Seaneen McErlane: 'Mum never got over losing dad in such a traumatic and tragic way... but I hope he’d be proud of me with the work I’ve done in the community'
Seaneen McErlane tells Leona O’Neill how she has dedicated her life to helping others after her father was murdered by the UVF when she was a child
A Belfast woman who lost her father in the Troubles when she was just two-years-old says that her painful start in life set her on a path to helping people.
Seaneen McErlane (47), who is originally from Glengormley but now lives in Magherafelt with her fiance Peter McMeekin, has spent her working life caring for others — as a music teacher, a crisis intervention worker and now as the head of activities in a care home where she helps bring light and life back to those living with dementia.
Seaneen’s father John (29) and his brother Thomas (19) were murdered in north Belfast in May 1975.
The Catholic brothers were shot dead in a flat in Mount Vernon while playing cards with work colleagues after being lured there by their killer. The attack was admitted by the Protestant Action Force, a cover name for the UVF. Loyalist Billy Hunter was jailed for 14 years for the murders. He died in 2012.
“On the May 23, 1975, my father John was working as a supervisor in the Belfast abattoir, the meat factory. It was a paramilitary murder. They were both shot dead by the UVF," she says.
“My father was a very peaceful man. He didn’t involve himself in anything. He was 29-years-old and his youngest brother was just 19-years-old. So it was the oldest and the youngest brothers in the family murdered. Two sons.
“I have no memory of it, I was very young. My mum found out she was pregnant three weeks after my daddy was murdered, so I have a younger sister.
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“I kind of felt like I didn’t have to deal with the trauma back then because I was so young and we were so protected from it as children.
“We really didn’t have to deal with it until much later in life.
“From the age of eight, my mum sent me to the School of Music in Donegall Pass which was in a loyalist heartland. My mother was so determined to make sure that her children made a difference in the world in a positive way and that we wouldn’t be affected by our past.
“I don’t how people recover from that kind of trauma fully. I think you just learn to adjust to life after the loss.
“Of course it affected me, but we were very protected from it growing up.
“It was important for my mum that no one would be able to label us as victims of the Troubles.
“She was a very caring, genuine person. She didn’t care what someone was.
“Irrespective of a person’s creed, colour, nationality and religious beliefs, she believed everyone was equal.
“Growing up, I couldn’t even have told you the difference between a Catholic and a Protestant because it was never an issue.
“She didn’t seek revenge. Her revenge was really to educate her daughters to be positive representatives of society.”
Seaneen says that she believes the trauma her mother suffered led to her developing cancer and dying in her early 50s.
“My mother was a great lady,” she says. “She died in February 2004.
“She was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer when she was 51.
“I don’t think she ever recovered from losing my father in such a tragic and traumatic way.
“I was 31 when she died. That was a catalyst to me changing my career.
“I had carried out some research on unresolved trauma and cancer. How if trauma is not resolved emotionally, it can impact you physically through disease such as cancer, COPD, lots of things. And I became really interested in that and it redirected my career.
“Mum’s death had a huge impact on my life. It was a massive thing. She didn’t want to die. Nobody does.
“She just didn’t want to leave her children. It was premature.”
Seaneen says the very challenging roles she has taken in life were inspired by her own journey and a passion to help other people.
“I was a peripatetic music teacher for 19 years, straight out of university,” she says. “Throughout the daily role I was working with small groups of students. You only see them for half an hour a week and then leave the building and you’re in a different school.
“Children would have confided in me — they saw me just once a week and I felt like a safe space. Some of their issues were quite serious and I would have had to approach the pastoral care team to make sure the students were safeguarded. In order to protect myself and the students I enrolled in a counselling course. That was amazing.
“I discovered so much about myself. I went on to do an advanced diploma and a postgraduate course in counselling and a masters.
“I went on to work as part of a crisis intervention team. So we would have received phone calls from someone who was currently experiencing suicidal ideation. We would have travelled to them in a car. One of us would have kept the person talking on the phone to try to de-escalate their crisis. We would have put the other statutory bodies in place also — police, fire service.
