Experiencing grace in Northern Ireland
Inside Belfast Cathedral’s Chapel of the Holy Spirit is a splendid mosaic representing the 1,500th anniversary of St. Patrick’s return to Ireland in A.D. 432.
A beautiful example of the art adapted to the Romanesque style of architecture, the mosaic is one of several in the church created by sisters Margaret and Gertrude Martin, who spent seven years assembling tens of thousands of colored tiles to create the images.
Beneath a towering stone arch, Bishop Patricius, or Patrick, one of the earliest Catholic missionaries to the frontier the Romans called Hibernia, stands holding a shamrock, which, according to legend, he used to explain the Trinity. On the left side, a blindfolded and manacled woman with a harp depicts the pagan darkness. On the right side, another woman represents the light of Christ that has come to Ireland.
My companions and I were shown this magnificent work of art when we visited the Anglican diocesan church for Sunday morning Eucharist during a break from our construction work for Habitat for Humanity Northern Ireland.
Like Patrick, who began his ministry at Downpatrick near Belfast and is believed to be buried there, we too were on a mission. Not only were we there to help fulfill Habitat’s broader mission of building simple, decent, affordable houses for God’s people in need, but our visible presence was also part of an effort to bring peace to that troubled land.
It was October 2000, just two years after the Good Friday Agreement that brought a suspension of sectarian violence between paramilitary groups representing Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists in that part of Ireland that was and is still part of the United Kingdom.
Glencairn, the housing estate where we worked, was near the Peace Line, a kind of Berlin Wall separating the two communities. But the mission of Habitat was to bring Protestants and Catholics together to rebuild. Nothing more clearly illustrated this than the fact that our foreman was a former member of the Irish Republican Army, and his second had been a soldier in the British Army.
As Peter Farquharson, the executive director of HFHNI said during a meeting, “most of us have a history.”
But so many of the people we met were living proof that the past can be redeemed, and that the present and future can be different.
Those who worked alongside us as helicopters hovered overhead and armored vehicles rolled down the street defied the old status quo by pursuing unity, though there were moments of tension and minor conflict, both in our little community and in the province, where there was an election underway.
During our time there, we heard so many stories of grace.
In Derry, Tom Kelly, an artist who painted many of the nationalist murals in the medieval walled city’s Catholic Bogside neighborhood, showed us portraits of the civil rights demonstrators who were killed on Bloody Sunday in 1972, including one of the first girls he had ever kissed. I asked how he copes with his anger and pain, and he said that not letting go of it only makes it fester. The way he deals with it, he said, is by letting Christ share his burden.
One night when we were having dinner with our American guide, Dan Wartman, who lived with an ecumenical community on the Peace Line, we met Tom Hannon, who taught us something about forgiveness. When Tom’s daughter was 18, she was disabled by a sniper’s bullet. But she refused to hate those who had put her in a wheelchair. In her early 40s, she was married, had just had a baby, and had earned a Ph. D.
One has to be able to forgive to find peace, Tom said.
An older man I worked with nearly every day was a Presbyterian who was obviously prejudiced against Catholics, whom he believed were trying to take what was “ours.” But he was also dismayed by the years of strife and was willing to try to find common ground.
“Most people here are just sick of it,” he said.
Sure, there was resistance. Old prejudices die hard. The construction project we were working on had to shut down temporarily because of concerns about the safety of some of the HFHNI staff resulting from a situation involving a loyalist paramilitary leader in Glencairn. A little splinter group calling itself the Real IRA was determined to continue its struggle. But everywhere there were signs of hope.
Belfast Cathedral, once the temple of the privileged Protestant majority, had evolved and was committed to ecumenical efforts and the peace process. When one of the priests introduced us to the congregation, they mentioned they had given thousands of pounds sterling to Habitat for Humanity of Northern Ireland because they believed in its mission.
The Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist leader, was visiting Belfast at the same time we were, and we took a break from work one day to see him and hear him speak outside a Methodist church on Springfield Road where the Peace Line divides the city. He made some pleasant remarks about religious tolerance and coexistence. But it was the children from a nearby school who were more inspiring. They were Ireland’s future.
One teenager, Julie McCann, who presented His Holiness a bouquet of flowers, challenged the very existence of Belfast’s Peace Line.
“Break down these walls that separate us. Tear down the walls of hatred and indifference,” she urged.
Another student, Patrick Fagan, prayed: “By the power of your Spirit, make us one. … Help us do our part to bring peace to the world and happiness to all people.”
Someone then played Amazing Grace on the uileann pipes, and my eyes filled with tears.
Blessed are the peacemakers. This willingness to forgive and seek peace reflects the spirit of St. Patrick, who, though he was captured and sold into slavery in Ireland as a youth and later betrayed by his best friend, returned to the place of his captivity as a missionary and bishop to teach its people the ways of peace and bring them the gospel of Christ. Maybe that is why he has always been revered by Catholics and Protestants alike.
He believed it was his calling and God’s purpose for his life.
“Before I had to suffer, I was like a stone lying in the deep mud,” Patrick wrote in his Confession, echoing the words of the psalmist. “Then he who is mighty came, and in his mercy he not only pulled me out, but lifted me up … .”
In the two decades since our visit to Belfast, there have been problems, but nothing like the Troubles that began around 1968 and ended with the peace agreement 30 years later that traded ballots for bullets.
I’ll end with a poem by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney that I’m often reminded of when I think of how Northern Ireland has changed:
History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
And cures and healing wells.