This documentary is about the women of Northern Ireland and Belfast in particular. It is the story of the changing role of local women in the north with a special focus on the rise of women as community leaders. It is also about the children of Northern Ireland and their prospects as the country turns toward peace.
The women of Northern Ireland come from a traditional, conservative, religious society where the woman's role was that of wife and mother. Men were masters of the house; everyone worked.
The industrial revolution made Belfast the center of industry in Ireland. It brought with it the tradition of hard work and a social life centered around the factory and the church. Little villages grew up around the factories with housing provided by the employer. Traveling through the city today one can still see vestiges of that culture; empty factories standing like stranded whales surrounded by little red brick two up two down row houses. These houses are slowly being replaced by new houses with modern conveniences, but residents will remember for some time, the streets that welcomed industry, the streets that housed family and neighbors; the streets burned in discrimination and hatred; the streets divided and protected by walls.
Before the divisions disrupted life, and before the textile industry fled to the Far East, Protestant and Catholic women had similar lives. They left school at 14 or 15 and went to work in the factories and mills adjacent to their homes. Between 18 and 22 they married but often kept working to supplement the family income. Discrimination was more obvious to the men. Protestant men would get the best jobs in the shipyards and factories through a system of nepotism that extended from the family to the church through membership in the Orange Order.
But both Protestants and Catholics thrived on the stable triangle of work, home and church. Although the Catholics tended to live near the Falls Road and the Protestants near the Shankill, there was mixing and overlapping in the factories and in the streets and on the Shankill Road where everyone shopped. They were neighbors. They shared many of the same values: belief in God and the family.
All that changed with the loss of jobs and rise of the civil rights movement, inspired by the American example in the late 1960s. As jobs decreased discrimination increased. The civil rights marches demonstrated against this inequality and the political structures that ensured its existence. In 1969, Ian Paisley demonstrated the determination of the Protestants to resist change by organizing counter demonstrations to those of the Catholics. The demonstrations led to rioting and to a confrontation that resulted in Protestants firebombing their Catholic neighbors' homes. Northern Ireland erupted.
The men on both sides became totally focused on the struggle. An already gasping industrial base, choked and died in the 70s. The growing violence by the Catholic Provisional IRA and the Protestant UDA precluded any new industry taking root. Ireland's pre-eminent city of commerce, wealth and industry, was reduced to a series of barren buildings and smokestacks. The focus of life moved from work to war. The economy shuddered to a stop.
Unemployment, deprivation and fear permeated the streets. Working class Protestants and Catholics withdrew into the security of housing estates based on religion. The isolation fueled a siege mentality. There were no parks or communal facilities; residents were lucky to have a post office and bakery in addition to one overpriced food shop and pub. New housing estates were planned to have only one exit and entrance; easily managed by the army if trouble started. Children were taught to fear the outside world; there were abundant examples of innocent deaths and beatings. The British army reinforced that fear in Catholic estates with 3 AM searches, rubber bullets and internment (arrest without trial).
The Protestant Shankill was also disrupted by new housing development that displaced young families, moving them to the outskirts of the city and breaking down the tightly knit generational family structure and support.
Catholic women got the first wake up call by the troubles with the introduction of internment. Their husbands were often taken away for over a year. For the first time, these women were alone, needing to support themselves and their families. They had to find their independence. Realizing the depths of their isolation, many young mothers reached out to each other to try to cope with their new circumstances. These conversations often started on the cramped mini bus trips to visit their husbands in prison. Together they moved past self-preservation to community organization. Women would patrol the streets at night to identify which young men were picked up by the British Army and where they were taken. This would be the only information parents would have about their sons.
The women soon wanted to be proactive and started evening programs to get the teens off the streets and away from the temptation to throw stones and to heckle police and soldiers. The women provided support for themselves and their communities to face the daily traumas of fear and violence. They became community leaders.
Today these women are still working with their communities. Trusted by both parents and children, they may be in a unique position to help people make the transition from war to peace. To do this they must rethink their role; instead of protecting and insulating the young people, they must start opening doors. But an open door is not enough.
Entertained by violence, surrounded by boredom, contained within the narrow boundaries of their housing estates many young people on the Catholic side have become passive, dependent, sometimes wild and often selfish. Drugs are a growing problem in the estates that have 80% unemployment. These youth feel they have no control over their lives. The community centers are focusing on giving these young people a voice; showing that adults want to hear what they have to say and that through organizing their own programs and talking about their needs and desires, they can move out of their mental and physical ghettos.
The young women of Belfast are facing an additional pressure--teenage pregnancy. Both Protestant and Catholic teens no longer feel the pressure of the church nor the shame of society, but they don't have the support of those structures either. Living mainly in the present with no sense of the future they are starting sexual activity as early as 12. It is a quandary for the mothers and community leaders who fought so hard for contraception to ensure a more manageable life to see their children dismiss the need for it and endure the consequences. Now these women are faced with the overwhelming challenge of showing these teens that there are other ways to become an adult, get attention, love and independence. The community leaders are not hiding from the problem, but actively working to help the young mothers go back to school, care for their children and find new directions for their lives.
In some ways, the Protestant women experienced a delayed reaction to the troubles. They noticed when services to their estates were cut; they noticed when their extended families were disrupted by housing authority planning and rebuilding; they noticed when the paramilitary dictated their comings and goings. The women successfully lobbied to reverse these trends. But for a long time the women accepted the fact that the politicians were Protestant and therefore on their side--looking after their interests. It wasn't until unemployment finally hit the Protestant community and both men and women were out of work that this group realized it was probably no better off than the Catholics and that the Catholics were ahead of them in getting statutory resources.
