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White City... and the dream that died

 

When Professor Marianne Elliott was a child, her parents moved into White City, one of the first mixed religion housing estates to be built in Belfast after the war. Now she has written a fascinating new book, Hearthlands, part memoir, part social history, telling the story of the people who lived there and how the idea failed. She talks to Laurence White about her memories of a pre-Troubles era when sectarianism actually declined — and of her enduring belief in the decency of people here.

Marianne Elliott modestly says she has to pinch herself at the distance she has travelled in life from the young girl who used to swing around the lampposts in the White City estate north of Belfast.

Acclaimed historian, co-author of a groundbreaking report that played a pivotal part in the peace process, author of several highly regarded books and director of the Institute of Irish Studies at Liverpool University for 18 years are key entries in her distinguished CV.

Her contribution to Irish studies and to the Northern Ireland peace process led to her being awarded an OBE in 2000 and next Thursday she will receive the Irish equivalent, a Presidential Distinguished Service Award.

That is an event she is really looking forward to, for another recipient is Ballymena-born Hollywood A-lister Liam Neeson.

“I become like a 16-year-old in the presence of such stars”, she says laughing.

We are chatting about her latest book, Hearthlands, which is a memoir of growing up in the White City estate, then a model of mixed-religion housing.

She admits she is like many academics unwilling to make herself the story — to her there is no ‘I’ in history — but was dragged kicking and screaming by her editors at Blackstaff Press to include her personal reminiscences in the book.

She peppers the book with both personal memories, but draws extensively on those of former neighbours and friends as well as her late mother Sheila, who passed away in 2014.

Marianne admits that she had a much grander vision for this book at the beginning.

“I had lovely memories of living in north Belfast and I always felt passionately about the fact memories were dying of the decades between 1945 and the 1960s when people of different religions did live together,” she says.

“Much of the credit for that has to go to the NI Housing Trust — a benevolent public body — which created mixed-religion housing estates throughout Northern Ireland. The research involved in telling that story would have been enormous but would have created a number of jobs as well as told a story that deserved to be better known.

“There were a number of glowing peer reviews of the idea but one was really nasty, stating that my hypothesis was nonsense, that Northern Ireland was always polarised, and that angered me so much.

“I could not go ahead with my plan, but instead decided to use my early life in White City as an exemplar of the work of the Housing Trust and as an entry into writing about the social history of Belfast.”

When she began to write the book she was astonished to find so little source material on social history. Much of the existing literature concentrated on the political history of the province and even the Public Records Office had to search its archives to find the material she needed. Many of the Housing Trust records had been destroyed.

She is full of praise for the trust’s record on remaining non-political and allocating homes on a non-sectarian basis, which was ironic given that local authority bias in housing allocation led to the creation of the civil rights movement — and the rest, as they say, is history.

Civil servants also come in for praise for standing up to some of the more extreme politicians of the day — this was the time of undiluted unionist power — “Social history looked at from their perspective was a quite different story from the accepted political rhetoric. Also look at how the welfare state, which changed so many people’s lives, was introduced on a totally non-sectarian basis again due to civil servant influence.”

But this is not some weighty or worthy academic tome, even if serious issues are discussed. Little vignettes of life in post-war north Belfast revealed an astonishing level of gaiety — Bellevue was a mecca for all ages, with 60,000 people crowding into the attractions there on Easter Sunday in 1959, and the Floral Hall attracted 127,917 dancers during 1947.

Enlightened city councillors said that while the attractions should pay for themselves the bottom line was not the be all and end all and that the facilities should always be open to the citizens. Attempts to introduce Sunday closure in the late 1950s failed but attitudes were changing and the gates were chained in 1964 on the Sabbath due in no small part to the rising influence of Ian Paisley’s Free Presbyterian Church.

Marianne, her four-year-old brother Terry, and her father Terry and mum Sheila moved into the White City in 1949 when she was just an infant. Terry, who had lived on the Falls, and Sheila, originally from Co Kerry, had lived for a short time near Strangford but jumped at the chance of getting one of the homes in the still being completed estate. Marianne’s sisters Geraldine and Eleanor would arrive in 1953 and 1960 respectively.

