighbourhoods and so began what came to be known as the “Troubles”. The violence that ensued has been widely documented over the years. 
 
The introduction in 1971 of internment at Long Kesh (the Maze Prison), the “Bloody Sunday Massacre” in Derry in 1972 led to the disintegration of social structures and an increase in republican paramilitary activities. 
 
Witnessing the tragic effects on working class families was a source of pain and frustration. As Little Sisters we were alert to support efforts made in local communities.
 
The Triumph of Hope
One such effort was the response of Fr. Des Wilson who opened his small house as a “Place of Neutrality”, committed to finding a better way forward, where everyone was welcome and freedom of expression was encouraged. Listening was of the essence. Respect for each one paramount. People trickled in and eventually the fifteen person capacity of each of the two rooms was full.
A six-week “Come-and-Grumble” session had invited speakers from the Arts Council, University, Credit Unions, Care for Disabled Children, representatives from political parties, Religions etc. These opened up horizons from which people were enabled to recognise their individual needs and potential. For example, one poor lady, Susie, an epileptic, came to ask for help in reading and writing. At first, it seemed she was talking about a literacy problem but it turned out that she wrote poems and stories for her children and wanted to know how she could do it better. Being an epileptic, she had, from childhood been left out of things and was given to understand there was nothing she could really do.
 
Eventually, she became confident, acted in plays, wrote stories, poems, and plays for others as well as for her children, including the People’s Theatre and then published some of her stories and poems under the title “Poverty and Bliss”. From being an over- protected epileptic, she gained confidence enough to be interviewed on the radio. 
 
The following is an extract from an interview with Joe Reid: “One night Father Wilson rapped my door and said ‘Susie, we’re wanted down at the BBC and I want you to go on’. Who in the name of God would think of me on the BBC giving a talk! It lasted only two or three minutes but nevertheless, two or three minutes was enough for me on the subject of hope – hope where sickness was concerned – and he thought I was the one to do it! Well, in all my life nobody ever thought I was the best person to do anything. It changed my whole attitude. Des knew I was epileptic, but no matter where he was going, if I wanted to go, he said ‘certainly, why not?’ That did me all the good in the world; better than any pill ever did!”
 
In this way, over time, many people went on to do O level courses in English language and literature and eventually, the whole Education Project. 
From the “Come and Grumble” series, people chose to take up what suited them; so a number of courses evolved, e.g. creative writing classes where the writers who could act, acted their poems, stories, sketches, and others took on the staging requirements; some ecumenical friends helped out also. 
Some of the writings reflected the bitter conflicts on the streets of Belfast, harassment from the security forces, tensions etc. Others were very humorous. Humour was used as a sort of safety valve, diffusing tensions and establishing self-confidence.
 
Due to the scarcity of men (interned indefinitely, without trial) women ran the community. So, Women’s Issues came to the fore, resulting in Father Wilson writing a play entitled “The Trial of Saint Thomas Aquinas, by the women of West Belfast”. This was staged in many venues, including the National Seminary!! – Animated audience participation pronounced the verdict; not always unanimous!! So, the People’s Theatre was born and still continues to thrive. 
 
The School Refusers Project was started for youth who would not go to school and those refused admittance to school. This project also included opportunities for personal development and communication skills. Later, this youth development programme was augmented and today offers self-confidence/life coaching skills to local primary and secondary schools and youth clubs.
 
Another Ray of Hope was the arrival of Mother Teresa and four of her Sisters who lived in Ballymurphy. They were involved in the establishment of a crèche, choirs and art classes. A new sense of worth and self-confidence was in the air. However due to the conservatism of some senior Clergy, the Sisters left very suddenly, without explanation. The memory of their kindness to families and prisoners is still treasured in the local community.
 
In the meantime, Springhill Community House, Ballymurphy, was bursting at the seams. Additional space became available on the second floor of a disused local flax mill – the Conway Mill.
When the debris was cleared, the space was used for three classrooms, a theatre, canteen and crèche. Tutors and students shared policy making. New horizons, and unexpected interests emerged, “A sense of personal empowerment, an education, which liberated psychologically, economically and sociologically.”
 
