Former Mayor Oran is a true public servant

ORAN Keenan was one of five brothers who grew up on the 340-acre estate that was Holywell farm.

Born in 1955 and brought up at Culnafeigh Green, his childhood was nothing short of idyllic.

“It was a working farm, when we were kids, there were no TV or computers so we had the run of the place,” he said.

“The workers tolerated us - some would chase us - but we were often allowed to help out - and if a tree had fallen or a fence needed repaired, we would be able to tell someone who could fix it.”

Culnafeigh Green has since been swallowed up by the Springfarm estate, but back then it was 12 semi detached houses, six on one side of the green and six on the other, occupied by Holywell Hospital staff and their families.

Antrim is often described as a garrison town, but it is also a hospital town - back then there was Holywell, Muckamore and Massereene.

“The green itself was basically a sports pitch, and Bobby Fullerton was the master of ceremonies, the referee and the umpire,” said Oran

“He was very into sport and athletic, he taught us all the rules and kept us all amused.

“We had Christmas parties and garden fairs.”

“Being the middle child of five boys, I didn’t have a new pair of trousers until the age of 13.

“There was a lady called Mrs Barr who used to make clothes, every child on Culnafeigh Green had the same tweed jumper!

“And there were ward sisters, who were actually sisters, the Gallaghers, who would bring all the children grey shirts and socks and pants.

“We had a good life, on one side there was five Protestant families and one Catholic family, on the other there was five Catholic families and one Protestant family.

“Back then we didn’t know who was who and we didn’t care. We went to church or chapel on the Sunday and that was that.

“On the Twelfth we would all go into town, it was a day out, there was a pipe band hall in Castle Street where I would go and listen to the practice and I still love pipe band music.”

Like many boys of his age, Oran ‘hated’ school.

“I was at St Comgall’s, then St Olcan’s in Randalstown, and then I was taken out of there and sent to St Patrick’s in Belfast.

“Back then if they didn’t see you as a promising student, the teachers didn’t bother with you.

“The first time I went to pick spuds for McNeilly’s in Blackrock in Randalstown, it was a shilling a bag and I got 44 bags and came home with two pounds and four shillings.

“When my father saw those two pound notes, he arranged for the McNeillys to pick us all up!”

He then went to work the bar and doors at the Dunadry Inn.

The enterprising teenager also sold newspapers to bus passengers at the ‘top of the town’.

Other places of work included Dale Farm, Mastock and Northern Ireland Freight Services.

He had been working summers in the Isle of Man when he came back to a changed Antrim.

“I was 16 and I was chased out of the town,” he said.

“I got a kicking from four lads in Castle Street.

“All got a three-month suspended sentence, one lost his job but got involved himself in politics.

“He met me once at the funeral of a murdered policeman and spat at me.

“I grew up in a mixed community, the Dunadry had a mixed workforce, we never knew what religion was.

“My brothers had joined the forces, one in the RAF and the other maintaining helicopters - I didn’t even think it was an issue.”

Indeed, he had no idea that one of his own brothers was working in Aldergrove for many years.

“It was the night of the murder of the Sloans in Wolfhill outside Belfast,” he said.

Mary Sloan, her daughter and a neighbour were shot dead by UDA gunmen in a botched raid in 1976.

“My brother rang me to tell me what had happened and I wondered how he had heard before me.

“Years later we were selling our marital home in Ashgreen to move out to Aldergrove and the man who came to view it said he worked with my brother in the maintenance unit.

“For all those years, I thought he worked in England - he was trying to protect himself and his family here in Antrim.”

In 1977 Oran also went into nursing and still does two or three days a week at Whiteabbey.

His wife is a retired nurse and they have two sons and five grandchildren.

Oran’s maternal grandparents went to Donegal around the time of the partition of Ireland.

His mother grew up in Buncrana, where her father was a gardener at the popular Swan Park, and his father was from Tyrone.

Tragedy struck in 1973, when Oran’s mother was hit by a car outside St Comgall’s church as she waited for a lift with a friend.

It was a day when their entire ward had been taken out on a bus trip for the day.

“My father was out of his depth. In those days men didn’t do any caring, and there he was with five sons to look after, but he did his best.

“The man that hit my mother was fined £26 - not too many years later, I was fined £38 for obstructing the RUC.”

Oran began as an auxiliary and went on to become a mental health nurse, specialising in rehabilitation and community care.

In the 1980s, there was a big push to get people out of institutions and into independent living.

Oran also became a co-founder of the Rehability charity in Northern Ireland.

Based in Rathenraw, Rehability was originally set up to enable people with mental health problems to organise social activities and foster community integration after leaving the security of a hospital environment.

Oran has seen a lot of changes in the care received by people with mental health difficulties.

“When I was a boy there was a knock at the side door and there was a man in a dressing gown and pyjamas, he was cut to ribbons,” he said.

“He must have escaped from Holywell, so we brought him into our house and into the kitchen and gave him a cup of tea and I went to the neighbour who had a phone and a short time later the vans arrived to take him back.

“Back then there was custodial care, the nurses were called ‘keepers’.

“The patients had their clothes taken off them and put into bags.

“Attitudes have changed for the better now, everyone is an individual.

“Instead of one generic drug or treatment, there are three or four hundred medications alone.

“There was a lot of ignorance and threats years ago, but there is a lot more understanding and a lot less stigma now.”

However Oran remains worried about future generations.