Marianne’s memories are of a spacious home with large garden at the rear — theirs was one of the last houses before the Cavehill — where dad grew marrows and other vegetables, as self-sufficiency was necessary in those days of rationing. A good front garden was filled with flowers tended to by mum and the children.

In those days, surrounding areas of north Belfast were home to the middle class who in some instances looked down on the new arrivals. Marianne recalls how she and her siblings made plastercast hand-painted decorations which they tried to sell to their well-off neighbours only to have the door dismissively slammed in their faces in most instances. Indeed, it was the people of White City who were most receptive to the gifts.

The Floral Hall was also a meeting place for local teenage girls and boys, although the girls were well warned by anxious parents that flirting should go no further.

The new tenants, along with the Housing Trust, were keen to keep the estate as tidy as possible — for example, the front doors were repainted in vibrant colours every four years with republican icon, poet, songwriter and playwright Brendan Behan one of the gang of painters who carried out the work.

Marianne also recalls the astonishing story of a young woman from the estate who become the centre of a baby-stealing scandal — the baby was taken from Dublin — but neighbouring mothers linked arms in an attempt to prevent police taking the baby, which was well cared for, away along with the young woman. In those days even the black sheep of the area were not automatically shunned.

When Marianne was 15 her family moved out of the estate when they purchased a home in Glengormley. “To my mind we were moving down in the world as our White City house was much more spacious, but obviously my parents regarded it as a step up in status,” she recalls.

“However, we never really lost touch with the people we have lived beside for so long and I have dedicated this book to six of those people who have shared their memories of moving into the estate at the beginning. Three of them, including my mum, have since died but I am delighted that the local community group has asked me to have a launch party for this book in the estate on Monday.”

One of those early residents, Flo Kelsey, told Marianne how after the horrors of the war and the Blitz, which had a huge impact on north Belfast, people did not even think about sectarianism afterward.

“Quite a few people who had lost homes in the Blitz ended up in White City, which had also been affected. There were bomb craters and even unexploded devices still in the estate for years afterwards,” she says.

The 1971 census showed a Catholic population in White City of 23% — 20 years later it was 5%. So where did it all go wrong?

Marianne lays the blame on disastrous planning decisions. Between the wars Belfast had the worst house building and slum clearance record in the UK, according to Charles Brett, who would later become head of the Housing Executive.

This led to the most overcrowding, the worst infant mortality rates with one in 10 dying before the age of one, and the greatest lack of open space.

Slum clearance on the Shankill, just as the political atmosphere was souring in the mid-1960s, created problems for White City. Thousands of people were being displaced and had nowhere else to go except to the mixed religion estates on the outskirts of the city like White City and Rathcoole.

From her research for her book Hearthlands, which was supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Marianne found that these new arrivals brought with them their trappings of loyalty — painting kerbstones and flying flags — and although the Housing Trust tried to stop these displays the seeds of discord were sown. The good relations on the estate continued for several years into the Troubles and several long-term Catholic residents remained and were welcomed but it became known as a Protestant, even loyalist, estate as years passed.

Like most other areas of north Belfast it became a new interface. North Belfast was always a mixed religion area but as the Troubles began and people retreated into single identity areas they could not move far away from each other, creating the cockpit which made the area the worst killing fields of the Troubles.

That was a far cry from the area that Marianne grew up and went to school in. She remembers the area around Holy Family primary school in the Limestone Road area as full of lovely homes and nice leafy parks and has similar fond memories of her time at Dominican College at Fortwilliam.

On graduating from Queen’s University she was initially offered a job as a history teacher at St Malachy’s College — someone knew her from her time as captain of the ladies table tennis team at university — and her parents were disappointed when she turned down what was a good career at that time. She planned to do a PhD at Trinity College in Dublin until her history professor said she should study at Oxford, provided she obtained the required entrance qualifications, which she did.

It was there she met her husband-to-be, Trevor Elliott, who she describes in the book as her most consistent and long-lasting support, muse and best critic, and who sadly died as she was researching Hearthlands.

