Peacemaker / Community relations worker at Shankill Women’s Centre
We conducted an interview with Eileen at the Shankill Women’s Centre on 27 June 2019.
‘I’m a Shankill woman born and reared.’
Eileen Weir grew up during the Troubles. She remembers some days ‘walking to school because the busses were all burnt out’ and how soon the conflict became normal life. As a teenager, she was restricted to her own area within the Shankill, with her mother cautioning her that ‘if I shout and you can’t hear me, you shouldn’t be there.’ However, the youngest of the family, and a tomboy, Weir loved to be down in the middle of everything ‘watching everything going on’ so if her mother called, her friends were pre-warned to continue shouting one to the other until one of them got word to Weir that she was to go home.
‘We made petrol bombs we didn’t go into town to discos.’
Growing up, as she did, during the Troubles, Weir felt as though her childhood was taken away from her:
We didn’t do what normal teenagers done. We made petrol bombs, we didn’t go into town to discos, if you know what I mean? Well we weren’t allowed, within the Protestant side, to make the petrol bombs, we just had to collect the bottles and the stuff to go into petrol bombs. I mean, that was normal. You know, ‘they’re coming to get us,’ so you protect your own. And every man, woman and child done it.
Weir joined the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) - the largest Ulster loyalist paramilitary and vigilante group in Northern Ireland - at sixteen years of age believing it was ‘helping the older people behind the barricades […] I saw it as a caring role. I felt it was important […] but I think I was misinformed. I was led to believe I was standing up for the rights of my community.’ She left the UDA when she began to question its objectives.
‘The trade union allowed me to look at the issue and not the people. I’m issue focused. If it’s not right, it doesn’t matter who it’s not right against, it shouldn’t happen.’
At twenty-five, Weir started working in Gallagher’s Tobacco factory and became a passionate trade unionist within the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union and sat on the women’s advisory board with the likes of May Blood and Monica McWilliams. Through this, she was able to support the campaign to end strip searches in prisons, something she felt she would have been ‘tarred and feathered’ for if she had done it as anyone other than a trade unionist. She also campaigned for the development of the very first Irish-speaking school on the Falls road.
‘We were crossing divides within the trade union movement that we shouldn’t have been crossing, because one side was fighting against the other. But here’s us women from all over - the Shankill, Falls, all over - all going to England together, travelling together, socialising together…’
The women’s committee was a cross-border one, and Weir often met with women from South of the border as well as people from across Northern Ireland and Britain. She remembers that when they used to travel to England to meetings the women there ‘used to stand up and clap us walking into the room’ because ‘they seen us as heroines’ whereas Weir and the other women on her committee didn’t because ‘we just seen ourselves as getting on with it and doing what we needed to do.’ Weir spent over twenty years working in the trade union, and credits it with having taught her many skills that would later prove vital in her role within the Shankill Women’s centre.
‘The women’s movement was always working across the political divide. We weren’t shaking hands we were hugging each other. We didn’t feel any divisions.’
In 1990, she was made redundant and so to make money, she bought a black taxi and offered tours of Belfast. At the time, she was the only woman on the ranks. Shortly after, she began to volunteer at the Shankill Women’s Centre and helped to develop the ‘Steps to Excellence’ course which sought to boost women’s confidence and she also got involved in literacy courses. The women’s centre in the Shankill and the one on the Falls road have always maintained a close working relationship. At one point, money was offered to Falls but told that if they took it, Shankill wouldn’t get any, and vice versa, so both centres refused it. They continue to share resources and organise courses together to this day.
In the early 2010s, through the centre, Weir worked with female prisoners who were preparing for life on the outside. She tried to give them ‘a natural high’ by horse riding, canoeing and ‘doing things that they never would have experienced.’ On one occasion, she managed to take them on a weekend residential to Lusty Beg Island. While they had all been repeat offenders, she maintains that ‘none of them women went back into prison.’ It was this work of helping them integrate back into the community that led to Weir’s epiphany. While at first, she had been nervous to enter the prison alone, she came to the realisation that ‘the only reason why this was out of [her] comfort zone was because [she] was judging the people inside.’ Through all her years of work, that moment changed her mindset and led to great personal growth.
‘We’ve the lowest amount of mental health services within the whole of the UK. We’ve kept the peace, but we have no peace.’
For the journey that the people of Northern Ireland have been on, their government have since let them down. When reflecting on her life during the Troubles, one word Weir hates being described as is ‘resilient’ because ‘we’re not really.’
I think we had to be at the time, and I think there’s a lot of stuff now that, because you went through the bombing and seen some horrific things, I have a barrier built up. My reactions aren’t the same as other people. I think that’s something we built up, women and people of my generation, because you’re that while used to hearing bombs, and hearing people being killed in these bombs… after the sixth, seventh, eighth bomb… you get used to it. If you had have let it get in in those days, you probably wouldn’t be alive today.
In saying that, Weir made the point that ‘help needs to come in’ now in the form of mental health services to help people in the worst affected communities come to terms with their collective trauma.
‘I should not be saying I want round the table. The men round the table should be saying ‘where’s the women?’’
Weir is currently fighting to get a seat at the table of her local community-based discussion group which focuses on moving forward after the conflict of the past; the group includes the likes of ex-paramilitaries and gatekeepers of peace from the local area. As someone who works within the community, she feels her voice and experience would be of benefit to the group. She wants resolution 1325 to be implemented but has been refused because the Troubles ‘was not a war.’ She says that there is a 1325 committee at Stormont, but not in her local area. The resolution
reaffirms the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peace-building, peacekeeping, humanitarian response and in post-conflict reconstruction and stresses the importance of their equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security. Resolution 1325 urges all actors to increase the participation of women and incorporate gender perspectives in all United Nations peace and security efforts.
‘If I’m asking women to challenge themselves, I need to know how they’re feeling inside about doing it, so I keep challenging myself to do things to get that feeling.’
Weir still works within the Shankill Women’s Centre today, a busy building which is attended by women from across all communities. They provide free childcare for women accessing their educational programmes and try their best to put on any course that they might request. In 2018 she was awarded the Community Relations Council Exceptional Achievement award as recognition of her decades of community relations work. Peter Osborne, chairman of the Council said of Weir:
She is living proof of how peace is built from the grassroots […] For almost three decades, Eileen has been at the fore of crucial cross-community work in the Shankill area, work that has had a profound impact on its community. The narrative during the conflict in Northern Ireland was a largely male one - the narrative of peace building must include everyone. Eileen is a powerful advocate for an inclusive, empowering approach.
The same year, Weir was awarded the ‘Con McCluskey’ Civil Rights award. She accepted it on ‘behalf of all the women’ who work in the community and told us that the women’s movement was on the rise again to hold the peace in Northern Ireland.
Herstory invites students and artists to create brand new portraits of Northern Ireland’s peace heroines. To have your art featured in the Herstory 2020 project please send your name, age and high resolution jpegs to firstname.lastname@example.org
Interview between Herstory and Eileen, 27 June 2019.
Resolution 1325 information found at: https://www.un.org/womenwatch/osagi/wps/ .
Belfast Telegraph, 28 Mar. 2018.
Newsletter, 14 Sept. 2018.
BelfastLive, 3 Apr. 2018.
Herstory by Katelyn Hanna.