Noreen Sweeney’s love affair with Derry started in the summer of 1996 when she arrived here to set-up a service aimed at enabling parents suffering from postnatal depression, isolation and difficulty coping with the challenges of family life.
Noreen is director of N.I Newpin which is based at Jasmine Court in the Waterside.
Awards for All/The Big Lottery Fund has recently awarded Newpin funding to continue its work with young mothers and their children.
“We have clients from all over Derry, Strabane and Limavady,” said Noreen.
“It is important that a service like Newpin is available to the families. I know from first hand experience the challenges of parenthood and how vital positive support is in that role .”
Noreen was born in the mid 1940s and was reared in the small town of Doneraile in North County Cork. Noreen recalled a rural upbringing and described her education at the Presentation Convent as “top class”.
“Despite growing up in relative poverty, I have very happy memories of childhood,” said Noreen.
“The G.A.A. played a big part in our family growing up. My father and brothers were all good hurlers and my mother, my sister, God rest her, and myself often spent Sunday afternoons watching hurling matches. My mother’s family were all jockeys so naturally there was an interest in horse racing as well”
“I was educated at the Presentation Convent. Looking back now, I can appreciate just how progressive the nuns were in terms of education. It was a great education which served me well. This became clear when I received top marks in the entrance exam when I applied to do nursing in England’
Noreen’s parents were called Nancy and Sonny. She said that her mother was “years ahead of her time” as she not only raised six children but she also worked five afternoons a week as a cleaner at a local school.
“My mother had a great wisdom and all she ever wanted was the best for us.
“My mother worked every evening at the local school. We would pass her on our way home from school and she would tell us that she’d left some food out on the table for us. She was years ahead of her time and she always told us to make sure we took our opportunities when they came along.
“My father was a labourer in a timber mill. I was always the apple of his eye and able to wrap him around my little finger!”
“My father was your typical Irish man of that time but when both he and I got older I would often take him out for a run in the car. We’d stop some where along the way and he’d have a pint and we’d talk for ages.”
Noreen left the Presentation Convent when she was 15 years-old and got a job working in the local shop. She said it was a source of great conversation and she was always up-to-date with what was going on in Doneraile. However, when she was 18 she decided that she wanted to try for a career in nursing so after working as a domestic in Mercy Hospital, Cork she left Ireland for Essex where she studied nursing for four years.
“I suppose my notion of nursing came as a result of me being sick when I was younger.
“When I was born, the local midwife and doctor told my mother that I wasn’t going to live but my mother fought hard for me and here I am today,” she smiled.
“I was sick for most of my childhood however and when all of my friends were busy playing outside I was at home looking out at them because I was so weak.”
Noreen added: “When I went to Essex, it was the first time that I had ever left Ireland. It was quite daunting and I remember sitting on the train to London with my friend when we got off the boat and wondering what lay ahead of us. I stayed with my sister and her husband for a short time before we moved on to Essex.
“The training was second to none – it was just top class and I enjoyed every single minute of it.”
Noreen became unwell during her training and had to have her appendix out but it was a minor set back and soon after she completed her training and was a fully qualified nurse. Noreen’s first staff nurse position was on a medical ward and later in the operating theatre in the Hospital where she trained in Essex. Noreen then moved on to do midwifery in The General Lying-in Hospital in London.
After completing Midwifery, Noreen returned home to Doneraile to spend time with her family. During her visit she received a letter from her old matron at the General Lying-In Hospital asking her if she would be interested in returning to London to take up a post working at the St. Thomas’s Hospital Special Care Unit.
“The two things I hated when training as a nurse was working in theatre and in a special care unit but I took up my old matron’s offer! It was a great opportunity for me because it meant that I got to work alongside some of the top consultants in London at the time.”
Noreen left her post at St. Thomas’s a few years later and returned home to Cork where she worked as a psychiatric nurse for a few years before taking up a Sister’s post at a hospital in Dundee in Scotland.
“I enjoyed my time as a psychiatric nurse - the hospital I worked in was in a wonderful setting near lovely woods,” recalled Noreen.
“I left my position as a psychiatric nurse and went for an interview for a staff nurse’s job in Dundee and ended up getting offered a Sister’s post in the theatre department of the Dundee Royal Infirmary.
“It was hard at times but I thoroughly enjoyed working in Dundee. It was always very busy and I remember at weekends we would have to deal with a lot of people who had been stabbed.
“I got on great with the surgeons and the anaesthetists. The health service then was very different to the way it is now”
“My mother became ill in March 1979 and I was supposed to be going to Saudi Arabia to take up a nursing post.
“My brother was getting married in August and he asked me to stay until then. I wanted to stay and look after my mother and I was willing to forgo going to Saudi Arabia but she insisted I go. I think it was to do with the fact that she wanted to go to America when she was younger and her mother wouldn’t let her - I suppose she didn’t want me to miss out like she felt she did.”
Noreen arrived in Saudi Arabia in September 1979 and went to work in a hospital owned by an oil company Aramco.
“If I am honest I was a bit worried about how I would react to the Arabian culture but if truth be told it was the American culture and Americans that I found the toughest to cope with!.
“It took me about two years to settle there but I enjoyed it. I stayed there for another two years before I came back to England and gave birth to my son.”
Noreen managed to secure one night a week working at St. Thomas’s Hospital during which time she recognised she was suffering from post-natal depression and she realised she had to seek support around this despite having good family support from her sister and family.
“I had never experienced anything like it before. I felt like I was in a black hole and I was very scared. My health visitor recommended a service called Newpin. I went along and engaged in counselling, therapy and other personal development training - it helped me so much and strengthened the bond between myself and my son.”
Noreen’s experience with Newpin was so profound she decided she wanted to change direction in her career and do this kind of work full time. Noreen went on to train as a counsellor and a group therapist.
As the years went by Noreen became more and more involved with Newpin and set-up bases around London.
In 1996, Save the Children secured the financial support required to set-up a Derry based Newpin service; the powers that be turned to Noreen and asked her if she would be interested in setting it up.
“I first arrived in Derry in 1996 during the Drumcree stand-off,” she remembered.
“A lot has changed since then but the one thing that hasn’t changed is the need for a service like Newpin.
“I have experience as both someone who benefited from Newpin and as someone who has worked for the service for a long time
“At Newpin, we don’t offer quick fixes - we stay with the parents until they feel they no longer need our service and have completed their personal development which of course includes intensive therapy.
“As I said, I have been doing this for a while now but I still get tremendous satisfaction when we help a mother to come out the other side.
“I think the thing that I really admire about the mothers of Derry is that they will do anything that will help their families. Derry is a city full of strong women.”
“We’ve been very lucky, over the last few years because we have received tremendous support from the Western Health and Social Care Trust. We are also funded by the Big Lottery Fund and Children In Need.
“I know we are operating in tough economic times but we must not undervalue the importance of a service like Newpin.,” said Noreen.
Now in her sixties, Noreen plans on retiring from Newpin within the next two years. Despite her ardent affection for Derry she still regards Doneraile as home and will spend her retirement there amongst family and friends in the house where she was born and raised.
“When my mother and father passed away they left me the old cottage. I have renovated it over the last few years and when I retire, that’s where I am going. I am really looking forward to it. Derry is great and it will always have a special place in my heart but Cork is home and home is where I am going when I retire,” she smiled.
For further information on Newpin telephone Noreen or one of her team on 028 7134 4477 or contact via email at firstname.lastname@example.org