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The sight of refugees in Europe from 2015 recalled for some people that we had a refugee crisis in Ireland within living memory. In the first few summers of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, 1969-1972, refugees from Catholic areas came over the border to escape the tension surrounding the Orange celebrations of The Twelfth. The numbers peaked at 10,000 in 1972. But, by 1972, the refugees were no longer being housed by the Army in camps, instead they were being put up by local authorities and educational institutions.
One such institution was Glenstal Abbey - a Benedictine monastery in 500 acres of farmland in East Limerick. The monastery also houses a boys’ private secondary school. On July 11th, 1972, the monks received a call telling them that 172 women and children were on the way and to get ready. The monks had the assistance of the local Civil Defence. Mostly women and children arrived because the men stayed behind to protect their homes from Protestant mobs.
While Glenstal was ideal for hosting a large group - having dormitories and refectories, this was not the kind of large group the monks were used to. There were many babies and the monks had to get used to nappies hanging in Glenstal. The children were also full of energy and had been traumatised having lived through three years of The Troubles. One of their favourite pastimes was to throw stones.
The monks and the Civil Defence decided that distraction was the best way to manage the new visitors. They organised activities for the children in the daytime and musical entertainment for everyone in the evening. There was tension. While the refugees were fleeing the fighting, they were also enjoying a holiday and some of the Civil Defence volunteers felt that they were being used - some of the women wanted to be dropped down to the local pub in the Civil Defence ambulance. After a few weeks, all the refugees had returned home. They left the monks to return to their ordered life but feeling bereft - they missed the liveliness and presence of women and children in Glenstal.
The refugees returned to 30 more years of tension and chaos. One refugee, Gemma, who was 4 at the time says that Glenstal was the last time she remembers her mother being really happy. When they returned home, Gemma’s brother was killed by the British Army and Gemma’s mother spent the rest of her life campaigning over the issue of her son’s death.
Narrated by Stephen Kinsella
Research by Ian Kenneally
First Broadcast Saturday 3rd September at 1pm.
Repeated Sunday 4th September at 7pm.
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An Irish radio documentary from RTÉ Radio 1, Ireland - Documentary on One - the home of Irish radio documentaries.