Displacement in a Divided Community – Reality of ‘Troubles’ showcased

Clare-based artist Anne Stewart has transformed her own personal life experiences into a visual representation of life in Northern Ireland during the height of ‘The Troubles’. Ahead of the opening of the month-long exhibition, “Memories of Displacement in a Divided Community”, at Scariff Library Gallery, the Belfast native spoke to David Byrne.

'Bridie's protest', a visual artwork which showcases one of the many experiences had by Clare-based artist Anne Stewart during her time growing up during the height of 'The Troubles' in Northern Ireland

VIOLENCE and fear were the norm for Anne Stewart and her fellow Catholics whilst growing up in the mainly loyalist area of Newtownabbey in north Belfast.

Having moved to Shannon in 1973 to escape ‘The Troubles’, the now Kilkishen-based artist is set to display a visual exhibition that not only showcases what life was like for a Catholic child in the heart of a loyalist area, but also pays tribute to those who died as a direct result of such conflicts.

Stewart’s latest exhibition, “Memories of Displacement in a Divided Community”, revisits memories of her childhood, one which unearthed many distance truths during recent investigations into the past. 

“During the 60s when we lived in Rathcoole in Newtownabbey we were discriminated all of the time, simply because we were Catholic – we lived in a predominantly loyalist area,” she said. 

“Initially the housing authority tried to set up a nice new estate but they didn’t have enough balance [of Catholics and Protestants]. If they had put in fifty-fifty mix of residents it would have worked better but because there was a majority [Protestant residents] there and heavies that were in the Orange Order – they got the upper hand. 

“Coming up towards the twelfth of July they would stop talking to you. On one occasion there was a big Union Jack stuck in our garden. The Union Jack is just a flag for the United Kingdom but for us it was a finger up from them to say that they were dominant so it was very intimidating,” added Ms Stewart.

An example of Anne Stewart’s work, a piece on Bobby Sands.

The upcoming demonstration incorporates many prime examples of artworks which represent these distance memories, including  ‘Brdie’s protest’, a representation of Anne Stewart’s mother’s response to such intimidation experienced in their housing estate.

“My mother was raging over that so she gathered all her green washing, and her white washing and she washed them in that sequence and she saved up any orange clothes we had and she put it all out on the line like a tricolour.

“There was nothing they could do because she was just hanging out her washing. I made that out of handkerchiefs, representing the tears that were shed over the years with the victims of the violence in the North,” explained Anne.

As part of the exhibition, Anne Stewart also uses the medium of non-dialogue video to exhibit what life was like as a child growing up in a “violent and discriminatory” Northern Ireland.

“I have also made a video piece of the coping mechanisms I used when I was a child,” she said.

“When things got too tough I’d go up the hill at the back of our house. 

“I’d be very distressed when I’d go up there but then slowly I’d connect with nature. By the time I’d come down the other side, about an hour or two later, I’d be calm and I’d be ready for another day,” added Ms Stewart.

My mother was raging over that so she gathered all her green washing, and her white washing and she washed them in that sequence and she saved up any orange clothes we had and she put it all out on the line like a tricolour.

Having distanced herself from her early life experiences following a move to Clare in the early 70s, Anne Stewart began to uncover the unpleasant outcome of the lives of many of the children who attended the same school as herself and her siblings, one of which was Irish nationalist Bobby Sands.

On investigation she was shocked to find that 27 students who attended Stella Maris schools, which included a primary school, a boys secondary school and a girls secondary school, had died as a direct result of ‘The Troubles’.

All brand new buildings at the time of her attendance, Stewart also learnt that the Catholic schools are no longer in existence.

“When I came down in 1973 I drew a line in the sand – I said that’s it, forget about the North this is my life going forward. So, I completely forgot about my life in the North and got on with my life in Shannon.

“When I started to research [for the exhibition] I couldn’t believe that the school we went to had been completely flattened and demolished due to the ethic cleansing of the Catholics in the North.

“Where we lived is almost cleared out of Catholics, so there wasn’t enough pupils to go to the schools. 

Visual representation of ‘The Belfast Boys’

“I’ve made a memorial to those students. I’ve done an art painting of Bobby Sands and I’ve left out his eyes. The eyes are the window to the soul so I think it highlights that he was domineered like all of us were, we were all damaged as children.

“I have damaged the photographs, I have interfered with them – stuck them on glass and put them into boxes which are lit-up on the inside. 

“The whole exhibition is my recollection as a child growing up but also after finding out about the students [who had died]”.

“Memories of Displacement in a Divided Community” runs from Thursday, July 4 until Saturday, August 3 at Clare County Council’s Scariff Library Gallery.

The free exhibition is set to incorporate a talk by award-winning Irish journalist, Susan McKay on August 3, the author of ‘Bear in Mind These Dead’.

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