Noelle Ryan, a Dublin-born woman, came to Belfast in 1972 to help in the deprived areas and was referred by the Bishop to the LSA on the Limestone road. They guided her to west Belfast where she found her niche in Springhill Community House, in Ballymurphy. She became deeply involved in co-founding all the undertakings there with Father Des Wilson.
 
The Springhill Community House
 
During these deeply troubled times, there were many victims of trauma, mental illness and general ill-health. Widespread use of anti-depressants was a serious concern and Noelle Ryan spearheaded the promotion of Complementary and Alternative Medicines (CAMs)
Such were the benefits of homeopathic medicine that “The Belfast Health Initiative” (BHI) was born.
 
In 2003, the BHI established the Belfast School of Homeopathy, to train people of whatever background, to practitioner level. Springhill Community House has always believed that therapy and training should be available to all. The four year homeopathy course, given at week-ends, led to a licence to practice homeopathy. This requires commitment, and students pay according to their means, and make up the deficit by various fund raising events. 
The school, based in the Conway Mill is run as a Co-Operative, with graduates, students and friends providing back-up with catering and administration. The school is in the process of being accredited by the Irish Society of Homeopathy. 
Noelle Ryan died on March 29th 2014. She was a deeply spiritual person, whose life shone with justice, compassion and love of her brothers and sisters, using all her resources for their betterment. May Noelle now enjoy her eternal reward. 
 
Our house in Limestone Road was close to an area known as “Murder Mile”. In one year there were up to fifty murders/attempted murders. On one occasion our house was raided by soldiers who mistook the sanctuary lamp in our oratory for a danger signal. 
For security reasons, Limestone Road community transferred to the Antrim Road and later to Thorndale Avenue. Due to depleting numbers, Thorndale closed in 2008.
 
During all these troubled years, the LSA mission in North Belfast, in Falls Road and in Divis Flats consisted of family care, home nursing, and social work, where, for security reasons, the people could not trust the area-based social security personnel visiting their homes on the grounds of sectarian prejudice.
Our Sisters provided support and care for traumatised and bereaved victims of violence; for prisoners, their families, for alcoholics and travellers. Counselling and psychotherapy were also made available. 
People’s faith was a great stand-by too during these troubled times and was helped by attentive clergy who were very supportive, which gave hope, courage and inspiration.
 
Formal peace returned to Northern Ireland after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Regular daily army jeep and foot patrols and police patrols left the streets and housing estates. The police service was “reformed” and given another name, P.S.N.I. Searching of shoppers too was also discontinued.
But there was and still is an uneasiness around. A minority of loyalists and republicans would not accept the Agreement and sporadically broke the ceasefire with sectarian attacks. But on the whole, peace was welcomed and enjoyed.
The interchange of State visits between the Irish Republic and England raised some sceptical eyebrows. Queen Elizabeth of England visited the Irish Republic and apologised for past wrongs done by her country in Ireland over the centuries. She was very cordially received and very obviously enjoyed her stay. Two years later the president of the Irish Republic, Michael D. Higgins, visited England and he too was exceptionally well received.
 
Did this give rise to a fear and anxiety among certain extreme elements within the protestant/loyalist community that they might be on the verge of being handed over into an all-Ireland thirty two county state? Hence the upsurge in the display of British flags on almost every lamp post throughout the towns and cities of the six counties, and the painting of kerb stones red, white and blue!!!
 
But things and times do change! The once infamous top-security Maze Prison now stands empty and silent, echoing only the calls of foxes and wildlife. The Crumlin Road remand prison is now a curiosity attraction for tourists. 
And the once awesome, sturdy looking Crumlin Road Courthouse, now in an abject state of dereliction, wilderness and eerie solitude, broken only by the squawking birds of the air, and the rattling chains of the “scales of justice” dangling to and fro with the wind. We thank God for these reminders that there have been significant steps of progress.
 
In these notes I chose to focus on Springhill Community House, Ballymurphy, as it has provided such replenishment for the many people I referred there. It was a haven of hope, encouragement and friendship for them and for myself. It tended the “Bruised Reed and kindled the Smouldering Flax,” with such Christ-like simplicity..........which echoes the hopefulness of the prayer: “Unite all minds in Truth and all Hearts in Charity.”
Sr Carmel, LSA - Belfast
06/11/2014
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