An Insight into Belfast’s and Europe’s Past: Rest and Be Thankful by Fr Daniel Cummings – Book Review

restandbeThe autobiography of a Redemptorist missionary might not be at the top of everyone’s reading list, but a new book by the late Fr Daniel Cummings should appeal to a much broader audience than might be expected.

Rest and be Thankful: Autobiography of a Belfast Missionary – Daniel Cummings C.Ss.R, was published this year and launched at Clonard Monastery in July.

The book chronicles the varied and fascinating childhood and religious career of Fr Cummings (1907-1977). It includes descriptions of his childhood in a troubled Belfast, his ministry at Clonard Monastery, the Philippines, and his work army chaplain in continental Europe during World War II.

Along with Fr Gerard Reynolds (uncle of the current Fr Gerry Reynolds at Clonard) Cummings also pioneered Clonard’s first ‘ecumenical’ work – the ‘Missions for non-Catholics’, in 1948.

Cummings was prompted to write his memoirs by his young niece, finishing them in 1970. He did not want them published till after his death. His niece, Rosemary Doherty, was responsible for their publication this year.

I recommend the book wholeheartedly.

Even for those who think they would not be especially interested in the life of a priest, Cummings’ descriptions of the ‘troubles’ in Belfast in the 1920s – from a child’s perspective – are particularly interesting.

Cummings’ accounts of his childhood growing up in Belfast are for me some of the most compelling parts of the book. His early childhood was spent in a majority Protestant area off the Ormeau Road, before the troubles forced his family to move to the Falls Road area. As he describes this time period, what stands out for me are the kindnesses of some of his Protestant friends and neighbours in the midst of fear and bigotry, the strength and ingenuity of his Mother, and – sadly – how such circumstances repeated themselves a generation later in the Troubles of the 1960s and beyond. On my own blog, I have reproduced an excerpt from the book about his family’s ‘house swap’ from the Ormeau to the Springfield Road as tensions escalated.

Cummings also provides some fascinating insights into the early career of the Rev Ian Paisley, explaining how it intersected with his own ministry at Clonard. Paisley was keenly interested in Clonard’s ‘missions for non-Catholics’ and he at times sent some of his followers to the meetings to gather information. He also vocally opposed the meetings, gaining publicity for his own agenda through his criticism of Clonard.

On my own blog, I have reproduced a story about one of Cummings more light-hearted encounters with Paisley, describing how Paisley shared with him the ‘sweet of peace’ and calling it his ‘first genuinely ecumenical gesture.’ Given that the latest this passage could have been written is 1970, I think it is particularly interesting in light of the twilight of Paisley’s career, when he became more publicly accommodating.

A substantial part of the book is devoted to his service in wartime Europe. Cummings provides readers with an insight into daily life with the soldiers and the civilians encountered on the continent. While it is no surprise that he focuses on how religion provided some comfort for those in their last hours, he also retells stories such as that of David, a young Jewish boy who pretended he had been shot to escape execution by the Germans in Poland, made his way to Germany where he was eventually imprisoned in concentration camps before being liberated by British troops.

Cummings clearly has the gift of a storyteller, writing with a light and engaging style that makes the varied events of his life engaging and entertaining – even when he describes hardship and suffering. Rest and Be Thankful is a worthy work of social history that deserves a wide readership.