Helen grew up in a family of ten, five boys and five girls in Carrickfergus.
“My early childhood in Carrickfergus was great, coming from a big family there was always something going on, we lived in a nice housing estate, the seaside next to us, the castle, walks on the beach… we were the only big family in the estate, we were spotted straight away, ‘there’s the Catholics’.”
“I suppose we were quite politicised because of the way things were. We were a large Catholic family in Carrickfergus and when the Troubles kicked off we always got the brunt of it. If anything really bad happened in Belfast we would have got our windows done in.”
After leaving school Helen wasn’t sure what she should be doing with her life. “I think the Troubles really threw me totally off the Richter scale, I should’ve done well at school, I should have passed my eleven plus, not that, that really adds to anything, but I should have done well at school but I didn’t, I just went off, I was too interested in other things, I couldn’t see any future, and you know because there was always something negative happening, I didn’t see a positive future. It was only when I decided myself I was getting a bit old and had to do something with my life, that I decided to turn it around.”
Helen went to the Belfast Metropolitan College to study joinery and carpentry. She was the only woman in the class. “It was all young fellas, and all they wanted to do was get their sheets signed and get out again. They were all getting paid to be there, they had employers. I didn’t, I went through it being self employed, I had to pay my fees.”
Helen qualified in 1991 with a City and Guilds Advanced Craft in Carpentry and Joinery. She went straight into self-employment and set up an independent workshop space for artists and craftspeople in Laurence Street.
“I took a space in Laurence Street and I was sharing a unit with somebody else who was fitting bathrooms and then things just evolved over time.”
“The bathroom guy moved out and I had the whole space and I was like… what am I going to do with it, I can’t afford it you know, and so then other like minded artists moved in or people that were interested, and I was like, yeah come to my space, help me pay the rent, and that’s sort of how it evolved, it was about having a shared space and it was shared rent, shared resources and shared marketing, and then we ran a couple of exhibitions, and we did this big invite list, we had wine and all, it was a real formal show, we had a couple of hundred people through the door, and I think people were hungry for somewhere to go and also there was nowhere really for artists or people who were in anyway enterprising, to set up business.”
The Laurence Street Workshops were set up as a co-operative. “It must have been the biggest mistake ever, for it was like the dirtiest word you could have said, co-operative? It was like saying you were a communist or something, so we thought this would be a handy way of moving forward to obtain maybe some grants to do the building up, get some tools, you know, all along those lines, but it turned out nobody really wanted to touch us because we were a co-operative.”
“Everything was on a shoe string, but it was always really enjoyable, and I think because you are hungry for something people can pull together and really work for it.”
“I think really the way forward is doing things collectively and shared, there’s no point in people struggling on their own. We really need to have people working together and I think as well, for artists, there’s a lot of wealth and experience people can share and gain from each other without actually knowing they are doing it. ”
Helen continued to work all over Belfast but the conflict made projects difficult. “…you would have an opening night and bombs scares or a ring of steel around the town that night, and nobody getting out….”
As well as her work at the Laurence Street Workshops, Helen began teaching at Women’s TEC. She would go on to become Project Coordinator for the organisation.
Based in Belfast, Women’s TEC (Training, Enterprise & Childcare) is the largest quality provider for women in non-traditional skills in Northern Ireland. It provides valuable facilities to women who are socially and economically disadvantaged, offering women new career and life perspectives.
“I do love what I do at Women’s TEC. I really enjoy being able to get a group of women in and at the end of it they come away and they’ve all made a bird box and to think they’ve never held a hammer before or a jigsaw before and they are all like ‘I could never do that, I could never do that” and at the end of it they are fighting over the jigsaw, it’s a great empowerment so it is.”
“….a lot of the work we do are short starter courses, we’re about trying to awaken people’s creativity…”
Working with Women’s TEC gave Helen the chance to do cross community work. She became the Project Manager on the “GUTS” project (Gearing Women Up for The Trade Sector)
“….in all the years that Women’s TEC’s been there, we get women who come to us and really enjoy the training that we offer and say, I’d really love to do that, and we say go down to the college. They go down to the college and they come up against the same response that I got when I went to college. So this project, Gearing Women Up For The Trade Sector, the “GUTS” project, was about trying to engage more with the colleges throughout Northern Ireland.”
Helen continues to explore the preconceived notions of women’s roles in society with her work through Women’s TEC.
“I’d love to see an age where women don’t have to work as hard to get to the same place as men….”
“We need to start investing in our own people… pushing new people forward, pushing new faces forward, new fresh ideas.”