Noelle McAlinden warmly welcomed me through the front door of her bungalow in Enniskillen, into her bright and colourful world, accompanied by a kindly “Would you like a cup of coffee?”

As the coffee machine whirred into action, she guided me around her art gallery-esque home, where every wall and surface was laden with art and photographs.

Like a carefully curated group exhibition, her own pieces were hung alongside those of others, with each artwork holding its own special meaning to Noelle.

The framed photographs show her smiling brightly, pictured at different events often accompanied by her family members – a selection of her treasured moments captured.


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Artwork by Noelle McAlinden: Photo: John McVitty


Back in the kitchen, she poured me a cup of coffee. Even the cup and saucer were literal works of art, handmade and painted by local potter Ann McNulty – a good friend of Noelle’s.

Cup and saucer in hand, I followed her into the living room, where she paused by the fireplace and proceeded to pick up a little thank-you card which had been sitting proudly in the centre of the mantelpiece.

With tears in her eyes, she showed it to me, explaining how it was from the late artist, Louise Chettle.

“Louise is someone who I have huge respect for,” said Noelle, explaining that Louise, who had been battling secondary breast cancer, had sadly passed away earlier that day. She was only 40.

“One of the last things on her bucket list was to have a solo exhibition, so it was an absolute privilege to support her [with it].

“It’s very tough, just to acknowledge that somebody so young has had to live with such challenges. It can be a very cruel world but it can also be a very compassionate world.

‘Supporting others’

“I think there’s a lot of sadness, there’s a lot of instability politically, socially and economically, but we have to hold on to the potential and possibility of supporting others,” she said, adding that at the minute she is “really enjoying” supporting other artists.

Artist. Teacher. Activist. High Sheriff. Public speaker. The list of Noelle’s titles, qualities and attributes goes on and on.


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Noelle McAlinden. Photo: John McVitty.


However, her affinity for supporting others is possibly her most admirable of all – that, and her compassion and humility.

Having known Noelle for a number of years, I would confidently say that she is one of the most humble people I have ever met.

A person of her exceptional talents has every right to sing her own praises, but she doesn’t, instead always choosing to champion others before promoting herself.

As we chatted about her life, she shared an insight into the origins of her humble, compassionate and supportive nature.

“We were brought up very much to work with and alongside our neighbours, Protestant and Catholic, all during the Troubles,” said Noelle, who is originally from Co. Armagh.

“You were brought up with values, and respect was really, really important,” she said.

Throughout her life, Noelle has been inspired by her parents’ teachings and actions.


Noelle McAlinden.

Noelle McAlinden.


“I never knew what a community activist was until these last 10 years, but when I look at my parents, they were active in their community. They were active in supporting each other, whether somebody had been bereaved, whether somebody’s business was challenged, or they’d lost a job. My parents were proactive.

“And even when we lost our first sister, Roisin, to suicide, our parents were still there supporting other people, in a very gentle and compassionate way,” she said, describing it as “amazing and very humbling to see”.

Since first moving to Fermanagh in 1983, Noelle has been actively supporting others, through her role as a teacher at St. Aidan’s High School, Derrylin, and later at Fermanagh Technical College, along with volunteering with various community and arts groups in the area.


“I began volunteering with the local theatre groups – Lakeland Players, Enniskillen Actors Company and St. Michael’s Dramatic Society, painting sets and making costumes, just to get connected,” she said.

She added: “There’s something about volunteering. I think it’s one of the best things that people can get involved in, because there’s something selfless about it, and when you distract from your own kind of worries or your own preoccupations, there’s a greater synergy. What you get from it is huge.

“You’re also involved in shaping and interpreting something even bigger than yourself. It’s a very sociable thing to do,” she said.

Noelle later went on to work as an arts advisor for the Western Education and Library Board, now the Education Authority, in the early 1990s.

“I took a year out before I joined the Education Authority. I worked in a male prison in Blacklion and it taught me a very, very valuable lesson, because we were brought up to stay out of prison, to do everything by the book.

“None of us know what each other’s circumstances are. Nobody knows what challenges anybody carries. Nobody knows the giant they have inside of them until they are tested.

“And never, ever judge a book by its cover,” she said.


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Artwork by Noelle McAlinden: Photo: John McVitty.


Now retired six years from the Education Authority – or as she likes to call it, “refired” – Noelle commented that she is “so aware” that education “is not defined or confined to school, college or university”.

She continued: “[It’s about] empowering all generations to engage at whatever point they’re at, to embrace the opportunity to learn.

“There are many people who’ve had really good experiences in school, and some have been completely bruised and scarred and don’t want to have anything to do with it, and see formal education as a way in which they have been kept down.

“So this idea of lifelong education is something that really appeals to me.