Today Marianne lives about 10 miles from Liverpool, but still retains much of her Northern Ireland accent. She comes back often to visit her sister and nephews and a wide circle of friends and her son Mark has followed her into the world of academia, doing his own PhD at university in London.

When she brought him back to Belfast and showed him Queen’s University he told her she should have made him come here and she admits, despite our recent history, that the city is buzzing.

But she says that we should not forget what happened. During her work with the Opsahl Commission — a body headed by a Norwegian human rights lawyer — which heard submissions for some 3,000 people on potential ways forward during some of the darkest days of the Troubles, it was the comments of a group of women from north Belfast which resonated strongly with her.

They remembered, like her, the days when people lived and mixed together and were keen that those would be recorded so that young people growing up post-Troubles would not fall into the trap of thinking that Northern Ireland was always a totally divided society.

“We talked to anyone willing to talk to us, people that no one else was meeting. It was a very humbling experience and sometimes those who have suffered the most are the most inspirational ways forward. This work did change me and made me explore more deeply how we could cope with sectarianism in the province,” says Marianne.

The work of the commission was largely blanked by politicians — the only senior politician to give evidence to it was John Hume, whose wife Pat was a strong supporter of the work. Other political parties were represented at a much lower level, and no doubt Marianne’s suggestion that many needed political education if they were to govern again contributed to their opposition to the finished report.

But it did valuable work in outlining how to deal with everyday problems, suggestions which perhaps could have been followed up more carefully when devolution was restored.

Marianne recalls that a senior civil servant who had gone to university with her expressed the hope that the commission could break the deadlock in political activity which had stifled interparty discussions in the early 1990s.

Although Marianne has not lived in Northern Ireland for many years her memories of it in good times as well as bad feed her continued passion for the country. “I know the basic decency of the people”, she says.

Her memoir of White City life is her tribute to that decency even if outside factors intruded eventually.

How infamous case of stolen babies rocked White City

In 1954, number 32 was one of a block of four houses near the Portmore Hill side of Garton Way. Its new tenants were Ernest McGeehan, a 51-year-old Belfast Corporation labourer, and his 39-year-old wife, Barbara (nee McElroy). They had two children, four-year-old Bernadette (Bernie) and Ernest Jnr (18). The two children of different sexes, one a teenager, would have contributed points towards a three-bedroom house, as did the conditions in which they were living beforehand — it was a classic overcrowded tenement.

The McGeehans were a handsome family, always neatly turned out in photographs. Barbara was from Co Carlow and had a tough childhood. Her parents died when she was young and she was brought up by an aunt. She and Ernest were married in August 1939. Barbara seems to have suffered a number of miscarriages. She later claimed that she had been given Bernie in 1950 by Ellen Brown, also of 29 Lonsdale Street, who wanted rid of the baby.

She said Ellen was a singer and was being pursued by the police for carrying the baby around with her. She was “keeping company” with Patrick McDonagh, who had “a stick leg”. There was some truth in this, for Dubliner Patrick McDonagh and Ellen, though clearly unmarried, had been together for many years and had three sons, aged 18, 16 and nine when they lived in Lonsdale Street. He described himself as a “street singer” and Ellen sometimes accompanied him. Ellen died in hospital in June 1953. Bernie was christened on December 24, 1950, in St Patrick’s Catholic Church, Donegall Street.

On December 18, 1954, Barbara came home with another baby, a boy. But things were not as they appeared, for Barbara, having apparently given birth to a stillborn baby — a claim later discounted by the consultant gynaecologist who had conducted a hysterectomy on her in 1953 — had travelled to Dublin and taken baby Patrick Berrigan from a pram in Henry Street. His mother, seeing a teddy in a shop window, had dashed in to buy it.

Only days before Christmas, the stolen baby was a huge human-interest story and the Press in Ireland and Britain carried full details. Louise Doherty — a publican’s wife originally from Castlebar in Mayo, then returning to her home in north Belfast — got into conversation on the train with Barbara McGeehan. For someone who had just stolen a baby, Barbara was surprisingly open, telling Doherty about the lack of milk and clothing for the baby and of her own residence in the White City.

