The 50+ Group was established several years ago by a group of Republican women in Tar Anall, a Drop In Centre for Republican prisoners and their families based in Conway Mill, west Belfast.
“After the peace came, all of a sudden you had nothing to do, I had retired from work and I felt like nobody really needed me anymore, then we heard that Tar Anall was starting a 50+ group, it was great.” – Geraldine McKee
Some of the women recall memories of the last 40 years and how they coped with events that were to change their lives and those of their families during the Troubles.
“In Ballymurphy, before the Troubles, it was 60% Catholic and 40% Protestant. There were people in the street that hung out Union Jacks during the Twelfth. My birthday is the 11th of July and it was like a party to me. The Grosvenor Road was full of arches, I used to go over there and be among them, I had no concept of it being divided, them and us.” – Rosemary Lawlor
“The Clifton Street Orange Hall back door was at the top of the street we lived in and every Twelfth of July we were awakened at about seven o’clock in the morning by the lambeg drums, but you didn’t think nothing of it, I remember actually as a child going out and standing on Clifton Street and watching the Orange bands” – Lily Fitzimmons
As the Troubles broke out, the effects were felt in the places people worked. Geraldine remembers an anti-catholic atmosphere developing. She worked at Gallaher’s cigarette factory, the biggest tobacco factory in the world, which was situated on York Street. “There were very few Catholics working in Gallaher’s, and it was a very good job and a very hard place to get into so when I got a job in Gallaher’s I thought that was me, but when the Troubles started I knew that was not the place to work, so I left, you just started to realise that sectarianism was all around you.”
“You tried to carry on with your life as normal but it wasn’t normal, I work in the Donegall Road and nobody bothered us in all the years, you would be back and forward, all of a sudden people used to wait on all the girls coming out of the factory and they would have fired stones and threatened them.” – Mary Ferris
People were becoming aware of what was happening and what the consequences could be. Families were being put out of their homes, fear and tension was spreading.
Rita Murray was in America when she saw on the television the reports of the trouble that was taking place in Belfast. “I went over in 1960 as a nanny, as a lot of girls did in their teens, so I was there for a lot of years before I came back, every time there was something on the news my phone bill was through the roof because you could see it in part of your area.” Rita made regular phone calls to family.
“When Internment was first introduced a lot of people didn’t realise that it meant imprisonment without trial”, explains Geraldine.
“My brother was interned and it was awful we were totally grief stricken”, says Mary.
“It was 1974 whenever my son was arrested and interned and by that time the conflict was a couple of years on and obviously I was involved with pickets and protests in the street in a minor way, more locally than anything else”, says Lily. “You weren’t really surprised when your door was being knocked at five o clock in the morning.”
Eventually, Lily and other women from the area got together and began protesting on the streets. “We decided if the soldiers are going to be on the streets in the early hours of the morning, so are we.”
“We called ourselves the ‘Hen Patrol’ and we had the bin lids and the whistles, as soon as word got to us that the solders were in, we were out, there were six or seven of us behind the solders blowing our whistles”.
Rosemary moved with her husband and newborn child to Ballymurphy, it was here that she would start getting involved with her community, helping people who were burned out of their homes in Bombay Street. “So when interment came I was well aware of it, I knew what it was about, I knew what was happening.”
More women were becoming politically active. Lily travelled to London, France and New York with the Relatives Action Committee in 1978. “In 1976 when the British government put out the statement that they were no longer going to treat the prisoners as criminals that’s when we came together and we set up the Relatives Action Committee.”
“We hear about all the rebel men, but the women had to be mother and father at home and make sure they were bringing up parcels to the men in jail, whatever they needed. Not everyone had a car, it must have been very difficult for them and this was part of the fund raising in America, to send home to make sure there would be funds”, explains Rita.
During the Hunger Strikes, women went onto the streets. “The first Hunger Strike we were out, we were out seven days a week doing whatever we could to try and highlight what was happening, why the men were going on hunger strike because the British were putting across this thing…‘these people are just starving themselves to death’ …we had to tell people why they were on hunger strike, why they were doing this, what they were fighting for.” says Lily.
“My sister, who was a few years younger than me, her and I would have went to anything that was going, any commemorations, any marches, any protests at all, we were away.” says Mary.
When the Hunger Strikes ended Lily felt like more had to be done and decided to join Sinn Féin.
“After the Hunger Strike was over and the ten men had died, some of the people went back into the house, they felt just wrecked, they just couldn’t believe what had happened, but I couldn’t go back into the house, I just couldn’t, I felt no, it’s not finished so I joined Sinn Féin in 1981 and we opened up an advice centre in Turf Lodge.”
“Nobody helped, only ourselves”, concludes Rosemary.
“Communities really became communities, I think that’s when we realised there was a real community spirit about the place”, concludes Geraldine.