Artist Christina Bennett left Belfast for a new life in Shannon over 40 years ago. Her story, as well as the stories of others who were among the hundreds of families who came to live in the airport town, is told in an installation called ‘Leaving’ which is currently part of Féile on Phobail in her native city, the largest community arts festival in the 32 counties. The artist spoke to Joe Ó Muircheartaigh about what inspired her work.
“We turned the corner and that was it.”
2 January, 1975
IT was the day that Christina Bennett left Belfast for Clare, ironically at a time when events in Clare had helped spark hopes of peace breaking out in a conflict that was ripping families and communities across Northern Ireland apart.
Those events were the Feakle Talks, when Protestant Church leaders from the North met with IRA and Sinn Féin leaders in Smyth’s Village Hotel in Feakle, out of which emerged an IRA ceasefire from 22 December 1974 to 2 January, 1975.
The ceasefire was then renewed on 2 January, but while the guns and bombs may have temporarily fallen silent, the Bennetts like many other families had had enough — it was time to uproot, get out of the city, the county and country and leave for County Clare.
“It wasn’t a normal life,” says Christina over 40 years on. “My parents were a mixed marriage and we were living in White Abbey area of the city — it was a mixed community, but gradually Catholics started to be intimidated and started moving out. People were being threatened — things like going to the youth club people had to have a police escort. It was a build up of events — things just got worse and worse,” she adds.
So they decided to leave, not just White Abbey where the problem of sectarianism was growing, but to leave Belfast and Northern Ireland itself. “I had an aunt in Andersonstown and she wanted us to move up there,” remembers Christina, “but my mother felt that she couldn’t go to Andersonstown or she couldn’t go to Twinbrook, because she felt she wouldn’t be accepted there.
“She also felt that my brothers, being teenagers, if they had been forced out of where they were originally from to another part of Belfast that they might have become radicalised as they would have been in that situation. It was a clean break completely down to the south.”
The Bennetts weren’t alone — hundreds of families followed the same path and came to Shannon that was coined ‘Little Belfast’, all of whom over 40 years on have their own stories to tell about what it was like. Like to live in the North at that time, the decision to leave and what the leaving was like.
Stories that are told in the present by Christina and now for the first time have returned to Northern Ireland as part of the programme of events for Féile an Phobail, Ireland’s largest community arts festival on the island that runs from August 4th to 14th.
“These were stories that I thought would be told,” says Christina, who is currently undertaking a Masters of Arts in Art and Design Education, a ground-breaking online masters programme at Limerick School of Art and Design.
“I got involved in community radio some years ago and making art again and these were the stories that were coming through in my art.
“I did a few interviews with northern neighbours for community radio and they were telling those stories. I began to think nobody is going to tell this story of leaving, and so maybe it had to be me to tell them. My Dad died, people’s parents were dying, characters were passing away, people with really important stories so I thought I have to start collecting these stories,” she adds.
‘LEAVING’ is a mixed-media art installation. As part of the narrative those who left for Shannon recall their memories of their departure, while their recollections are also written on the walls, while other memories are in the photographs scattered on the ground.
“It’s people trying to live ordinary lives in an extraordinary situation,” says Christina, “and the story of leaving is one that I always thought was really interesting. You had the Chilean community that came into Shannon at the same time. They were all our neighbours and there was a shared experience between us.
“You had all the Northern kids, the returning diaspora form the UK so you had English kids and you had the Chilean kids. It was a very eclectic mix and it was very exciting at that age, to come from living where you weren’t allowed out of your street, or outside your door past 6pm at night to a situation where nobody cared whether you came home or not.
“The story of people coming to Shannon was one that I felt needed to be more acknowledged. I twisted a few people’s arms and convinced them to tell their stories. The story we picked was the story of the moments of leaving, because it’s the one thing we all shared.”
One recollection reads: “Life before the move south was. I suppose, more exciting in a strange way. The ability to come home from school early and without trouble was in stark contrast to coming home in Belfast. No police escorts on the school bus, no gangs (the Tartans) waiting for you to get off; and no name calling (Fenian Bastards being a common one), plus being spat on.
“Shootings were common place an I remember one incident when myself and my cousin were left in a car while our mother when shopping. Shooting started and we both took cover in the well of the car, whilst my mother was panic stricken inside in the shop, not being able to come to our aid.
“At the time this was a normal occurrence and my perception of the time was not fear but of a weird excitement — the sound of bombs going off, Paisley’s voice booming during marches, streets blocked with burning cars or buses were all common place. Going shopping in Belfast city centre entitled being frisked and bag searches entering each shop. After coming to the south my mother out of habit used to open her bag to the security guard.”
“My family left so we could get away from it all. Years later I was shown a website from my old school, now demolished. The most depressing thing was the page showing all the past pupils, dead as a result of the Troubles, 27 in all.
“I remember seeing all their photos, some of the were my friends. One was shot dead in an ambush on the car on his way to work. We were all in work that day, word went around what had happened and then we all carried on with our work. That was it. No counselling in those days, I cam down down south to get away from it all. I’ve left it all behind me.”
And coming to Shannon:
“It gained a reputation as ‘Little Belfast’. There was work to be got in this new town and lots of houses to rent. It was like moving to a foreign country, TV didn’t start until about 4pm and ended at 11pm with the Nation Anthem. Surprisingly my Dad didn’t make us stand for that. My Mum was beside herself with us — we wouldn’t drink the milk as it was different. We wouldn’t eat a lot of the food as it was different.”
Christina Bennett’s own memories are as fresh in her mind as the day she left for Shannon. “The streets were deserted and we were all packed up in the car and ready to go,” she recalls. “My Mum and dad had spent the whole day packing and eventually we were ready to go and were sitting in the car.
“Dad was closing up the house and he came out and he was carrying a pint glass of water and he said ‘who wants the last drink of water out of the house’. As far as I remember me and him were the only two who took this last drink — the sentimentality of it or whatever. He went back inside and that moment that was the reality of us leaving.
“The car was in silence. There was me, my brothers and sister, my Mum and dad and nobody spoke. I remember the car pulling away and I looked behind me out the back window and I looked at the house and I watched it as we drove away — I just kept watching it and watching it as it disappeared as we disappeared.
“Eventually we turned the corner and that was it.”
They’d left and the next stop was Shannon.
Over 40 years on that the stories of the people leaving should come back to Belfast is entirely appropriate.