For generations, women have been the backbone of life in Derry. Immortalised in the songs of artists like Phil Coulter, they have rightly been recognised for seeing the city through some of its darkest days. Thousands of them formed the strong manufacturing industry which made the city a huge player in the international fabric world. When not doing that, they tried their best to protect their families from the worst years of the Troubles.
In doing all this work, many of them formed the foundations of a city built on a strong sense of community.
Marie Gillespie has been chairperson of the Galliagh Women’s group for the past 18 years.
In a voluntary capacity, the Creggan-born woman has, together with others in the Galliagh area, helped maintain a lifeline for local women who come to the Centre on a daily basis for everything from health awareness, education, socialising, and baking some phenomenally good scones.
What has been built at the Galliagh Park centre is way more than just a place where people can come to expand their knowledge base. Life lasting companionships have been formed and a sense of solidarity which seems unbreakable.
When it comes to working in the community Marie has amassed a life time of experience. That experience began with her parents, the late Eddie and Alice McCallion in Benevenagh Gardens in Creggan.
“My father was a great man for the community,” says the mother of three.
“He was involved in a lot of things with the church and the pioneers and he was in the Knights of Malta. My mother knew how important the community was too. We were lucky growing up in the sense that it was a very different sense of community. You could have walked down the street and left your door wide open. There mightn’t have been many official community groups but everyone helped one another, that was just the way it worked back then.
“I think now there’s a lot more distance between people and that’s something women have always worked hard to try and tackle here at the Galliagh Women’s Group.”
“Like many from her generation, Marie’s education was cut short and she became a member of the city’s workforce at a very early age.
“I went to St Mary’s in Creggan and I loved it, but I had to leave at 14 because my birthday fell in July and that was just the way it all worked.
“From that, I was straight into the City Factory.”
Marie, like most women who earned their keep in the factories in Derry, has fond memories of her time there.
“It was great. The money wasn’t bad and we had such strong friendships in there. The thing at that time was that women had to go out to work because there was no work for the men. The craic was ninety between us all.”
Marie married her husband Don at 20, and went on to have three children. She now has five grandchildren too, and another on the way.
“Everybody got married much younger back then,” she says.
“I stayed in the factory for 20 years. I always went back after maternity leave, I really enjoyed it.”
To this day the 61 year old has kept his skills with her and is a dab hand at needle work, passing on the tricks of the trade to a new generation, through the Galliagh Women’s Group.
“My mother had a big background in dressmaking and she used to make wedding dresses for people when we were growing up so I picked up a lot of it from her too. She was a great woman. Her and my aunt Rose also worked with people who had learning disabilities teaching them to stitch and sew.”
Having brought up her family in the area, and initially getting involved in youth clubs and the organisation of discos for teenagers in the area, Marie and other women soon realised that something was needed for them.
“Our idea at the start was to have something here for women which meant they didn’t have to go all the way into the town every time so we started at the beginning just working from our houses and the group has taken off from there.
“There was a gap here with things like health and wellbeing. We have a lot of vulnerable women and Galliagh is an area where a lot of women have struggled.
“We’ve all worked together and there are such strong women in this area. We do a lot of work now outside the area too and a lot of cross community outreach. People who work here are brilliant and all of them are volunteers.
“It’s amazing to see the difference in people who come through the door thinking they can’t do certain things and seeing how much confidence they get just from being here.”
Still there as the group approaches its 20th birthday, Marie says she has no intention of leaving the people who she describes as “a big family,” just yet.
“The people who come through the centre here are brilliant, they’re so talented and we’ve formed so many strong friendships. Rosie Doherty, and the committee have done amazing work down through the years and I’m just delighted to be a part of it. Now we have the welfare rights service here as well and the advice service and so much more.
“I don’t think people realise that this work is all done by people who don’t get paid. So much of our time is taken up with worrying about whether we’ll have enough funding to keep the building opened and keep providing these vital services.
“We work in partnership with other groups in the area and outside the area too in a cross community capacity.
“Derry people have always been good at keeping a sense of community. I think we know how to stick together because we’ve always had to do that in the past.
“I just feel lucky to be part of a community here in Galliagh where there’s so much good work being done by such strong women.”
To contact the Galliagh Women’s Group and find out more about their range of services, telephone Rosie or Marie on 02871 356092