Noel Doran: Hope and defiance in a town used to tough times

Antrim is among the last places in Ireland where there should be objections to those rightly or wrongly perceived as outsiders

Noel Doran

Noel Doran

Noel was editor of The Irish News from 1999 until April 2024. He remains closely involved with the paper, and remains hopeful that Down are poised to win another All-Ireland championship

Jessy Clark
Jessy Clark (9) with his great-grandmothers Margaret Hart and Pauline O'Loan after his specially adapted bungalow was attacked in Antrim. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN

While ugly outbreaks of sectarianism are sadly not unknown during our summer months, there was something particularly disturbing about the recent concerted series of attacks on houses in Antrim.

The perpetrators, who were motivated by the kind of gut-level bigotry which often surfaces within loyalism, but can occasionally be found in all sections of our divided society, also plainly had little knowledge of the history of their own area when they painted the crude slogan “locals only” on homes which were almost ready for occupancy.

Antrim was originally expanded in the 1970s as a new town which was entirely dependent on people arriving from elsewhere in huge numbers, and is among the last places in Ireland, north or south, where there should be objections to those rightly or wrongly perceived as outsiders.

Those who wrecked the bungalow which was specially adapted for nine-year-old Jessy Clark, who suffers from spina bifida and other serious conditions, perhaps did not know or care that he already lives in a nearby part of Antrim, but there is no excuse for ignorance.

They fairly obviously believed that Jessy and his family, who, like many others in the town, are from a religiously mixed background, would be intimidated by the appearance of loyalist flags, followed by the throwing of paint bombs and the smashing of windows and doors, in a small new development close to what is regarded as the loyalist estate of Ballycraigy.

Jessy’s relatives have had a wave of support from all quarters and, having spent years waiting for a property which was suitable for his wheelchair, say they remain firmly determined to go ahead with the move, but several African families, with young children, have already been forced out of Ballycraigy after a despicable campaign of threats.

Graffiti declaring 'locals only' on a house in a new development opposite the Ballycraigy estate in Antrim

It all presents a depressing picture of 21st century Ireland so it is reasonable to set out briefly how Antrim came to exist in its present form.

The population there was barely 3,000 when it was designated for significant growth by the old Stormont administration in 1966, but was soon nearly seven times that size, with newcomers drawn by the availability of modern housing and recreation facilities, good transport links, some grants, and above all well-paid work at the enormous British Enkalon textile factory.

Similar official schemes, which always had contentious aspects, were also launched in Craigavon, linking two already substantial centres in Lurgan and Portadown, and in Ballymena, an established commercial hub, but Antrim was very different as it was previously little more than a large village surrounded by farmland and it became effectively a social experiment on a grand scale.

I found it a fascinating place when I arrived there as a young reporter in 1978, as, despite all the difficulties surrounding its evolution, it had some strong business and trade union sectors and at that stage a burgeoning community spirit.

The new residents had come from across the north, but mainly from separate Protestant and Catholic interfaces which were caught up in the Troubles in Belfast, and for long periods many of them managed to put their former experiences behind them as they made a fresh start.

Although sectarian tensions had been present in districts of the city for centuries, there was a different atmosphere about many of the large Housing Executive complexes which sprang up on what had previously been agricultural fields in Antrim.

The main exception was Ballycraigy, through its association with the Shankill and other districts of Belfast, while those living in nearby estates tended to be better integrated with their neighbours and the rest of the town.

Antrim’s story was closely linked with that of Enkalon, a major Dutch-owned plant delivering nylon and other products to the international market, which had originally opened with several hundred staff in 1963.

The Enkalon plant in Antrim employed thousands of people at its height
The Enkalon plant in Antrim employed thousands of people at its height

It always had the potential for further expansion, with its proximity to the M2 motorway and Belfast international airport, and, as the new town took shape, the workforce amazingly soared past the 3,000 mark within a decade.

The first big setback came when the wider loyalist strike of 1974 completely halted the sophisticated production system, followed by even more serious consequences over the coming years as the global recession in man-made fibres pushed the company towards the brink.

Practically every week, I was among the journalists on the weekly newspapers in the town charting further grim declines, until a final traumatic closure was confirmed in 1985.

The Enkalon plant in Antrim employed thousands of people at its height
Antrim was always going to struggle in the post-Enkalon period

Antrim was always going to struggle in the post-Enkalon period, but efforts have been made to promote it as an attractive option for young families who could either pursue opportunities in smaller ventures there or take advantage of the easy commuting distance to both Belfast and Ballymena.

It is a process which should not be undermined by a handful of extremists, skulking under cover of darkness as they follow a twisted racist and sectarian philosophy, and the courageous relatives of little Jessy Clark have sent out a message of both hope and defiance in a town which is used to tough times.