Samaritans branch a light in dark times for past 60 years

The oldest branch of the Samaritans on the island of Ireland has marked its 60th anniversary.

Monday, 18th October 2021, 7:55 am
Updated Monday, 18th October 2021, 7:55 am
The first meeting of the Belfast branch of the Samaritans in the chapter house of St Anne's Cathedral, Belfast in 1961. The oldest branch of the Samaritans on the island of Ireland has marked its 60th anniversary.

The first meeting of Belfast Samaritans was held in the chapter house of the city’s St Anne’s Cathedral in 1961.

Volunteers past and present returned to the cathedral yesterday for a service of thanksgiving to reflect on six decades of work to support people through dark times.

The branch has remained open seven days a week since its creation. In 1974, during the height of the Troubles, it was forced to close for just two hours due to a nearby bomb threat.

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From November 1961, it operated out of two rooms on the third floor at 87 King Street in Belfast city centre.

As demand for its services increased, the branch relocated and is currently based on Wellesley Avenue in the south of the city.

Last year it answered more than 32,000 calls, replied to more than 2,600 emails and had almost 300 contacts with callers through a new pilot of an online chat service.

Sue Cunningham, the volunteer director at Belfast Samaritans, said the location of yesterday’s cross-community service is poignant.

“Our volunteers are very proud to be celebrating this milestone, some of whom have been part of the branch for a great many years,” she said.

“This is recognition of the endless hours they give so freely year on year supporting those who need us, and the additional hours given by so many volunteers in the running of all aspects of the branch.”

Ms Cunningham reflected on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic of the branch’s work.

“The last 18 months have been an extremely challenging time for everyone in Northern Ireland, including Belfast Samaritans,” she said.

“The pandemic forced a significant number of listening volunteers to step back from duties, to close our doors to face-to-face callers, and cease most of our outreach activities. This has put pressure on our branch and similarly the whole organisation.

“However, throughout all of this, volunteers have gone beyond expectation to ensure we continue to provide our helpline service, seven days a week, just as we have done this past 60 years.

“We can’t estimate how many people we have supported over the years, but we want to remind the people of Belfast and Northern Ireland that we’re here for them if they are struggling to cope for any reason, if they are feeling isolated, distressed, anxious, depressed or suicidal, freephone 116 123 and email [email protected]