Louise Doherty read about the stolen baby in the Sunday Independent and recognised it. On December 22, five tenders carrying 50 police arrived at the White City amid pouring rain and began door-to-door searches.

In Garton Way, “a street of small white dwellings”, one of the residents told the constable of having heard a baby crying that Saturday night in Number 32, and that is where they found baby Patrick asleep downstairs in a cot. Barbara McGeehan admitted immediately: “This is a terrible thing I have done.”

It was reported that Barbara McGeehan was booed as she was escorted out by two uniformed police and a detective. However, in the memories of long-term residents, I have found nothing but sympathy for Barbara McGeehan. At the police station, her statement was taken: “About six or seven weeks ago, I gave birth to a stillborn baby at 111 North Road. It is the home of a friend of mine. About a fortnight later, I returned home. I told my husband that they were keeping the baby in hospital to build up its strength. I did not want to tell him it was stillborn, as he would have been disappointed.”

Baby Patrick was reunited with his parents on December 23. They had travelled to Belfast the previous evening after Mr Berrigan, a porter, had finished his shift.

The case prompted investigations into other missing Dublin babies. Gardai came to Belfast to investigate the case of Pauline Ashmore, stolen from her pram in Camden Street Lower, Dublin, on October 19, 1954. Then there was Elizabeth Browne, taken from her pram in identical circumstances to Patrick Berrigan and from the same street in Dublin in November 1950.

In pursuit of this case the police returned to Garton Way on December 23 and removed Bernie to the nearby Bawnmore children’s home.

A sympathetic reporter visited a devastated Ernest McGeehan. He found him surrounded by Bernie’s toys — a toy duck, dolls, a money-box — as well as her cot. He had brought them downstairs to remind him of her. Holding his head in his hands and sobbing, he said: “She is everything I have got. When the police told me she was not my child my world collapsed.”

On Christmas Eve, he went by taxi to Bawnmore children’s home with a teddy bear and other gifts. He asked the waiting reporters whether they thought he might be allowed to see her. He was not.

Ernest McGeehan recounted receiving a telegram from the nursing home where his wife was giving birth in  1950 to say that mother and baby were doing well. Barbara stayed there about eight weeks. In fact, she had spent some time at the Legion of Mary hostel in North Brunswick Street, Dublin.

She had arrived late at night on November 21, 1950, saying she was separated from her husband and hoping to find work in Dublin. Later, she asked for the money for her fare back to Belfast and left on November 23. Bernie was identified as Elizabeth Browne, daughter of John and Julia Browne of Blackditch Road, Ballyfermot in Dublin. They already had four other children, ranging from 17 to seven years old when Elizabeth was found.

In the photographs, the Brownes appear older and less well-dressed than the McGeehans, but they argued that they were in relatively secure circumstances, with a weekly income of £10 and two of the eldest children also in employment. Just after midday on January 20, the Brownes arrived at Bawnmore children’s home and asked to be allowed to take Elizabeth away.

 The matron brought the child to them, but called the city welfare officer, Keith Magee, who came immediately and explained that they could not take her because the legal position had not yet been resolved and that had been explained to them in court. They accepted that and left. The High Court was anxious to resolve the case quickly and had blood tests sent to England to prove Elizabeth’s parenthood. But there were clearly worries, as she was moved to a children’s home in Larne.

The Brownes were back in Belfast on February 5, hoping to get the child. Elizabeth was finally returned to them at Belfast City Hall, after a hearing in the High Court, on Saturday, February 7, 1955. Ernest McGeehan also turned up for a final glimpse of the child. There are heartbreaking newspaper descriptions of the child being driven away crying and clutching the teddy, Ernest’s Christmas present to her.

By all accounts, the McGeehans had been loving parents. At her trial Barbara took great exception to Louise Doherty’s suggestion that she was not looking after baby Patrick properly. Head Constable Marion McMillen and a voluntary social worker both confirmed that the “house was well kept and that the children were well looked after and Mrs McGeehan was spoken of as being of a kindly nature towards her neighbours”.

