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A family’s tale of running the Ardoyne gauntlet

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

Not many parents and their children are greeted on the first day of school with the massed ranks of a police riot squad, and then in the weeks that follow must run a gauntlet of hate-filled rhetoric, bricks, bottles, stones and blast bombs to see to it that their daughters reach the classroom. But until this week, when loyalist protesters called off their action, this was the experience of 39-year-old mother of three Patricia Monaghan whose 8-year old daughter, Rebekah, is a pupil at the Holy Cross Girls’ School in the Ardoyne area of North Belfast.

Monaghan was in the U.S. for just over a week to talk about what happened, on a trip sponsored by New Jersey units of the AOH, the Irish Political Prisoners’ Children’s Holiday Fund, the Trenton St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee, and Irish Northern Aid, as well as the AOH in Bristol, Penn.

Her tale like that of the other Catholic parents who for almost three months braved the hostility of the Protestant protesters is a nightmare of bigotry and violence all the more shocking because of its target — schoolgirls between the ages of 5 and 11. In the first days of September their tear-stained, frightened faces were broadcast around a disbelieving world that would soon have other improbable horrors to arrest its attention.

“They shouted sexual obscenities,” Monaghan recalled those first days of the protests, “called the girls sluts, whores, and said, ‘Do you know who your fathers are? All the priests are your fathers.’ They flashed filthy pictures at them.”

A woman protester, who Monaghan identified as a local community worker, was prominent in displaying the pornography.

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Asked why anyone would want to behave this way, Monaghan seemed as bereft of an explanation as is the rest of the world.

“Why would anyone want to call a child going up the road a whore and a slut? When a child one day fell and cut her knee the whole crowd stood and laughed,” she said with resignation. “You ask me to explain . . . you can’t explain that type of stuff. There’s nothing that I am aware of that the parents or the children did — the children never attacked any houses. The children didn’t throw anything. I can’t account for every single parent, I can’t account for every single Catholic that lives in Ardoyne. But I didn’t do anything and nor did the child.”

The one word she did come up with in search of a description of the protesters’ behavior was “sick.”

By the middle of term, the children’s grades began to decline and, not surprisingly, they began to exhibit behavioral problems, Monaghan said. Rebekah became by turns aggressive and touchy, liable to bouts of anger alternating with tears.

Ardoyne has had a long history of sectarian tensions, often erupting in violence.

“Nobody ever denied that the Glenbryn residents had some issues, but we couldn’t do anything for them,” Monaghan said. She points out that for years there had been cross-community contacts between the Ardoyne and adjoining Glenbryn. For years, she had friends in the Protestant area, and even family members. Relations with the old residents of Glenbryn remained cordial even through the worst of the Troubles, when North Belfast was one of the North’s most dangerous killing grounds. The school remained untouched, and the girls were not bothered as they made their way every morning and afternoon past their Protestant neighbors.

Until, that is, June 19, 2001, when a dispute sparked by the hanging of a loyalist flag turned ugly. Why did it change? she was asked. This time Monaghan had a ready answer.

“Johnny Adair,” she replied at once, referring to the jailed UDA chief who has been accused of fomenting trouble from his prison cell. According to Catholic residents of the area, last summer a number of UDA men who had to flee their homes in the nearby loyalist Shankill area because of a feud with another loyalist group took over vacant homes in Glenbryn.

“About four weeks after they moved in, the first flags went up,” Monaghan said, who added that they boasted that “no Fenian would ever walk the road and they’d get rid of all four Fenian schools in the area.” (The other three are St. Gabriel’s, Ballysillan Girls’ Secondary, and the Mercy Primary School.)

Several of those who became spokesmen for the protesters are known members of the UDA and one is a close associate of Adair’s.

Monaghan welcomes the protesters’ decision to halt, but she points out that it is only a suspension.

“There’s always a glimmer of hope, but I’d have preferred if they had called it off completely,” she said.

Asked about her hopes for her daughter and for the future, she answered: “I don’t want her to grow up in what I had to grow up in. It was supposed to be a whole new world for them.”

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