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.

  • David Crookes

    Sincere thanks for your thoughtful and urbane posting, Brendan.

  • AntrimGael

    Nice article. St.Patrick’s is my parish. I was baptised there, First Communion and Confirmation also. It is deeply ingrained in the people of the New Lodge, Carrick Hill and the lower Antrim Road. It is the second oldest Catholic Chapel in Belfast after St.Mary’s and is a very historical Church within the city. One could only appreciate it’s aesthetic beauty during the rebuidling of the UU campus. St. Patrick’s could be seen from all sides when the old Co-Op building and Art College were demolished and the Chapel was quite striking against the backdrop of the Clifton St. poor-house.

    It is a bone of contention amongst many parishioners that a ‘quarter’ and open space were built around St. Anne’s just down the street while St. Patrick’s is hemmed in on all sides. That’s nothing against St. Anne’s which is also a lovely building but the places of worship should have been given equal treatment.

    The parish and it’s people have suffered a lot over the past 45 odd years. The McGurks Bar victims were buried from there as were dozens of people killed during the conflict. The fire 20 years ago nearly destroyed the building but original Church plans and the determination of the clergy and laypeople ensured it was rebuilt wonderfully. It is inside a quite striking building and Prince Charles commented on this when he visited.

    One of it’s famous parishioners was Sir John Lavery who was reputedly the favourite artist of the British Royal Family in the late 19th and early 20 century. He left his painting The Madonna of the Lakes to the parish in his will and it is reputedly worth several million pounds; the painting is held behind secure, alarmed glass at the left hand side of the Church and is worth a look if you visit.
    The current Parish Priest Fr. Michael Sheehan is an absolute gentlemen and is held in very great esteem by the parishioners as is Fr. McGee who is in his 91st year. Fr. Michael suffered personal heartache when his mother was killed by a joyrider on the Falls Road over 10 years ago; she was on her way from Mass at the time. Fr.Michael has another brother who is a priest in West Belfast. He is no fool, very clued in at what is going on in the parish and city and very sensitive to the politics of the area. He is on record as saying that the Orange Order have every right to assemble and march from Clifton St and down Donegall Street as they are as much part of the historical story of that part of the city as anyone or anything else. He has also stated that he has NEVER demanded or asked that the Orange Order be excluded from walking there but that places of worship, from whatever denomination, should be respected.

    There are elements of Unionism and the Orange Order who are starting to acknowledge this. Donegall Street, Clifton St and Carlisle Circus are at the hub of the original city of Belfast and both traditions have shared interests and rights there. If some of the Orange bands stopped their sectarian nonsense going past St.Patrick’s and the hangers on stopped their drunken antics and disrespect, the protests against them would disappear in a second.

  • Brendan Heading

    thank you very much for this comment, and in particular for the more up to date perspective of St Patrick’s especially around McGurk’s which brings the sensitivity of the role played by the church during the course of the troubles into even sharper focus.

    I’ve seen Father Michael speaking to the media in the recent past, usually around bands-related controversy, and as you say I noted that he stood out as a voice of reason, and it feels like he takes care to reflect the view of the local residents who I know are genuine in seeking nothing other than respect for the church.

    I was disappointed to see the news today that there were multiple violations of Parades Commission determinations passing the church. With this, and other things, I sometimes wonder if some of the bands are intentionally acting to drown out the moderate voices in the community and see them trampled by more extreme ones, which is what has happened in Ardoyne. I think there are Orangemen who understand this – I wish unionist politicians would be more forthright in echoing them, rather than turning a blind eye.

  • Enda

    Great article.

  • Zorin001

    With regards to your last paragraph I think this is true, i remember a family friend in the Order saying something similar around the height of Drumcree; and while there were many lodges opposed to such action there was an attitude of solidartity being paramount to avoid weaking the protest.

  • Celtlaw

    Thanks for that. My grandmother (b. 1891) was from New Lodge and attended St. Patrick’s before emigrating to America at age 14. We have Reid, McKnight and McIlroy roots in the parish.

  • Brendan Heading

    Yup, aware of a McIlroy family being there.

  • eireanne3

    “the community is content that parades should proceed provided that the neighbourhood and the history within it is respected”.

    I’m quite sure the community would be happy with a modicum of respect.
    Nothing compares to the feeling of respite when a drill stops
    Respect has never been afforded them –
    as the Catholic people of St Patrick’s Parish have been putting up with this type of behaviour since the 1870s – for 140 years

    Henry Cooke (1788-1868) and “Roaring”Hugh Hanna (1824-1892 ) created a lethal mix of religion and loyalism when the marches in front of St Patrick’s Church were started.

    Isn’t it time time for a change in attitude from the orange order and its loyalist followers?

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Brendan, a nice article.

    If I might be so rude to diverge slightly I should like to point out that imho the entire street should be protected and that the demolition of the metropolitan building at the bottom of the street is a new low even by Belfast’s champion limbo-dancing standards.

    It’s a fascinating wee area and they’re chomping at the but to knock it down and build bland structures and suck the character out of the area.

    The word ‘gloomth’ I believe was coined to describe a gothic atmosphere or building, should the developers get their way then perhaps Belfast could introduce its own architectural adjective – blandth.