That is how Barbara McGeehan is remembered by those I have spoken with about the scandal. Gerry Mulholland, then a teenager living close by in Bresk Hill, told me they were a “lovely family”.

Lizzy Welshman, who had been a neighbour in Garton Way, also recalled her as “a lovely woman. Mrs McGeehan was a lady. She was clean. She had the house spotless. If she hadn’t gone back to Dublin for that second baby, no one would have known.”

It is the tragedy of the situation that has lingered. “I did not fully comprehend the awfulness of stolen children until I heard about such a case when I was visiting in the US,” Flo Kelsey told me. “They were lovely children. I felt sorry for her.” This is confirmed in trial proceedings. She was spoken of as a kind person, with a strong bond of affection towards the children.

Judge Curran (Lancelot Curran) stated in his summing up that the children “have been kept clean, healthy and good mannered”, and he passed a lighter sentence in consequence. She was sentenced to two years in Armagh’s women’s prison.

But she was allowed to return home on parole for Christmas 1955 and was released early the following February.

The missing babies remained a major interest story even after Barbara McGeehan’s release. A Belfast Telegraph reporter went to see Elizabeth Browne in her Ballyfermot home in Dublin. He reported that she was becoming more affectionate towards her parents. She had two dolls, one of which she called Bernadette, her old name, which her parents wanted her to forget.

Why then did they agree to let the McGeehans visit Ballyfermot in May 1956, or for Bernie, her two sisters and her brother Christopher to visit Belfast, and all again in the glare of the Press? Indeed, Barbara McGeehan told a reporter that the Brownes had agreed to let Bernadette remain with her until the age of 14 — a claim which the Brownes denied, though they said they had agreed to three months. She would call on them to resolve the issue in July, when she also claimed she was returning to Dublin to adopt a baby boy.

There was clearly some psychological problem affecting Barbara McGeehan, including an ability to invent and believe certain stories. Her behaviour matches known patterns of baby-stealing. There was a lack of affection and petty delinquency in her youth, a preoccupation and desire to have children and real or imaginary miscarriages.

Barbara McGeehan was understandably watched and was back in the news in May 1957 for looking after a child for payment without giving notice to the welfare authorities. A case of “commercial baby farming” was how the prosecution described it. It actually looks like a case of informal fostering, Barbara McGeehan telling the court that because of her past she knew that she would not be allowed formally to adopt a baby.

Elizabeth Browne went on to have three children of her own, but died of cancer at the young age of 38.

The McGeehans remained in Garton Way, still listed in 1977, but in Barbara’s name after 1974. Lizzy Welshman recalled neighbourly concerns for Barbara’s state of mind after Ernest’s death. One day she was seen sitting dangerously on the upstairs window-sill of her house and neighbours came to talk her down.

Notable among the caring neighbours were Mary Kelly and Annie Johnso n, whose names surface regularly in my interviews as genuinely neighbourly people. I was almost the same age as Elizabeth Browne and recall a sudden and very noticeable rise in anxiety about children’s safety at the time.

In my memory it is entangled with the childhood trauma of having a favourite doll stolen from outside our home and with the usual warnings about not accepting sweets from strangers. There was a real identification with the little girl. The photos — down to the haircut and the mandatory floppy ribbon bow — looked like dozens of us at that time.

Every newspaper carried front page coverage. Photographers were outside the house in Garton Way taking “dozens of pictures” on the first night, as baby Patrick Berrigan was brought out by WPC Jean Bleakley.

The RUC and garda officers, the witnesses and the natural parents all became minor celebrities. Court appearances drew more crowds and many had to be refused admission, while police struggled to hold back the hundred or so women outside the City Hall when Elizabeth Browne was handed over to her Dublin parents.

In the south, too, public interest drew crowds to the Brownes’ Ballyfermot home, trampling the gardens of neighbours to get a view of the little girl.

Poignant stories of those who moved in

"My mother visited Bellevue before the White City was built. She looked around and said: 'This is where I want to live'. I was sad that she died before I could tell her I got a house there."

