When a generation of strong Derry women raised their families through the Troubles and still managed to find time to do their bit for the community around them - it was an achievement worth shouting about. Decades later, the challenges facing people in the city are different but the tireless efforts of a number of key individuals means that strong sense of community is being preserved. One of those people is Bronach McMonagle.
Last October, the 33-year-old took up the role of manager at Dove House. It may have only been a move of a few feet from her old offices at DIVERT based in Dove House, but taking over the reins at one of Derry’s busiest community hubs was, she admits, a huge challenge and one she’s still settling into.
With a one year old daughter, Bronach - like all working mothers - finds herself flitting between her work at Dove House and her role as a mum. Successfully combining the two, she admits a part of her feels more of a responsibilty to build a better community knowing that her daughter, Stella, will grow up here.
Bronach grew up in Creggan. Her parents Maureen and Frankie suffered the tragic loss of their daughter Stella in a drowning accident. Bronach never knew her older sister but decided to name her own daughter after her late sister when she was born last year.
Growing up in a family of seven in a close knit area where people helped one another out clearly gave Bronach a natural introduction to life in the community sector. She has particularly fond memories of her time at Holy Child Primary School where she says there was a real sense of family.
After seven years at Thornhill College however Bronach went on to study business in Edinburgh but the sad death of her father Frankie in January 1998 prompted a change in direction.
Bronach decided to take time out and move home to Derry to be closer to her family.
“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do at that point and I started volunteering in Pilot’s Row, I was asked to cover the reception in there and I just loved the idea of what the youth workers were doing there. An opportunity came up to volunteer as a youth worker and I took it.
In 2003, after studying at Jordanstown, Bronach graduated with a degree in community youth work.
She already knew what area she wanted to focus on. Knowing that her father Frankie had struggled with alcoholism and wanting to understand more about the impact of parental alcohol misuse on children and young people, Bronach did placements with alcohol awareness group DIVERT and the White Oaks Rehabilitation Centre.
Her first paid community role came as a drug and alcohol worker based in Ballymagroarty and Hazelbank. This was Bronach’s introduction to the area she would eventually specialise in. In 2006 when she began working with DIVERT, the former Thornhill pupil set about encouraging a massive change in the way parents look at their use of alcohol and the damning effects there can be on the young people living in a home with substance abuse.
It was a huge leap and a concept which had for many years been brushed under the carpet.
Previously, professionals became involved in family situations where the abuse of alcohol had led to neglect and abuse. Bronach’s job was to look at the area of hidden harm. She set about focusing on consistent problems for children caused by the drinking habits of those responsible for looking after them. Early intervention was suddenly seen as key but the job was a huge challenge and one not readily welcomed by the community at the beginning.
“It was difficult and a lot of people shut doors in our faces. We were trying to change people’s mindsets. Even if people didn’t see themselves as having a big problem with alcohol we wanted to make them aware of the effect their drinking was having on their children and if they were hungover how that would translate into a lack of structure.”
Bronach was at the forefront of writing the initial ‘Hidden Harm’ action plan and knocked on government doors at local and regional level until people listened. Since then, the Hidden Harm concept through DIVERT has impacted on the lives of hundreds of families and young people. While Bronach’s proud of the part she played in that achievement she says the project should only be defined by its success.
“What keeps me going is knowing how many young people have been helped by it. When a project stops being about those people on the ground, that’s when it stops working.”
Bronach spent six years with DIVERT until the opportunity came up to apply for the job as manager at Dove House.
“It wasn’t an easy decision going for the job because I loved working at DIVERT. It’s a project which is so radical and forward thinking.”
After weeks of considering Bronach applied for the post, got the job and had to say goodbye to the role she’d been so passionate about at DIVERT. Her new role, she admits, has been a baptism of fire. Faced with a ton of funding applications and knowing she was going into the job in the middle of a huge recession - Bronach had no illusions that the post would be an easy one.
“I did come in at a difficult time,” she says. “But there’s a fantastic infrastructure and amazing people at work to provide the services here. Things are still tough for people in this area (Bogside/Brandywell), issues with alcohol and poverty still remain. We know we’re not going to save the world in a day but with the dedication and fantastic partnerships we have working here a lot of people in the community are getting support that they’d be lost without.”
As well as having to cope with extreme poverty, another issue which has seen the Bogside, among other areas, hit the headlines over the past year has been the worrying development of punishment shootings. In her role as a community leader, Bronach, along with a number of other local women formed the opposition group MOVE ON.
Her determination to build a better community and a brighter future for young people growing up in the area is clear in her anger at those carrying out the shootings.
“We’re the people being paid to intervene and help young people who might need it because of drugs or alcohol. Shooting people is not the answer and our appeal to the people doing this is to let us deal with the problem. Let us do our jobs or come to the table and engage with us.”
Praising the staff at Dove House, the 33-year-old manager clearly loves her job.
“I have no doubt that we have the best workers and the best way of working here and we’re proud that so many initiatives that have been rolled out locally began here. Now, I feel lucky to be in the position that I am where I can challenge and influence things that are happening on the ground.”
To access the services available at Dove House, telephone 02871 269327.