THE stories of Gibraltarians who were evacuated to Ballymena during the Second World War have been remembered in a special ceremony at the town’s cemetery.
Ballymena was one of a number of locations across Northern Ireland which provided refuge to men, women and children who were evacuated from their homes after Gibraltar became a key target in the hostilities.
Those who ended up in London were forced to endure constant bombing attacks on the city, so by 1944 they were relocated to more rural areas, with 6,600 arriving in Northern Ireland and 500 in Scotland.
Following the bombing of Belfast, 17 camps were hastily constructed throughout Northern Ireland to house local residents in case of prolonged attacks, but few were actually used and so became new homes for the evacuees.
Eight camps were based in Co Antrim, in fields around the Ballymena and Broughshane area, at Tawnybrack, Moorfields, Castlegore, Dunaird, Drummuck, Aghacully, Breckagh Bridge and Corby Bridge.
Facilities were basic and consisted of a few brick buildings which housed canteens and washrooms, with water pumped from nearby rivers, but soon the evacuees actively participated in the local community, working on farms and businesses and joining in social events and sporting activities.
While memories of summers spent in the Ballymena countryside were recalled by many, those who settled in the area experienced harsh conditions in the winter and due to various ailments, some died while residing in the camps.
The names of each of 42 evacuees and the locations of their graves have been recorded in the register at Ballymena Cemetery, and the panels will provide a lasting legacy to the people who once made the town their home.
Ballymena’s links to the people of Gibraltar have been fostered over many years; the former Ballymena Borough Council officially twinned with the City of Gibraltar in May 2006, while a similar collaboration took place between Ballymena Lions Club and The Lions Club of Gibraltar in May 2013.
Mayor of Mid and East Antrim Borough, Cllr Maureen Morrow, welcomed special guests including Mayor of Gibraltar John Gonçalves MBE GMD, Andrew Mackinlay, Freeman of the City of Gibraltar, and local elected members to the event organised by Balymena Lions Club.
Cllr Morrow said: “The people of Ballymena and Gibraltar have enjoyed a strong friendship since the arrival of the evacuees to this part of Northern Ireland in 1944.
“Despite the geographical distance which exists between our two countries, the stories of the men, women and children who arrived here to a place of safety amid the horrors of war will forever be remembered by our community.
“I commend the work of Ballymena Lions Club in facilitating this important event and the efforts of Council staff in preparation for the unveiling of the interpretive panels here at Ballymena Cemetery.
“As Mayor of Mid and East Antrim Borough I am deeply honoured to welcome the Mayor of Gibraltar Mr Gonçalves and all our distinguished guests to mark this important moment in our history and I trust this memorial will be a legacy to the 42 people who were laid to rest in Ballymena and their families.”
President of Ballymena Lions Club, Herbie Park MBE, said: “The panels which have been installed at Ballymena Cemetery represent the journey of the evacuees who came to Northern Ireland in 1944; the settling-in and adjusting to life of those who arrived here; and finally the records and the names of the 42 people who are buried here in Ballymena.
“This project is very significant and we are delighted to have made it a reality because it will ensure that the names of those who died and are buried here are never forgotten.”