Mo was born on the Donegall Road in Matilda Street and moved to Ashley Avenue on the Lisburn Road in south Belfast when she was 5 years old.
“It was not the Golden Mile, but it was an area of warm people, again there was a cohesion, not so much in the street situation, but you did have neighbours caring for each other.”
Growing up as a child in the 1950s and 1960s, Mo didn’t become aware of social issues in Northern Ireland until the 1960s.
“When I was at second level school Mr. Paisley raised his head. There suddenly was a consciousness of the division between the Catholic community and the Protestant community. I wasn’t Presbyterian, Church of Ireland or Methodist. I was a Baptist and I remember when one of the Ministers asked me to recite and I couldn’t do it so I had to leave.”
From a young age Mo exhibited a keen interest in art.
“My own personal enjoyment was drawing. Art became a very expressive mode for me, plus my music. I had a lot of activities growing up. The school put my work in for competitions and I would be winning prizes.”
Mo pursued her interest in art and moved to England to enrol in art college. Although she moved away from the Troubles it still affected her new academic life. “The Troubles did affect the college, it was damaged with the Arcade Bomb. In actual fact we didn’t have a graduation ceremony because of the violence and the lack of safety, the law didn’t allow you to have public gatherings.”
Upon graduating her course, Mo applied all across the United Kingdom to enrol in a Postgraduate Course in 1972. She was subjected to anti-Irish discrimination.
“When I arrived in Leeds I needed somewhere to stay that night. Anywhere I went, they had signs on the door ‘No blacks, No Irish, No gypsies.’ We got through that year but I have to say, I was pulled out of telephone boxes, launderettes. You opened your mouth and the hostility was quite offensive and I really wasn’t able for that. It was quite a difficult period.”
Unable to face the hostile treatment in England Mo turned down three job offers to return home to apply for work in Dublin.
“I’d been caught up in Bloody Friday, there were 28 bombs in Belfast, it was very traumatic. A few weeks later the pub at the corner was blown up and I was up helping to clean up. One of the schools rang, and I was offered the job as Head of the Department and I was quite shocked.”
Mo articulates on community arts in Dublin.
“In a way, there were no community arts. There were arts, theatre was brilliant, music was brilliant and the Friday night concerts were great. In actual fact art wasn’t a feature in the schools. After seven years I went and I worked in a young offenders unit for 18 months and that taught me a lot. My first experience of a home visit, I couldn’t believe there was poverty in Ireland in the 1980s, it had to be witnessed to be seen.”
The College of Art offered Mo a part time position that developed into a full time lectureship in 1981.
“I was involved in the training of teachers which gave me a great opportunity to raise the profile of the significance of art, the influence of art not only to the individual but to society and industry. You have to explain to people, you just don’t do art because you’re thick; it’s a separate form of intelligence. I was able to contribute to a new understanding of art.”
After suffering from serious health problems, Mo left a lasting initiative with the Public Health Service.
“For my neurosurgery I had to go into a public hospital and I just found that unbelievable. From that experience, I decided, with my neurosurgeon, that they had to do something about art in public hospitals. Dublin County Council brought it into legislation. So public hospitals and other buildings have a percentage of their costing that goes towards art. Now new hospitals have fantastic sculptures and water features that bring art to the people.”
Mo returned to Belfast and established studios for artists.
“I took over Studio 23 which was one of the abandoned warehouses in Dunmurry Industrial Estate. The reason I took them over was because I came back as an older woman, I had retired and I wanted an additional studio. I put a lot of money into refurbishing.”
On issues of community development and isolation Mo says,
“I’m a member of Brainwaves Northern Ireland. The whole process of neurosurgery is very isolating and a lot of people suffer from depression. What I have discovered is an overwhelming amount of people suffer from depression and bi-polar. I think what people need is a listening ear, an openness, a place to connect with. I never took Studio 23 on very deliberately it just grew organically. I would like to see that as a seed, I would hope to have it as a place where people could come and feel safe, where groups could come and discuss things openly without prejudice. We provide classes in the forms of art therapy and in painting and crafts. When people are working in a practical way, they work on two levels of consciousness and they talk, and talking is good. People need to get out there and talk to real people and having the excuse of going to a class is one way of doing it. I think people need to find their confidence and express their joy. Life is very short you know, you don’t know from one day to the next whether you’re going to be here or not. People should appreciate and celebrate every day they have irrespective of what their problems are.”
On the future of Northern Ireland Mo feels,
“Without disrespecting our past, we need to find our joy. And we need to find it for the next generation, they need to learn about sharing and coping and being cheerful.”
And on the legacy of community arts in Northern Ireland.
“Art does not always belong in a gallery, it belongs out there with the people, the legacy I think that Northern Ireland leaves is, we did it and we did it ourselves without much funding. And sure isn’t that the truth of it?”