In 1940, the British government evacuated the people of Gibraltar. This allowed a heavier military presence on "The Rock". Able-bodied young men stayed behind to contribute to the war effort. Others made their way by boat the United Kingdom, Madeira, Jamaica, and French Morocco. Families split up as members went to different countries.
As Luftwaffe bombs fell on London, the government decided to evacuate once again. Many evacuees from Gibraltar then made their way to Northern Ireland by boat and lorry. Around 5,000 in total made the journey to Ulster, arriving in July 1944.
A total of 16 camps housed the displaced evacuees. There were 8 in the Ballymena and Broughshane areas of Co. Antrim. Other camps existed in Co. Down and Co. Londonderry.
Camps comprised of Nissen huts in rural fields. Families lived in small huts, divided in half to create a male bedroom and a female bedroom. Concrete paths linked the huts, while paraffin fires provided heat. Larger huts made up a school, a communal kitchen, and a community centre. The community centres were at the heart of the camps. There, people came to socialise, chat, read, sew, and take part in concerts. Each community formed a committee responsible for organising concerts and events.
The Gibraltar evacuees were not expected to remain in Northern Ireland for long. Many of them spoke little English and they struggled with the cold and damp weather. Problems with a lack of work permits meant that many evacuees could not work.
Remembering the Evacuees
Ballymena, Co. Antrim and Gibraltar have a shared twin status dating back to 2006. Ballymena Borough Council hosted a ceremony to celebrate the twinning arrangement. The affinity between the two very different places dates back to the days of the evacuee camps. Mayor of Gibraltar Clive Beltran and Mayor of Ballymena Tommy Nicholl signed the agreement.
On 29th May 2013, a twinning ceremony took place between Lions Clubs in Ballymena and Gibraltar. City Hall on John McIntosh Square was the venue as The Gibraltar Sea Scouts Pipe Band played ‘When Irish Eyes Are Smiling’. The twinning was an initiative of Herbie Park and Pamela Park of Ballymena Lions Club dating back to February 2012. They had met Joe Bautista M.B.E., President of the Lions Club of Gibraltar while on a day trip to “The Rock”. Joe Bautista, along with his father, mother, and brother had lived at Dunaird Camp, Broughshane, Co. Antrim from 1944-1948.
One of the Ballymena camps was the birthplace of Albert Poggio, the Gibraltar government’s official representative in the United Kingdom. In December 2017, Deputy Chief Minister of Gibraltar Dr. Joseph Garcia met with Mid and East Antrim Alderman Tommy Nicholl M.B.E. Garcia hailed ongoing strong relations between the Co. Antrim town of Ballymena and Gibraltar. His grandfather had also lived on one of the Co. Antrim evacuee camps.