Belfast Telegraph

From a thriving community to empty houses, how times have changed for the Fountain estate

Life in Londonderry’s last unionist enclave

By Leona O'Neill

On Saturday up to 20,000 Apprentice Boys will descend on Londonderry for the annual Relief of Derry commemorations. They will gather in prayer at St Columb's Cathedral, for it was there that the besieged Protestant citizens of 1689 took shelter during the Siege of Derry as Catholic Jacobite forces threatened from beyond the old stone walls.

The Fountain estate rests in the shadow of that historic Cathedral, hugging the 18ft thick ancient ramparts of the city's walls which gave shelter to Protestant ancestors. The only remaining Protestant enclave on the city's west bank, the once thriving community which was home to 1,500 Protestant people, now houses just 290 people.

Large black and white pictures hanging on the railings outside the Cathedral Youth Club show a Fountain of old - bustling neighbourhood grocery shops, mothers in pristine white aprons standing proudly outside their immaculate homes, men gathered outside a public house, pints in hand, street celebrations. In those days, Protestant families spilled out to the streets beyond the old Derry Gaol wall which during the Troubles provided a natural interface for those seeking shelter within the estate.

Today the pubs are long closed, as are the grocery stores, and the eyes who peer down from the old photos look at a very different Fountain, one where most families have long since fled to the perceived safety of the Waterside and houses once brimming with life are boarded up.

In the 1960s, the areas just outside the Fountain - Abercorn Road and Bishop Street Without, had been 90 per cent Protestant; now they are predominantly Catholic and the areas are separated by a large interface wall.

Fountain community worker Jeanette Warke (73) was brought up in one of those streets and, when married, moved to the next one over. Her family were intimidated out of their home shortly after Bloody Sunday.

"My father was brought up in the Fountain, I was raised in Belview Avenue just beyond the security wall on Bishop Street," she says. "When I got married I lived in nearby Mountjoy Street.

"When the Troubles began the area we lived in was a very mixed community. Everyone got on with their neighbours. We used to go down to the Bogside into our Catholic friend's house and watch the riots down below. Then the buildings began to be set on fire, the CS gas hung in the air, people started to get singled out as Protestant and Catholic. Fear set in, you were looking over your shoulder all the time.

"My husband David worked night shifts. One night as he came home he got caught up in a gun battle between the IRA and the army not far from home. He came in that morning and said that he didn't think we would be able to stay here much longer. Not long afterwards the door started to get banged, men would shout in at all hours for us to 'Get out, you Orange b*******'. It went on nightly. The kids were targeted in the street. One night, not long after Bloody Sunday, they came banging and shouting at the door, faceless men. I was alone, David was on night-shift. I was terrified for my children. I sat huddled on the stairs with my three young children around me, the youngest was just a baby. We moved out that morning as did many of our neighbours. We had bought that house, it was our pride and joy. We had to go and leave everything.

"In the streets around us Protestant people were driven out. There was a huge exodus. We moved out to Newbuildings just outside the city. David and I set up the Cathedral Youth Club, back in the Fountain, in an effort to keep the young people out of the Troubles. The youth club will celebrate 45 years in existence this autumn."

Four generations of Wilma Burnside's family have been raised in the Fountain. She says, despite constant attacks over the years, her family never had any intention of leaving the place they called home.

"I was born in the Fountain, as were my parents and grandparents," she says. "I have two children and my son lives here also. Four generations of our family are here. Even throughout the worst days of the Troubles we stayed. We never had any intention of going anywhere.

"It was a mixed area then. Things changed with the Troubles. We were paint bombed and petrol bombed and had our windows smashed constantly. It was home, and that was the way it was. We stood our ground and we are still there.

"When we were growing up here it was a beautiful, vibrant place that was full of life. There were red brick houses all around. Everyone had pride in their homes. Outside the doors the paths were shining, the windows were gleaming. Everyone knew one another. The women of the area, they wore white pressed aprons and their hair was always lovely. They were always knitting and sewing and making clothes.

"I was 28 when the Troubles started. I remember the armoured trucks coming up the road with the army. I remember the army putting the wooden barricades with the barbed wire across the road and I remember the men barricading us into the Fountain to stop people coming in. There was a real sense of fear.

"Bobby Stott, a 22-year-old part-time UDR man, was shot dead by the IRA on his doorstep a few doors from me. People were fearful, ours was a community under siege.

"There were four Catholic bars in the Fountain before the Troubles started. There are no bars at all here now. There isn't even a shop any more. Things have changed. The Troubles can't take away the lovely memories we have of this community. The attacks don't happen any more, except at certain times of the year."

Daniel Pritchard is 18 years old. He is the next generation of Fountain inhabitants. His childhood was peppered with daily attacks from the interface, yet he says he loves and is proud of where he comes from.

"I moved to the Fountain when I was a baby," he says. "Growing up, I had two friends here the same age, but they moved out because of the attacks and the trouble. They went to live in the Waterside.

"Some of my first memories are of my back garden being in flames after a petrol bomb. The petrol bomb hit netting we had up and set it on fire. I remember my bedroom window was on fire and us all having to get out of the house really quickly. We lived right at the interface. It happened every week. Having stones bouncing off my bedroom window would have been the norm.

"Another time my mum, me and my little brother were coming up from the city centre and through the top entrance to the Fountain and we were chased by a gang, we pulled the gate behind us to stop them. One of them had a knife and was threatening my mother. I was eight years old.

"My young brother and I were playing football on the green beside the interface wall when a nail bomb was thrown over and blew up. All the nails and glass were lodged in my little brother's leg. He was only seven. Nothing like that would happen now."

Despite the traumatic events of his childhood, Daniel says he loves the Fountain. However, he says his generation are all too aware of sectarianism and suspicion leftover from the Troubles.

"My mother talks of the Fountain of her youth when there were parties on the streets and it was a really lively place. There was a time I remember, when everyone was moving out, going to live in the Waterside and elsewhere, that the estate was empty and a lot of the houses were boarded up.

"We only got our house because the family moved out of it due to being attacked 24/7.

"I'm 18 now but I still feel I have to watch my back going out of the gate. I go to college in the city but I try to keep myself to myself. It's much better now than it was. I feel like I can go out the gate of the Fountain and not worry about a brick landing in front of me.

"There was a time last year when young people from the Fountain were getting beaten up when they went into the city centre. I've had things shouted at me in the street. Because we've grown up with it we know what to do. Sectarianism and suspicion is still around in our generation.

"People in the Fountain grow up calling our city Londonderry, but when I go outside the area I call it Derry for my own safety. I have a few Catholic friends, but I wouldn't go to their area and they wouldn't come to mine.

"It's 2017 and we still get the odd bottle thrown over. When July and August come, it kicks off a bit because of the bonfires. There are not many young people my age living here in the Fountain. It is a tight-knit, strong community and everyone revolves around the community centre. I love the Fountain, it is my home."

Belfast Telegraph

Popular