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Summertime Blues - Co Down's 'Shankill by the Sea'

A small Co Down resort is a home away from home for residents of Belfast's loyalist estates. Ivan Little gets a preview of a BBC NI documentary about the village they call 'Shankill by the sea'

Julie in Millisle with her pet dog, features in the documentary True North: Shankill By The Sea
Julie in Millisle with her pet dog, features in the documentary True North: Shankill By The Sea
Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

It's only an hour's drive from Belfast, but the Co Down resort they affectionately call "Shankill by the sea" is a world away for hundreds of people from the staunchly Protestant road who decamp in Millisle in their caravans every summer.

At the height of the Troubles, the self-styled Costa Del Millisle with its eight caravan parks was a refuge, a safe haven, for families of victims of the violence in north Belfast and sometimes for paramilitaries trying to evade feuding rivals.

But now a new BBC Northern Ireland documentary has captured a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how holidaymakers from the Shankill spend their summers nowadays in caravans in Millisle, enjoying their idea of heaven which for others would be like a snapshot from hell.

Shankill By The Sea, which is part of BBC NI's True North series, follows five individuals, mostly during the Twelfth holidays, a time for flying the flag for loyalism on the Ards Peninsula and for bonfires and parties.

Julie in Millisle with her pet dog, features in the documentary True North: Shankill By The Sea
Julie in Millisle with her pet dog, features in the documentary True North: Shankill By The Sea

A photograph of the Queen adorns the wall of one caravan and even the teddy bears on a table have Ulster and Union flags beside them.

For some of the holidaymakers, Millisle is home sweet home, a place to leave their troubles behind. And for one ex-soldier, holidaying there is "living the dream".

The programme, which has a soundtrack of French-style accordion music, opens with caravan park owner Colin saying rental charges aren't as dear in Millisle as they would be on the North Coast.

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Which, he says, explains why it's so popular with working-class people, for many of whom it's an oasis, or a getaway, and where many of them find a sense of community.

One resident, Julie, talks of how she enjoys the "mad month" season in the "second Shankill" and speaks of her pride in coming from the area.

Julie is filmed bedecking her caravan in red, white and blue bunting, along with a Rangers flag and a First World War commemorative banner, but she reveals she won't be in Millisle for the Twelfth this coming summer.

"This year I'll be in Turkey, but you have to decorate before you go away," she adds. "I like to have my tradition. I get along with everybody, but I like to have my wee tradition."

Ensuring that all her bunting is used up, Julie adds: "Waste not want not where the flags are concerned, eh? That's ready for the boys now."

In a car park in Millisle over the Twelfth, there's a disco and a chance for children to have their hair plaited with red, white and blue ribbons.

A flute player strikes up a tune to celebrate the Twelfth in Millisle
A flute player strikes up a tune to celebrate the Twelfth in Millisle

Another regular, Marie, tells the documentary-makers how important her caravan holiday is to her and her grandchildren, who have been living with her in a one-bedroom apartment in Belfast since their mother was made homeless in the city.

One 87-year-old woman called Joan, who has been going to Millisle since the early 1960s, recalls how she brought her five boys every year from the Shankill to get them away from the Troubles.

Pointing to a photograph of her smiling sons in their younger days, she says: "They all loved Millisle. You can see the joy in their faces being here."

Wistfully, Joan, who now has her dog for company, says her "time is nearly up", but she adds, "The one good thing is that you don't forget."

Former soldier, Pete (62), who describes Millisle as a place of peace and solace for him, says he doesn't talk about "the horrible things" he saw and dealt with during his 32 years in uniform, most of them in Northern Ireland.

But Pete does speak about having to cope with stress problems and he says he has sat on rocks at Millisle and cried.

The ‘Gibby Gang’ get into the party mood to celebrate a family birthday in their caravan
The ‘Gibby Gang’ get into the party mood to celebrate a family birthday in their caravan

But the seaside town, Pete says, is his life-saver and is the "perfect cure for any illness".

He insists he never wanted anti-depressants, even though he remembers the horrors of the Troubles, which included picking up pieces of bodies after terrorist attacks.

He adds: "It's not a thing that's easy to block away from your mind. The nightmares never go away.

"I worked through all the Troubles. I was spat at, shot at, petrol-bombed and blown up.

"I know I have battle fatigue syndrome and a friend has already killed himself because of it."

At that point, he breaks off the TV interview and walks away.

Millisle has long been a haven for many from the Shankill
Millisle has long been a haven for many from the Shankill

Single mum Kelly, who has two autistic sons, tells the documentary-makers her first experience of caravan life came after the tragic death of her sister, Lisa, who was knocked down and killed after going out to do her shopping.

"A friend lent me a caravan for about a week and I was like 'I have to have a caravan.' You just felt all the pressure leaving you as soon as you were down," says Kelly, who adds that she could give up, or keep going, which is what she does because "that's what the kids need". She says that Millisle helps to lift the anxiety of her and of her children, because they can walk about and play freely, unlike back in Belfast.

The Millislanders may leave the Shankill over the Twelfth, but the Twelfth doesn't leave them.

The Eleventh Night is bonfire night in Millisle's car park and the celebrations start early, with drink flowing for many of the party-goers while the children are let loose on bouncy castles and inflatable slides.

A roar goes up as the bonfire is set alight late at night and a flute player strikes up a tune.

Pete, the former soldier, keeps his distance from the flames. "Because of what I used to do, I don't go right up to the bonfire," he says. "I am always wary. I like to watch my back too much."

The Twelfth morning dawns with many of the holidaymakers heading to watch the Orangemen and the bands, including caravan park owner Colin, who's playing the accordion in one of them.

It's clear that many different strands of families are in the same caravan park for the summer. And, for Julie, "the most important part of the day" is loading bottles into her ice-box, which doubles as a seat for a party for her sisters and their mother, their "wee Queen Mother", as they call her.

Leaving her caravan, Julie promises the documentary team "plenty of craic" at the party.

Julie later tells her mother she can sing for the crew when she "gets full".

The sisters run races outside the caravans with balloons between their knees and the singing isn't far behind.

The documentary ends with the caravanners preparing to go home to the Shankill after the summer season and saying they can't wait to get back to Millisle in April the following year.

True North: Shankill By The Sea, BBC One Northern Ireland, Monday, January 6, 10.35pm

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