I first became aware of sectarianism in NI when Ardoyne was burnt out by the Loyalists in August 1969. Dad took me, still at school, to a retreat house where the people were gathering in safety and told me to do whatever I was told to do to help out with them.
I was hardly in the hall when an elderly lady wth 2 small children and a baby came over to me and gave me the infant. “You take her” she said “I can’t cope. Not with these 2”
The family had been burned out while she had been looking after the kids because their mother (her daughter in law) had been taken into hospital. The father was out with the men, pcking up the burnt out people and driving them somewhere safe.
I gave Granny a scrap of paper with our name and phone number and – I took the baby home. Mum’s friends donated baby things they no longer needed – pram, bath, cot etc and a wardrobe fit for a princess! She stayed with us until nearly Christmas, by which time the family had found a new house and were able to take her home.
Everything was well organised in the retreat house. The monks and nuns took charge of the cleaning and meals. A local GP and lawyer were on call for advice. I stayed there until mid September when the emergency ended. I spent my time handing out donated towels and toiletries and insisting everyone had a shower, every day (otherwise we’ll have disease running rife, as the doctor said), telephoning round other centres (no mobiles in those days) to see where relatives were “I’m here with the kids but where’s mum and dad? And my sister and her kids?”, sorting out donated clothes and shoes (mens/womens/ size/underwear / nightwear/ tops/bottoms/coats and jackets and then kitting the people out in them.
Waves of people were constantly coming in and then leaving as they found somewhere to go. They were all very quiet, even the children. Too shocked and exhausted to speak I suppose. Some of the elderly people, who had probably been burnt out before, just sat and stared into space.