Born in 1947 in Hopewell Street at the bottom of the Shankill Road, Helen remembers the late 1960s and the first time that real “trouble” started on the Shankill Road, with rioting and flares being shot into the air.
“I was getting the baby ready for bed when my mum and my aunt Annie came up, they were worried about me and they said ‘listen come down to our house so we are all together, a guy from the Shankill Road was shot that night”.
As the Troubles worsened more soldiers were walking the streets, Helen remembers the first time she saw soldiers.
“My husband’s family lived in Dover Street and that’s where we first saw the soldiers. We were welcoming them in because we didn’t want any trouble, but we thought they would be away home the next week”.
“I didn’t really know what was happening in the political world, I was apolitical”.
By the early 1970s the atmosphere in Belfast was leading to much fear and apprehension.
“It was awful to tell you the truth, there was a period in my life when I just decided I wasn’t going to go into the town at all, I didn’t want to pass a parked car, it was frightening.”
During the redevelopment of the Shankill many families were being moved to other locations. When Helen moved with her family to the Glencairn estate in North Belfast, she noticed the heating system in the new houses was not finished.
“So this is when I thought, we’re going to have to do something about this, I think that was the first community objective that I thought we could do something about”.
In 1974 a group was formed the Glencairn Residents Association, to lobby for change in the poor housing conditions.
Helen was later involved in the Peace People as well as initiatives to try and make Glencairn a better, safer place.
One day listening to the radio she heard Betty Williams talking about children and their mother who had been run over by a car. The driver had been shot by the British authorities at a check point. Betty was at the scene and helped the children and their mother, but later the children died.
“Betty was in the same frame of mind as what we would have been and the people in Glencairn would have been, we have to do something to stop this, this is madness, it’s all getting out of control”.
Helen attended a march on the Andersontown Road. The march led to the formation of the Peace People. Helen would continue to attend every march and protest.
In the late seventies, Glencairn had a poor reputation and was seen as a ‘no go area’ for the police. A petition was completed to inform the police that the residents were not going to stand by and ignore the increasing violence in the estate. Eventually the police did come back to police the area.
By the early 1980s Helen applied for a job at the Glencairn Community Development Association.
“By then I was able to get to grips with what was needed to be done”
She was successful and proceeded to help make many improvements in the Glencairn estate.
In 2001 Helen moved briefly to Turkey but came back to Belfast.
“We lived on a beach but it was good to come back home”
Helen still supports her community today. It is a community that has seen many changes. The Glencairn estate experienced very bleak periods during the Troubles, but Helen and fellow residents were determined to improve their lives and the live of others.
“Hard times do bring people together, you find it brings out the best in people or it can bring out the worst on people but I always found there were really good sorts in the Glencairn.”