A NORTH Belfast woman who walked her daughter to school during the Holy Cross protests says she still gets nightmare flashbacks twenty years on.
Philomena Keenan and her daughter, Eirinn, who was just seven years old at the time, were subject to daily sectarian abuse and insults along with other parents and children, as they tried to make their way to Holy Cross Girls Primary School in Ardoyne. The loyalist protests started in June 2001 before resuming after the summer break in September that year.
Protesters from the Protestant Glenbryn estate shouted sectarian abuse and threw stones, bricks, fireworks, urine-filled balloons and on one occasion a blast bomb at the Catholic schoolchildren and their parents under guard from police and soldiers.
The distressing scenes made headlines across the world.
Eirinn, who is now 27, was a Primary Three pupil at the school and suffered years of mental health issues as a result of the ordeal.
Speaking to the North Belfast News, Philomena recalled the ‘nightmare’ days of 2001.
“When it started in June, we thought there was just a lot of tension in the area which had been building up,” she explained.
“Throughout the summer, we worked tirelessly with mediators to try and work out a resolution. I was part of the group that sat in City Hall and had meetings but they didn’t want to know.
“We still held out hope that nothing would start in September, again even up until the night before school started back.
“We were all very nervous. On that first day back, it was like being thrown into a cesspit of vultures.
“There was so much sectarian hatred towards us, all in front of unionist politicians.
“They shouted my name and told me I would be dead. My wee daughter heard it and she was distraught.
“I remember my daughter asking me what a Fenian was. These kids were too young to know about religion and stuff like that. It was disgusting.
“No one could believe it. We thought who could actually do this to kids?
“No matter what religion you are or what issues you may have, a child has a right to attend school. As parents, we were doing nothing wrong other than bringing our children to school.
“I think people thought we were the ones in the wrong and it was crazy to put our kids through it every day.
“The days after was a nightmare. Eirinn didn’t want to leave the house to go to school.
“I ended up having to leave my home when this was all going on due to threats.
“I remember the community spirit in the area at the time was brilliant. People really came together. I am a proud republican and so proud to be from Ardoyne.
“Even when I drive around the area now, all the nightmares come back. It is something that will never leave my head.
“My daughter suffered from PTSD for years after, even after ten years. She had flashbacks of walking to school and all the shouting and threats directed towards her.
“Thankfully, she is doing OK now and has gone on to have her own children. She has a beautiful wee girl. I know many of the kids and they are all flourishing.”
In November, loyalists ended the protest after being promised tighter security for their area and a redevelopment scheme. The security forces however remained outside the school for several months after.
Twenty years on, Philomena says those dark days will never happen again.
“Twenty years on, history has learnt and taught the people who inflicted this that what they did was diabolical and could never happen again,” she added.
“I think we are in a better place now. Any form of sectarianism should be a crime and in law in order to eradicate incidents.
“I am very positive about the future. Every child has a right to be educated and cherished equally.”
Fr Aidan Troy, who helped parents and children on their walk to school thanked those who placed their trust in him twenty years ago.
“Twenty years ago changed my life as I walked with 225 children and their parents to Holy Cross School.
“For three months they allowed me share in taking their young daughters to school.
"Thanks for your trust in me. Today I pray that lasting peace be the road ahead for all.”