Lives Remembered

Teresa 'Tish' Lunney: Former councillor and internee was passionate about her west Belfast community

Teresa Lunney enjoying time with a young niece

TERESA 'Tish' Lunney was passionate about her community and committed to helping it.

The former Sinn Féin councillor, who was the north's youngest female internee, devoted the last two decades of her life to improving the quality of life for people in Andersonstown in west Belfast.

The focus of her work was the Upper Andersonstown Community Forum, a coming together of local groups with the aim of tackling the economic, social and health inequalities that blighted the nationalist area during the Troubles.

From modest beginnings in temporary accommodation, she secured grants to transform dilapidated premises in Tullymore Gardens and expanded its programmes to accommodate everyone from toddlers to pensioners.

Teresa was so committed to the work she refused to take up an offer of a speaking tour in the US - "This my Tullymore, my people", she declared - and right up until her final days she was busy organising projects from her hospice bed.

The greatest tribute paid after death was from the many young people at her wake and huge funeral, who spoke of how she had transformed their lives, giving them the education, tools and self-belief to carve out happy, productive lives.

Teresa's commitment to community activism can be traced back to her father Tommy Holland, a Belfast busman who was a Labour Party organiser for Gerry Fitt and Paddy Devlin and whose brother Kevin was interned during the 1940s.

Teresa - she was later given the nickname 'Tish' - was born in 1955 on Alexander Street West in the 'Pound Loney' off the lower Falls, named after the city's old animal pound.

She was the sixth of eight children to Tommy and his mill worker wife Violet, with the family moving to Clonelly Avenue opposite the Bass brewery in Andersonstown when homes were cleared to build Divis flats.

Teresa was a pupil at St Comgall's on Divis Street, St Dominic's grammar and Lisburn technical college and was talented in art and loved sport.

However, she suffered the loss of her father at the age of 15 and what career plans she had were turned upside down by her arrest on St Valentine's Day 1972 and internment in Armagh jail.

Her brother Brendan had been on the 'long march' attacked at Burntollet in 1969 and Teresa became an active republican as the Troubles erupted across Belfast.

Aged just 17 when she entered prison, she was the youngest female internee and by the time she was released 18 months later - after several escape attempts from the harsh regime - she had also spent the longest time in custody.

She earned a degree in social policy in Coleraine and was involved with Sinn Féin, playing an important role in the prison campaigns of late 1970s and early 1980s and Bobby Sands's election as MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone.

Teresa was herself among the first party members elected to Belfast City Council, winning the first of two terms in 1985.

Along with other Sinn Féin representatives, she faced regular threats and abuse. During her second term, while pregnant, she took to wearing a flak jacket for protection from protesters both outside and inside City Hall.

After stepping down in 1993, Teresa put all her energies into community work.

By now married to west Belfast man Phil Lunney - after a long courtship beginning in the early seventies - it was a difficult period as they raised two young children.

While Phil repaired shoes, she would clean the Falls Taxi Association offices to help make ends meet and knew well the dearth of opportunities in that troubled part of the city.

But driven by a deep sense of justice and determination that her community would be given the respect it deserved, she set about attracting funding and investment to the area.

Offering everything from childcare to skills training and activities for older people, the community forum now has 35 employees and has won a string of awards.

Teresa frequently crossed the peace line to work with partners on the Shankill and tributes over the last week came from across the political divide.

She refused to retire, but did always find time to tend to her garden at St Meryl Park as well as keep her many nieces, nephews and their children amused with games and jokes.

Even while ill in the Northern Ireland Hospice she ordered her husband to gather up unwanted plants so she could tend them back to health in the patio - a poignant symbol of how she tried to help others grow and blossom throughout her life.

At her funeral at St Matthias' Church, which she had planned meticulously, a pot plant and pair of gardening gloves were brought to the altar.

The Mass was celebrated by Fr Gary Donegan, who had administered last rites to her brother Harry Holland after he was stabbed outside his west Belfast home in September 2007 - a tragedy that inevitably cast a heavy shadow over Theresa and her family.

Her remains were later taken to Roselawn Crematorium, where Van Morrison's Days Like This was among songs played.

Teresa 'Tish' Lunney died aged 63 on September 23. She is survived by her husband Phil, children Tomás and Nuala and family circle.

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Lives Remembered