UL’s Dr Stephen Kinsella is making a documentary on those who fled Belfast – and is hoping readers can help him to understand what happened when they came to Limerick.
PICTURE this. It is 3am on the 12th of July, 1972. 43 years ago. The gardens of the Benedictine Monastery of Glenstal Abbey in rural Limerick are quiet.
A bus carrying Belfast women and children arrives at the monastery, fleeing the conflict taking place on the streets where they live. They have few clothes or other possessions with them. So on they drive, through the dark, with nothing, to Glenstal Abbey, as their homes burn behind them and riots erupt on the streets their children played along. When they arrive, the locals will call them the Northern Refugees.
Imagine this. The monks get a phone call in the mid-afternoon of the 11th. The bus is in motion. They have less than a day to prepare the empty dormitories of the boy’s boarding school housed within the Abbey, order food, and figure out what to do with that many people for what might be up to a month. The monks have no idea what awaits them.
Remember this. The burnings of the North and the battle of the Bogside in 1968 and 1969 had taught a generation of Catholics and Protestants to leave their homes as tensions ran high between Catholic nationalists, Protestant loyalists and the RUC in the run up to the celebrations of the 12th.
The annual marches on the 12th of July by the loyalist Orange Order, celebrate 1688’s Glorious Revolution and the victory by William of Orange over the Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne. The celebrations had become touch points in a cycle of violence which would come to be known – much later – as the Troubles, an anodyne name for a turbulent and volatile period in sectarian relations.
Like many great movements of history, the Troubles began with civil disobedience in the late 1960s, and would end after protracted negotiations with the Good Friday Agreement. In the meantime ordinary people have to try and cope as best they could.
Escape was the most logical option. Escaping to a monastery in rural Limerick, not so much.
Think of this. The monks of Glenstal are, to put it mildly, not equipped to cope with the long term residence of several hundred women and children, the youngest of whom was only two weeks old at the time. Some of the children are sick.
A local nurse takes one child to her own home to give her mother a break and bring her back to health. The monks rise to the challenge of accommodating and entertaining them.
The Civil Defence unit in Doon drafted in help from the surrounding towns and packages of food, toys, clothes, even prams begin to rain down on the monastery from towns and districts including Murroe, Boher, Doon, Newport, Cappamore, Killaloe, Limerick, and Castleconnell.
The parents and children are stunned by the local generosity, later writing letters of thanks to the monks now recorded in the Annals of Glenstal.
Consider this. On the 8th of August 1972, the last of the refugees returned to their homes, some of which had been burnt during their time away. Perhaps the stay at Glenstal saved some of their lives. According to Bew and Gillespie’s Chronology of the Troubles 1968—1993, 1972 was the bloodiest year in the conflict.
In one day, July 21, 1972, as the children of the Northern Refugees played in the fields around Glenstal Abbey, within the space of 75 minutes, 22 bombs exploded in Belfast. The bombs of 21 July were planted by the Provisional IRA. The Shankill Butchers are believed to have killed their first victim, a Catholic, that same day. Ten days later the British army began one their biggest operations of the Troubles, Operation Motorman, when they cleared ‘no-go’ areas in Belfast and Derry. The period during, and either side, of the refugees stay in Limerick is a microcosm of the whole conflict.
It has been 43 years since the Northern Refugees went home. They have grown up through the period we now call the Troubles, and are most likely in their fifties and sixties now.
I’d like to tell their story for an RTE documentary I’m making. I want to understand what happened when they arrived here in Limerick a little better, and I want to hear their stories.
If you remember those times, or happen to know these people, please drop me an email at email@example.com