“That phrase, ‘every day is a school day’, is really important because our best learning and our best growth is probably through real-life experiences.

“And some of them can be very sad and very challenging,” acknowledged Noelle, who went on to speak about the importance of mental health support.

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Art has always provided solace for Noelle, helping her to maintain her own mental health.

She explained that a year after her sister Roisin died, in the year 2000, she held a solo exhibition.

“I was painting here and processing a lot of my emotions and listening to music, David Gray, Savage Garden and Tracy Chapman, all these songs,” said Noelle, describing painting as like a “form of meditation”.


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Artwork by Noelle McAlinden: Photo: John McVitty.


“Then I came up with the title, ‘Out of the Blue’, and I painted this series of mermaids and characters, and little sea urchins.”

Opened by Aideen McGinley, former Fermanagh District Council Chief Executive, Noelle said that she’ll never forget the night of the exhibition.

“It was only a year after Roisin died. There must have been 350 people at it, and it was just a gorgeous celebration.

“I remember looking at mummy and daddy’s faces, and just seeing the joy. We were brought up with this phrase, ‘don’t be making an exhibition of yourself’.

“I remember saying to mummy and daddy, ‘Am I going to have to make an exhibition of myself to get you up to Enniskillen?’

“It was such a joyful experience. It was the first time I realised that when you feel that you can’t do anything, particularly after the death of a loved one, your art can actually provide solace for your family and for others as well,” she said.

Reflecting on the highs and lows of life, the light moments against the dark, Noelle recalled a special letter she received following Roisin’s death.

‘Beautiful letter’

“I remember getting a beautiful letter from Mervin Douglas, who was my first art and design inspector. He came out to see me at St. Aidan’s when I was teaching.

“He looked very austere – he was ex-military, and everything was meticulous about him.

“After Roisin died, he sent me the most beautiful, handwritten letter, with the most gorgeous calligraphy.

“He said, ‘I don’t know what to say. When my wife lost her father, somebody sent her a poem and it was about life’s tapestry. We need the dark threads to make the golden threads shine’.

“And I remember thinking, that’s so true. We do need the dark and the light, and all the different shades in between,” she said.

This positive attitude has served Noelle well through the many challenges she has faced in her life. She explained that during the Covid-19 lockdown, she began to reflect on things that were really important to her.

“”During lockdown, you kind of reflected on what your purpose is.

“Most of us are defined by the jobs that we do or the things that we are involved. I suppose I had retired from a very fulfilling job – I loved my job, but it was at a time when, one year on, I had thankfully been very lucky with a cervical cancer diagnosis.

‘I’m very fortunate’

“I was lucky that I had surgery and I had no chemo or anything; I’m very, very fortunate. At that time, our father had been diagnosed with a form of dementia, and he died around that time as well.

“And we lost our second sister, Anita, to suicide. Those two years were very, very intense.

“Going back to work, and being fit and able to go back to work, was something that I looked forward to and was very grateful for, but I also knew I had an opportunity to take early retirement and dedicate [my time] to doing things that I knew could make a difference, even in a small way.

“[I knew] that I still had the health and energy to do it,” she explained.

As she continues to find fulfilment in her “refirement”, Noelle has recently been appointed Chairperson of the Northern Ireland Mental Health Arts Festival.

Suicide prevention

She also is active in promoting suicide prevention teaching with Ohana Zero Suicide, and as High Sheriff of County Fermanagh, she is using her platform to highlight the importance of the Arts, and mental health awareness.

“Mental health is something that really appeals to me because of my early experiences as a young teacher, but also having lost two sisters to suicide,” she said.

“Like many families who have had lived experience of loss, it’s devastating, and you would not wish that on anyone, and even in a system whereby you access the health system, and you may have siblings or family in hospital, and still the system fails us miserably.

“Particularly in light of the current challenges facing the South West Acute Hospital, the importance of having a good health system [is paramount],” said Noelle, adding about access to healthcare: “It’s not a privilege, it’s a right, in the same way that access to education is not a privilege, it’s a right, and it’s a human right.”

About two years ago Noelle was invited to do a Ted Talk in Dún Laoghaire, Co. Dublin. Recalling the experience, she described it as the “most scariest thing” but also as a great opportunity to share the significance of community support and the importance of the arts.

“I told the story about a young child falling flat on her face at the age of four at a dance competition.

“And just feeling overwhelmed and not knowing whether I was being laughed at because I jumped up and kept on dancing.

“Then I realised the music had stopped and people were clapping.

“I’ve realised actually, as an adult, it was the encouragement of the audience that got me back up on my feet again.

“And it’s no coincidence that I’m an encourager, to encourage others to make an exhibition of themselves,” she said with a smile.