Protestant women did not suffer from the effects of internment, but by the 80s many of their husbands were in prison and Protestant women had to struggle on their own. Their children started to suffer from the isolation of their housing estates, the violence in the streets, the lack of work. Teen pregnancy started to grow. It is the Protestant women community leaders who are now aggressively addressing these issues and responding to the emotional and educational needs of the women and children in their areas. Traditionally, Protestants did not value education. They always had work. Protestant women are now reassessing their attitudes towards learning for their children and for themselves. They are turning to women's centers for self-development, education, training and the essential service--childcare. The Protestant women are aware of the community 's needs, but prefer a more focused approach to their personal needs first that are addressed by these women's centers.
Both Protestant and Catholic women have assumed leadership roles within their communities. Will this extend into the political realm as Northern Ireland faces the daunting challenge of reinventing itself? During the troubles women preferred to stay free of the sectarian labeling endemic in Northern Ireland politics. There is now a movement to get women involved, to identify issues they all have in common and to create a voting block in order to pressure politicians for change. The Northern Ireland Women's Coalition includes both Protestant and Catholic women. Two of thers were elected to the Northern Ireland Forum and one member was elec ted to the a city council. Women are also becoming active in the mainstream political parties such as the SDLP, Sinn Fein, Alliance Party and Progressive Unionist Party. They are still not very active in the front lines of the DUP and UUP.
The women of Northern Ireland have grown through the pressures forced on them by the troubles. Change comes slowly to this traditional society, but stability can be stultifying. Perhaps one benefit from the troubles is that it tore up all the old rules and assumptions. Women became players in the society. Because many of these women community leaders grew up in a religiously mixed and stable environment, they are able to see a different future than the narrow one viewed by most of their children born in the last 25 years.
The documentary tells this story through the lives of two women community leaders, Catholic Geraldine O'Regan and Protestant May Blood. Geraldine is the managing director of a community center in the West Belfast Ballymurphy area; May Blood is active in the Greater Shankill area.
Geraldine O'Regan married the year the troubles started. Her house on Conway St. off the Falls Road, was the first to be burned in the riots of August 14, 1969. Soon after that, her husband was interned for over a year. Alone and isolated with two young children in a Catholic housing estate at the foot of the Black Mountain, she noticed that the children in her community were constantly getting into mischief and that there was no organized activity; the children had nothing to do, nowhere to go but to play in the streets and throw stones at the police and army. She helped to start a community center and has now developed such confidence and leadership skills that she is ready to move into a broader sphere of city politics although it does not interest her. Her attention remains focused on her center that faces a new challenge. The youth of her area need help in preparing for the opportunities the peace provides. After being insulated for 25 years, they need guidance in how to embrace the new freedom.
Protestant May Blood is in her late 50s. She learned her leadership skills when she became one of the few female union leaders in the Belfast textile factories where most young women of her generation worked before they married. May grew up on the other side of the Falls Road from Geraldine. They shared many similar experiences as young women; they both worked in the mills, they both shopped on the Shankill, they both mixed with Protestants and Catholics. Geraldine married; May never did. Geraldine was burned out of her house because she was a Catholic. A fire was set at May's door because her father defended a Catholic. Displaced from the streets where they grew up, both Geraldine and May moved into ghettos based on religion. May is angry at sectarianism but proud of her Protestant heritage. Above all she is a grassroots community worker and is proud of her role and responsibility. It gives her hope for her country when she can bring people together to work for the improvement of their communities and their quality of life. She believes women have an important role in the political future of the country. To achieve that goal she is helping women understand the political system and to vote.
These two women are joined by two younger women born into the troubles. Tracie Dougherty and Edna Peden, both in their mid-twenties, continue the narrative by describing their experience of growing up within the sectarian divides of Belfast and their isolation as young mothers. These two women were helped by the Windsor Women's Center and are now helping other young women turn their lives around.
It is not all positive though. Eilish McCashin's Westrock community is struggling with drugs and the lack of law and order. Children play in the city cemetery and collect empty beer bottles and hardened bags of glue left behind by the hoods and glue sniffers. Many of these 13 and 14 years old are already experimenting with drugs and alcohol. The young women are getting pregnant. Eilish tries her best to stem this stream of chaos in their lives. She ponders the shift in fear. Just when people were starting to leave their homes and embrace the freedom the cease-fire provided, they are again driven inside, this time to protect their homes from theft and vandalism. Post troubles Northern Ireland has an innocence that was lost years ago by most cities; while coping with murder and sectarian violence Belfast was spared "normal" street crimes.
Women's centers have taken on a major role in helping women. They are assuming two new objectives--political education classes and groups for teenage girls. The need to reach teens as well as young mothers is apparent in the lack of organized activity for 12 to 15 years old who are overlooked by the traditional youth centers that cater to the needs of boys. The Shankill Women's Center has a dedicated group of teens who organize their own programs and learn about drugs and sex and enjoy the opportunity to talk and be heard. Geraldine O'Regan's Newhill Community Center also provides groups for teenage girls and boys led by peer counselors.
Women have become a growing force in Northern Ireland over the last 25 years. They are starting to turn their disaffection and alienation with the political system into an understanding of process and a desire to participate. After the 1922 independence in the south, the women who worked so hard for their country's independence were sent back to the kitchen. I don't think that will happen in 1997 in the North.