Ballykeel II: Community works to restore its pride

Pacemaker Press INTL 16-03-12'Ballykeel estate feature with News Letter Journalist Rebecca Black.'Picture Colm O'Reilly Pacemaker Press INTL 16-03-12
Pacemaker Press INTL 16-03-12'Ballykeel estate feature with News Letter Journalist Rebecca Black.'Picture Colm O'Reilly Pacemaker Press INTL 16-03-12

IF you do an internet search on Ballykeel II, one of the first mentions is a report about a digger having been set alight on Orkney Drive in 2010, however walking along the same street with community leader Joe Thompson and minister Martin McNeely, I feel a world away from that image.

In fact it is closer to a scene from Postman Pat with Joe and Martin waving and greeting most that we pass on foot or in car, even the postman gives a cheery wave.

While Ballymena is relatively familiar to me with plenty of family links in Harryville, Ballykeel was an unfamiliar turn off at the roundabout.

This confession at the community centre sparked banter, showing me that Ballykeel II has its own very distinct identity not only from other areas of Ballymena but even from Ballykeel I.

Ballykeel I dates to 1962 and was built to relieve overcrowding in Ballymena and also facilitate people coming into the town from the country to work in the busy factories and mills.

Due to further demand, Ballykeel II was set up in 1972 also to house a workforce.

Bigger houses close to the entrance of Ballykeel II illustrate where the factory managers once lived and the terraces where the workers lived.

The closure of most of the mills and many of the factories had a dramatic social effect on the inhabitants of the estate. From strong working families, many were left unemployed.

By the 1990s the estate had become bleak with many empty boarded up homes.

However around 2002 the Housing Executive acted and changed the feel of the area dramatically when it cleared many of the derelict buildings and created green spaces.

As a consequence today the estate is neat and well presented and instead of a list of empty dwellings, there is a waiting list of more than a hundred people wanting to live here.

Chairman of the Ballykeel Residents Association Joe Thompson paid tribute to the Housing Executive for the move.

“We have to give credit where credit is due, knocking down those houses opened the entire estate up,” he said.

Joe was himself responsible for reinventing a derelict block of flats into a thriving community centre.

It is used by the residents association as well as pensioners and the local flute band.

The back yard of the building has been transformed into a vegetable patch, with potatoes, broad beans and lettuce growing in raised beds, as well as a green house growing fruit plants.

However community work does not cure all evils, and unemployment is still a problem along with all the consequences it can have such as low self-esteem, low self-worth which in turn for some leads to drugs and alcohol abuse.

Joe said: ‘‘There are people looking for work, but there is no work or very little.”

Both Joe and Kyle Bruce of Ballykeel Loyal Sons of Ulster flute band are among the first residents on the estate dating their arrival at 1974.

They were critical of the BBC programme about Ballysally estate and said they thought local characters have been picked out and focused on. However Kyle said he was pleased to see some of the positive work going on in the Coleraine estate being highlighted in some of the later programmes.

Kyle and Joe describe Ballykeel II as more settled now, although conceded there was still an element of trouble with alcohol and drug problems.

“In years gone by, they thought about changing the name of the estate, they used to say the only positive thing that came out of Ballykeel was the flute band,” Kyle said.

The band today still excels and drugs are absolutely banned, anyone suspected of being under the influence is immediately asked to leave.

“We work with kids as young as nine, and I know I wouldn’t be happy about my nine-year-old in a place where someone might offer them drugs, so we have a very strict policy and forbid any around us,” said Kyle who adds they also have to battle educational under-achievement.

“We are working in some cases with kids who cannot count,” said Kyle.

“We play by numbers not by notes, we’ve had to teach people how to count to 11.

“There are youngsters who come in with no self confidence, no self worth.

“Our aim is to give them a bit of pride in their area, pride in their own community.”

With 60 members, the largest room in the community centre cannot fit all the members of the band. They are working towards trying to found their own band hall.

However even in that room in the centre where such positive work is being done with young people, the name on the door is poignant. It is named for Joe’s young grandson Ian Boyd who took his own life.

A suicide awareness group has also been set up in his name to help families cope with the sudden loss of their loved ones in this way.

Local Presbyterian minister Rev Martin McNeely has been in the area for five years now, but his energy and enthusiasm for good work has clearly made an impact already.

We enjoyed the distinctive view of Slemish as we walked from the estate towards the church.

Martin tells me historically there has been a strong link between the estate’s residents and the Royal Irish Rangers who used to be based at the nearby St Patrick’s barracks.

The closure of the base in 2008 was a further blow to the estate where many people had worked in different capacities.

However he also pointed out the newly refurnished primary school and described the commitment of the staff and reputation of the school as “second to none”.

Christianity has also helped the estate. Martin tells me about a local chemist who moved his profitable business from Whiteabbey to Ballykeel II in 2004 to help the area and give people jobs. The shop is now at the very heart of the community.

There are also new leisure facilities used by the local football and boxing clubs among others.

“There is a lot of positivity at the moment,” said Martin.

“This community is very friendly, that old antagonism is not there any more.”

He said the estate has changed a great deal in the last five years and summed Ballykeel II up as a “great place to live, work and worship”.