“It is now said that one in three people will suffer some form of mental illness,” he said.

“It can be an underlying thing that can be triggered by things like trauma, but it can also be triggered by substance abuse.

“Alcohol and mental health issues do not mix, now young people also have a lot more access to energy drinks and caffeine pills, which may seem innocuous, but none of these things are subject to clinical tests and they are sold in shops.

“Added to that is a throwaway lifestyle and the need to have things right now.

“Payday loan firms and companies like Wonga prey on this. I think they are immoral, the stress and the strain they put people under.”

He added: “Mental illness is hard on the patient and hard on the family too.

“My grandfather took his own life so I know what happens to families having to deal with the aftermath.”

Oran made the move into politics in the mid-1980s.

“I was working in Purdysburn and I got to know a man who was a councillor in Down, his name was Sean Quinn.

“He was asking me about politics and was I interested in it.

“I wasn’t allied to any party at that stage but of course I knew Bobby Burns and Bobby Loughran and Sean eventually told me that the SDLP was looking for someone to stand for them in Antrim so I thought that I would give it a go.

“I went to a meeting in the Deerpark but we didn’t tell people what we were there for, the manager wasn’t too impressed when he saw John Hume coming in.

“That’s because Jack Allen was there the same night at another function and he nearly took the door down trying to get in to talk to us.”

Oran was eventually elected to Antrim Borough Council.

“It was a learning curve, I had left school at 16 and worked in a number of places but nothing really prepared you for it,” he said.

“The chamber was very diverse, there were people from all walks of life, including Dr Stinson and Dr McConnell, there was Drew Ritchie and Paddy Marks, both involved in health, like myself, it was an innovative council with new ideas.

“There were a lot of heated debates - some were definitely played to the Press - but we all left as friends.

“Jack Allen ran a tight ship, with a strict dress code, and he hated mobile phones!

“If you didn’t know something, you went and asked someone, the council officers were there at all times to keep you right.

“I was very proud of some of the things we achieved - the first engineered landfill site in Northern Ireland at Craigmore in Randalstown was a big one and waste management and recycling is still a pet subject of mine and something which I am still involved with to this day.”

It is with some sadness that Oran notes that his mother was not alive to see him elected to council, and that his father passed before seeing him take up the chains of office when he became Mayor of Antrim in 2008.

He also served as deputy Mayor in the previous term.

But he is justly proud of his former party’s contribution to peace in Northern Ireland and groundbreaking moments like when the SDLP became the first nationalist party to attend Remembrance celebrations.

However, little was to prepare him for what he would have to deal with as First Citizen.

“The World Police Bowling championships were taking place at the Jim Baker Stadium,” he said.

“I had been there on the Friday to open it and came back on the Saturday for the presentations.

“I stood up and told the audience that they should go back and ‘tell people that Northern Ireland is open for business’.

“Later that night (former DUP councillor) Brian Graham rang me and said I needed to get down to Massereene Barracks.”

On the night of March 7 2009, two off-duty British soldiers, Patrick Azimkar and Mark Quinsey were shot dead outside the barracks as they received a pizza delivery.

They were due to fly off to Afghanistan the next morning.

Two other soldiers and two civilian delivery men were also shot and wounded during the attack.

An Irish republican paramilitary group, the Real IRA, claimed responsibility for the first British military fatalities in Northern Ireland since 1997.

Oran is unashamedly emotional when he talks about the murders of two young soldiers in his home town.

And he remains angry that those behind the shooting have not been brought to justice.

“I had to go back to the hotel that night and let those policemen know what had happened,” he said.

“The soldiers were helping people, they were going out to Afghanistan to do their duty.

“My brothers worked for the services, doing their duties, I worked in health, doing my duty.

“The deliverymen were out earning to support their families. One guy had come over here from Poland to make a better life for himself.

“But the gunmen didn’t care about any of that, just their pure tunnel vision.

“If I climb Kilimanjaro and I fall on the ice and I break my leg, I knew what I was getting into.

“If I go out on a motorbike and I crash, I know the risks.

“Those boys were going out to collect pizza.

“These terrorists say they are in a war, but they go out and they hide in ditches and put bombs under people’s cars, if they get caught or if someone shoots back at them, they start crying about their rights. It makes me angry.

“I’ll probably be criticised for saying this, but they should join the army and see the world and do their duty instead of playing at being soldiers and then crying when they get brought to book.

“I am angry that all the people who did this were never punished.”

But Oran said that the public support - and outcry - in the wake of the murders was heartening.

“People came to Antrim from Cork, Sligo, Donegal and Galway.

“I don’t like hypocrisy, in any walk of life.

“I don’t like the hypocrisy of murderers and their supporters who cry when they get punished for their crimes and I don’t like hypocrisy in the church - my grandfather was buried in unconsecrated grounds, in a field outside the walls of the church, because he took his own life, it was considered a sin and a crime - and then you look what people in the clergy were getting up to.

“I have worked with people who have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder because of what happened to them during the Troubles.

“And the people who pulled the trigger or plant the bombs, the gangsters, they walk away.

“Big men send stupid wee boys out to do their dirty work and then they go off on their holidays and sun themselves, paid for with the proceeds of crime and benefits from the Government.

“People voted overwhelmingly for peace and others need to respect that.

“If one day there is a united Ireland, it will be because people vote for it.

“All this killing has been for nothing.

“Let the people decide, without violence.”

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