Northern Ireland's abandoned flax mills come alive with jobs

A derelict linen mill here is both the symbol and the reality of self-help. The Rev. Myles Kavanagh, a Belfast-based priest, and a group of Northern Ireland Roman Catholics and Protestants have turned the mill into a source of employment.

The Flax Trust, under the direction of Fr. Kavanagh, is a charitable organization founded in 1976 to promote economic and social development in the Ardoyne areas of Catholic west Belfast. This area witnessed fierce community violence in the early part of the 1970s. And now, 80 percent of youths between 16 and 20 are unemployed.

With the help of a government youth program, the Flax Trust trains about 80 teen-agers a year in skills that will give them a realistic chance of getting a job. It has also taken over an old complex of redundant flax mills - hence the name Flax Trust - which are being redeveloped into smaller units and leased to small companies.

Six new businesses have moved in, and four more will do so soon. Already the woodwork and pottery sections of the training program have created 20 full-time jobs. Further plans include a management advisory service. The entire approach so far has been solid, detailed, and practical.

It has been a considerable achievement for Fr. Kavanagh and his team. Born in Dublin, he came to Belfast in the mid-'60s. He knew Ardoyne in its better days and in the heat of the troubles - ''there were bombings, rioting, burning - the lot,'' he says.

He did a follow-up study of local school classes and found that in a group of 50 students, only three got jobs, and only two went on to pursue further education.

''The bulk remained unemployed,'' he says, ''and a number went to jail. Some were killed in the troubles. These were horrifying statistics.''

Inspired by the need to create hope, Fr. Myles campaigned successfully for government funding, and he also secured bank loans to establish the project. Money remains an uphill battle. The total cost over four years is around $1.4 million. The project still needs some $400,000, as well as government funding already negotiated.

The Flax Trust has been seeking nongovernmental funds in Ireland, Britain, and the United States. So far, it has met with modest success.

But Fr. Myles remains cautious.

''You do need success,'' he says, ''but it needs to be handled very carefully. If you set people up for success and you don't deliver, they are worse off afterwards.''

Nevertheless, the prevailing mood is one of optimism. Alan Leckey, manager of the construction section, says, ''The atmosphere is good, the work and the progress are encouraging, and the whole program is fulfilling a useful purpose.''

Malachy McLaughlin, manager of the workshops, emphasizes the need for giving young people commercially viable skills.

''Many come in here as 'no-hopers,' '' he explains, ''but within six months you can see the change. They go out with confidence in themselves, and a willingness to compete for jobs. The big incentive for young people today is a job and money. That is all the motivation they need.''

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