Tread lightly as you pass St Patrick’s

It’s a long time since I was a practicing Catholic, and almost as long since I defined myself as a believer of any kind. I haven’t properly attended Mass, outside of baptisms, weddings or funerals, since my mid-teens. If I was ever going back to religion, I think I’d be a Quaker. Or at the very most a high church Anglican.

But a part of me stirred a few years back, when the footage emerged of a band playing the Famine Song outside the door of St Patrick’s on Clifton Street. The first time I’d seen a band during the marching season in North Belfast was when I was around 10 or 11 – around 1990 or so – during a summer when I’d probably cycled a little too far from home, making it to the junction of Clifton Street and North Queen Street. Looking ahead, there was a band stopped outside of St Patrick’s, banging their drums with what I interpreted at the time to be provocative and intentional vigour.

Despite protestations to the contrary, St Patrick’s is not just a building, and not just another church. It is a monument to, and a cornerstone of, the faith that sustained Catholics in this sprawling working class slice of North Belfast for well over a century. The present day building was completed in 1875, under the supervision of Bishop Patrick Dorrian, whose ministry as the Bishop of Down and Connor oversaw the construction of some two dozen churches, during a period when Catholics were moving en masse to Belfast from the country in search of work in the period immediately following the Great Famine. Bishop Dorrian was, perhaps more famously, instrumental in the history of Milltown Cemetery. Having persuaded the City to construct an underground wall surrounding the Catholic section of the then-new City Cemetery in West Belfast, Dorrian failed to obtain control over the staff members who would supervise burials within the section. After some legal wrangling, an agreement was reached whereby the Catholic section of the City would be sold back to the Belfast Corporation; the proceeds were used to obtain the ground at Milltown. The esteem in which Dorrian was and is held is reflected in his burial place, near the altar at St Patrick’s.

My great grandfather, Bernard Quigley, the son of a farmer who lived near Cookstown Junction on the outskirts of Randalstown, came to the New Lodge, which must by then have been a burgeoning community based around St Patrick’s, and married my great grandmother in 1896 – one Annie Sweeney, from a family of Sweeneys who had been in Belfast for at least one generation before this, most likely since the 1850s. Thus, at least four generations of family members had close connections with the church. Their Catholicism was of a cold, devout and hard kind, barely recognisable today. Mass was said in Latin; the rituals and practices were to be strictly observed; and Protestants (and any non-Catholics for that matter) were not to be trusted. Of course it goes without saying that such attitudes are considered abhorrent to most of us in the modern era, especially as they lie at the root of so many of the problems we are still trying to fix. But with such attitudes – who can imagine today building a six foot deep wall to keep burial plots separate ? – it is in many ways not surprising that the Protestant community in Belfast and beyond were fearful of what Home Rule could bring.

It is hard for people in the modern era to understand how important the church was. As the only educated men in the community, the priests had considerable power over their flock, and substantially influenced community life and the thinking of parishioners (people today laugh when they hear about the church trying to ban pop music, but at the time they were quite serious). There are countless photographs of family members taken in front of St Patrick’s front door, and also in front of the original St Kevin’s Hall. Masses were often so heavily oversubscribed that St Kevin’s was used as an overflow church; outside of this, it was used extensively for social functions, special occasions and family events (my grandparents had their golden wedding anniversary there in 1980).

For my grandparents, St Patrick’s occupied one corner of their home geographical triangle; the other corners being at Gallaher’s enormous cigarette family, where everyone worked, and the Co-Op, the emporium where almost any household needs could be met, and where my grandmother was a member of the guild. St Patrick’s stands as the only remaining corner of this triangle today, and among the few recognisable features of the neighbourhood following several decades of public sector house rebuilding. In retirement, my grandfather – the youngest son of an unlikely marriage between a Church of England British soldier and a girl from Cork city – attended mass daily. The places where they were born, grew up, raised their families, lived out their lives and later passed away were, for the most part, within a few tens of yards of each other, and under the perpetual and ever-watchful shadow of St Patrick’s.

In recent years I’ve come to have a better understanding of the 12th of July and the feelings of those who march. I can’t pretend to have any sympathy with the aims of Orange Order, or any other fraternal organisation (I’ve equally little time for the Knights of Colombanus and organisations such as the AOH). But I do understand the importance and value of tradition; and I’ve gotten to know Orangemen and sons of Orangemen, and happily count them as among the most honourable and harmless people I know, and I believe that they are essentially motivated by the same responsibility I feel to keep in mind the traditions of their grandfathers and great grandfathers. I would go so far as to say these days that the majority of Orangemen, especially outside of Belfast, do not want confrontation and wish to be neighbourly. It heartens me to see in many rural areas that their desire for an agreed approach has not been found wanting.

In the aftermath of the incident when the Famine Song was played (and sung by some bystanders) I heard some politicians attempting to suggest that there should not be a problem because the church is just a building. Or that it isn’t a problem because there were no services in progress at the time. Or even that nobody had any business being offended by a Beach Boy’s song. Part of my reason for writing this article is the hope that they might reconsider those poorly chosen words, and reflect on their unwillingness to concede that there may be a problem here. I hope it helps them to understand that there are other traditions, with history and heritage of their own, and while it may not be possible for these traditions to see eye to eye, there is at least an understanding that the only possible way to proceed is based upon mutual respect.

To diminish the traditions and history of one part of the community is to diminish us all. A future Northern Ireland where Orangemen and their bands are not free to express their traditional and cultural heritage – within the law – is not a future I want any part of. It is 32 years since a direct family member has lived in the New Lodge; knowing nothing of life there, I cannot claim to reflect the views of anyone there, nor would I dare to do so. But, looking from the outside, my impression for the most part is that the community is content that parades should proceed provided that the neighbourhood and the history within it is respected.

A year or two back, I recall that one of the Orangemen, passing on the 12th, tipped his bowler hat to the parish priest as he passed St Patrick’s. Gestures like this give me a great deal of hope. They represent the future, and when I think of such gestures, especially while I watch footage of the parade at Rossnowlagh, I hope people can see that this is a future which is possible and within our grasp.