“Very often we would arrive at the house and work with the person to try and encourage them to engage with the community mental health teams. We would have taken them to A&E and arranged for a psychiatric assessment.
“I think my journey and experiences in life have shaped my career. And it’s only really been more recently that I have discovered that. What happened to my father and to my family was instrumental in shaping my life. I think if you have experienced trauma as a young child, you become highly intuitive. You empathise with adults around you. You understand people differently.
“Sometimes it’s unspoken, it’s your intuition. You know when someone is in pain. It may not be the same experience as yours, but you connect on a deep level of pain that you may not understand had you not had that experience.
“People then relate to you. Sometimes they don’t even need to know your story, but they know that there is a deep connection with you, that they don’t feel with other people. And maybe they can’t pinpoint it, it’s invisible, but it’s there.”
Seaneen says that she has, throughout her life, tried to focus on the positive.
“I believe, as my mother did before me, in taking the positive out of every situation,” she says. “I know people might wonder how you can take a positive out of something like your father being murdered, but there is a positive in that I could go forward and make a difference in the lives of other people.
“I know that what happened was definitely instrumental in shaping the life that I now live. I think I naturally fell into the role of helping others and I didn’t realise at the time that this was the catalyst for my life’s journey.”
For the last 18 months Seaneen has been working at Milesian Manor — Northern Ireland’’s first lifestyle care home in Magherafelt. She says she loves her job and that the reward she gets from seeing the impact she can have on people’s lives is “priceless”.
“I’m the activities co-ordinator at Milesian Manor in Magherafelt,” she adds.
“It is all about making our residents’ lives fulfilling.
“Just because someone moves into a care home, it should not mean their lives should end.
“Everyday I get to make a difference to the lives of the residents in my care and the gift of giving is returned ten-fold and the joy I experience daily is immeasurable.
“Up until this point in my life a lot of my losses were premature and sudden so I did not have the joy of watching the people that I love grow old. I saw this as an opportunity to make a real difference to people who were in the last stages of their natural life.
“Working in the care home environment is an honour, I had seen first-hand end-of-life care with my mother and I place great respect and value on all the professionals who made her transition a little easier.
“I am humbled to be able to support residents and families in meeting their emotional and spiritual needs in the their final days on earth.”
Seaneen says she sees the magic that music can do, particularly with those living with dementia.
“As soon as I walk through the doors of Milesian Manor each morning, my heart feels like it instantly gets bigger,” she says.
“I am greeted with hugs, smiles and I sing a song which the residents join in with. Despite knowing me well, none of the residents in our residential dementia unit remember my name, or my role, or why I am there, but when I sing they remember every single word of every song.
“There is a deep connection that is felt in the soul and the joy that I experience seeing the residents come alive is indescribable. Their eyes light up, begin to dance in their head and in that moment, time stands still.
“We are actually in the process of establishing Northern Ireland’s first inter-generational dementia choir.
“We are inviting in friends and family and grandchildren. I just know it will be absolutely wonderful.”
Seaneen says she is often told she is like her father, who also spent much of his life helping others.
She hopes he is proud of the woman she has become.
“I don’t know if I would use the word proud when I’m talking about myself,” she says. “But when I arrive in the mornings and I see a resident and they maybe aren’t themselves and they are feeling down, and you sing your heart out to them and their face just lights up. You can’t put a price on that. That is immeasurable.
“There is no feeling like it in the world when a family member approaches you and says that their mum or dad is doing fantastically well and they can’t believe the difference.
“That feels so good because you know there is an impact there.
“My dad would have done a lot of work in the community. He was a quiet and peaceful man, but he liked to think that he made a difference in his community, in his church and with St Vincent de Paul. People say I have a lot of his characteristics.
“Because he was so young when he died I don’t really know what he was like. I think my dad would be proud of me. I hope he would.”