Humanity in the midst of Brutality: Review of Martin Magill’s ‘The Poor Clares in Belfast, 1924-2012’

In 2012, the Poor Clares closed their monastery in North Belfast after 88 years in the city. As an enclosed order, it might have been expected that the nuns would have had little impact on the world outside their walls. Fr Martin Magill’s new book, The Poor Clares in Belfast, 1924-2012 (Shanway Press), tells a different story.

The Poor Clares in Belfast explores how the nuns’ ministry of prayer, presence and listening endeared them to the local people. They were a sign of encouragement during the Belfast Blitz in the Second World War, and they comforted the bereaved and the hurting during the Troubles. In the years after the Good Friday Agreement, they maintained a witness of simplicity and humility, quietly living out their faith until a lack of vocations finally made the monastery unsustainable.

In sum, Magill tells us how the Poor Clares brought a welcome humanity to a city often overwhelmed by brutality.

The book is attractively produced, and includes more than 100 black and white and colour photographs. The photographs help transport the reader back to earlier times, and include haunting as well as humorous snapshots of the nuns in their full regalia, images of their handwritten journals, and more.

Magill is parish priest at St John the Evangelist in West Belfast. He became interested in the Poor Clares while serving in Sacred Heart Parish in North Belfast. In 2016, historian and author Philip Orr asked him to chair a presentation on the Poor Clares in the Duncairn Centre’s ‘The Many Faces of North Belfast’ series. When Magill couldn’t find anyone to give the talk, he decided to do it himself. His initial research into the nuns’ story whetted his appetite. Soon he was inspired to put it all down in a book.

Magill traces the Poor Clares’ journey from their initial foundation in Belfast following the earlier ‘troubles’, a turbulent period between 1920-1922 in which 491 people died. In the Preface, Magill writes that ‘I was particularly captivated by the decision to set up a foundation in 1924 in a city that had endured two years of civil strife … That decision could only be understood from a spiritual perspective.’

Magill explains how the nuns understood prayer as their main work and fervently believed that their prayers could make a difference.

For me, this was most evident when he described how during the Troubles – an era when trauma counselling was not common – people visited the monastery to share their burdens with the Sisters. Such contributions have not been widely recognised. Magill helps us understand that this is one way that religion can contribute to healing in the midst of violence.

The chapter on the Belfast Blitz is among the most compelling in the book. The Poor Clares monastery was damaged during the bombing. The nuns’ experiences, recorded at the time in letters and the community journal, are among the best first-hand accounts of the Blitz. Magill quotes extensively from these sources and includes photographs of some of the pages. One letter, written to a Poor Clares community in Dublin, described how the nuns prayed all through the night as the bombs rained down:

‘Well on that memorable night the ‘siren’ went at about quarter to 10 so we got up and went down to Choir. … The choir doors began to rattle. We continued praying with just the candle light until suddenly there was a tremendous crash and all the windows came in on one side of the choir. … I gave out prayers and aspirations without ceasing and “oh dear me” what weight went into every word. … We started a “Te Deum” for our own safety and we called on all the angels to put out the fires and save lives.

… God help the poor people outside. Mrs Barclay’s house was ruined, they have gone to the country. Our bread came next day and some milk, how God watches over us. … There are many sad tales about the people outside but I have no more time now.’

The final chapters of the book recount the Poor Clares’ struggle to stay in the city, as vocations dried up. In the monastery’s final years, some Sisters from the Philippines joined the community. This allowed it to function. But problems with visas made this option increasingly difficult, and the decision was finally taken to close.

The Poor Clares in Belfast helps us to imagine how disheartening it could have been for women who vowed to live out their vocation in Belfast as they slowly realized that there were no longer enough women who felt called to continue with this way of life.

These chapters give a human face to an aspect of the story of secularisation on the island of Ireland: the dramatic drop in vocations to Religious Orders has meant that these communities are shrinking all around us.

Given the wider context of clerical abuse scandals (the Poor Clares in Belfast, it seems, were scandal-free), perhaps some have not felt any regret about this, or taken any notice. The Poor Clares in Belfast demonstrates that the decline in vocations may be a loss not just for the Orders, but also for us: the people they remembered in their prayers.

The book can be purchased at £10 from Shanway.

Gladys is a Research Fellow in the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. She also blogs on religion and politics at www.gladysganiel.com