Anna Pearson was from a farming family just outside Donegal town, south of the border. Her husband had been in the British Army during the war and was working for the Post Office in Belfast when the opportunity to be housed arose. She had two children by then and had returned to Donegal to look after her father when her mother died. Her journey by various buses to Belfast, with a baby and toddler, carrying numerous cases and bags, was no easier as she neared her new home. In 1947 there was no public transport on that last sharp ascent from Greencastle up the Whitewell Road and she wondered if they would ever arrive.

But, like the other first residents I have spoken with, she had joyful memories of moving into a brand-new house in the White City in November 1947. She was one of the very earliest to do so. Everyone was young. The estate was full of children and there was genuine neighbourliness. Anna's story is very typical of the people who lived in the White City in its early decades: "I never wanted anyone else to have that house," she declared. Nor did they. She remained until this factory-made estate was demolished and replaced in the 1990s, when she moved to a retirement bungalow.

Tenants for the new Housing Trust estates were chosen on a strict points system. Need was the overriding consideration. A married couple with two children under ten were deemed to need accommodation with two bedrooms; every two children over ten of the same sex were deemed to need an additional bedroom; and a family of six needed a 'living room' - although this could be a parlour, dining room or kitchen. Strangely the absence of bathrooms in their existing accommodation is not included as qualifying for points, even though this had been such a heated issue. But the absence of a toilet was included, as were deficient ventilation and lighting, excessive dampness and the absence of a water supply. Service in the Armed Forces earned additional points, as did bomb damage during the Blitz and tuberculosis in any member of the family.

The result was a large number of serving and former servicemen and women on the estate, Catholic and Protestant alike. Indeed, the local British Legion was well-known to service Catholics and Protestants and during the later Troubles its name was changed to the Veterans' Club. Just like Anna's husband, Edwin, there were others from the south who had served in the British Forces. Early residents recalled the wide range of accents on the estate, with many residents also coming from the country areas of Northern Ireland.

Sheila Burns had had a very hard time since her marriage in 1944. In July 1945 Terry, her husband, was working on the American air base at Langford Lodge, and she was in hospital for the birth of the first child. When he did not turn up for work one day, his friend, US airman Irving Silverman, travelled into Belfast and found him unconscious, the bed soaked in blood. He spent the next 18 months in Whiteabbey sanatorium being treated for tuberculosis. She, with a new baby, needed outdoor relief and was badly treated by her Catholic landlord in north Belfast, who disliked the baby crying. It was a terrible fall from grace for someone from a reasonably well-off family and she was aged 90 when she finally brought herself to tell me about it.

When Terry was discharged from the sanatorium, they were found a dilapidated country cottage by his relatives in Co Down. From there he continued his treatment in Belfast, making the weekly milelong walk to the bus stop. The cottage, 'Cassies', was by all accounts idyllic. Sheila spoke warmly both of the elderly woman farmer from whom they rented and of their neighbour, Lord Bangor, who would chat to her as she pushed a pram through his Castleward estate. But it was very remote, with no running water and no inside toilet or bathroom. A second child had arrived in 1948 and, when the Housing Trust manager visited, Sheila was in an adjacent field, washing nappies in a great tin tub. "If I'd known she was coming I would have tidied the house," she told me, and she was to do that consistently before the weekly visits of the housing manager in the White City. They were given the tenancy to a house there in 1949.

Shane and Anne McAteer were teenagers when they moved into Thorburn Road in 1949, with their schoolteacher mother and train driver father - a mixed marriage, Shane joked, as regards class. From the Cavehill Road area, they became Blitz refugees in Randalstown and she recalls severe overcrowding. They moved accommodation frequently and her schooling suffered terribly. Shane and Anne recalled Rita Ward, a local councillor from the Newington area, alerting the family to the existence of the new estate. Along with Sheila, she thought the Greencastle parish priest may have had some influence. But it was their mother who filled in the Housing Trust forms.

Hearthlands by Marianne Elliott is published by Blackstaff Press, priced £14.75

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