By Fr. Colum Power, SHM: Twenty-six unarmed Catholic civilians were shot by British soldiers in the Bogside Massacre on Bloody Sunday, the 10th of January 1972. Fourteen of them died. I was six years and four months old, in first class in primary school.
The next day, after roll call in the schoolyard, the pupils of Scoil an Spioraid Naoimh, Bishopstown, Cork, about seven hundred of us, dispersed as usual towards our classrooms. A boy’s voice began to shout, “I.R.A., I.R.A., I.R.A.” and the rest of us quickly took up the chant, stomping our feet in unison as we made our way up the stairs. Most of us had no idea what the Irish Republican Army (I.R.A.) was all about; we just enjoyed the military noise and sense of unity. It was a powerful moment, branded in my memory to this day. And just as branded in my memory is the reaction of our teacher, Mr. O'Donoghue, when he arrived into our classroom. At that time it was common to have forty or more pupils in each class, but Mr. O'Donoghue had no problem whatsoever in imposing order. He gave us an early unforgettable lesson on the evils of supporting the I.R.A..
What happened that Sunday and Monday was tediously repeated over the following twenty-five years: bombs and bullets and bloody massacres followed by visceral reactions for and against. The massacres took place mostly in the North, often in England, rarely in the South. The visceral reactions for and against took place in private and public conversations North and South and in England. It was a major part of our lives, a frequent subject of angry conversation in the pub, in parliaments, on television, everywhere. Hence the famous Cranberries song with the repeated refrain, “In your head, in your head, in your head, they are fighting, with their bombs, and their guns, in your head.”
It wasn’t easy to be Irish during that time, north or south of the border; or in England, needless to say. During that time, I worked in London for three years. One morning I turned up for work after the I.R.A. had blown up the London Stock Exchange (causing massive damage and, on this occasion, no injuries) and an English colleague asked me if I was proud of my Irish compatriots. I answered him that the perpetrators had British passports, not Irish passports, and that they were therefore his compatriots, not mine. I gave him that response to get myself out of a corner, but the fact is that in different ways they were my compatriots and his compatriots, which gives an idea of the complexity of the situation. It began in the 1600s when tracts of land were confiscated from Catholics by the British ruling class and delivered to Protestant planters. The artificial partitioning of the island in 1922 perpetuated the impossible situation of a fragile Protestant majority alongside a displaced Catholic minority.
It was a recipe for ongoing disaster, but nothing is impossible to God. Northern Ireland’s impossible situation has somehow been resolved, not totally, but to an extent that was unimaginable during a large portion of my 55-year lifetime. An article appeared recently in a Northern Irish newspaper (The Irish News, 24/9/20) commenting on the three most visited tombs in Derry cemetery: those of Martin McGuinness who died in 2017, John Hume who just died in August 2020, and Sr. Clare Crockett who died in 2016. This threefold phenomenon provides material for a suggestive reflection on personal, political and religious levels./p>
There is a video on YouTube celebrating the new spirit of peace and reconciliation on the island’s tormented top right-hand corner. It consists of a seven-minute summary of the hatred and violence that dominated over a quarter of a century, with images of gradual communication culminating in the signing of the Good Friday Agreement on the 10th of April 1998, as it repeats over and over again a phrase uttered by the Reverend Ian Paisley, arguably one of the most hated and hate-filled figures on the Unionist side of the conflict (also called Loyalist: loyal to the union with Britain). In 1988, Paisley came to public attention beyond the circle of Irish politics when he was expelled from the European Parliament in Strasburg for calling Pope John Paul II the anti-Christ. In the YouTube video, Paisley is asked how he could justify betraying his principles and his followers by speaking and laughing, and even praying, with Martin McGuinness, leader of the I.R.A. and therefore arch-enemy of all that Paisley and his party stood for. Paisley’s response, delivered in his compelling voice with its highly distinctive accent, repeated throughout the video, was: “Well, y’know, there is such a thing as forgiveness!”
Quite moved, I must admit, by the video, having spent the greater part of my youth “bothered”, to put it mildly, by “The Troubles,” I sent the link to my brother in Ireland asking him to share it with my father, who for twenty-five years fasted from all things sweet—chocolate, cakes, biscuits, ice-cream, anything with sugar in it—while praying for peace in Northern Ireland. I thought he would be touched to see the fruits of his efforts. Later on, I asked my brother about Dad’s reaction to the video. He told me that, after viewing it, my mother called out from another room, “What’s that, Joe?” And my father responded, “Ah, nothing: just Paisley and McGuinness being palsy-walsy.” His sentiments were not moved. He was unimpressed.
Throughout the conflict, my father’s position was one of distrust of politicians in general, with a firm rejection of extremists on both sides. There was just one politician on the island of Ireland whom he admired: John Hume. Hume’s position on the conflict was as intelligent as it was simple. He understood that Catholicism in Northern Ireland had been reduced to a form of tribalism, and Protestantism to another form of tribalism. So there were two tribes that hated each other and defined themselves in opposition to each other. Catholic means universal, the very opposite to tribalism. Hume had a Catholic mind and a Catholic heart. He was therefore big enough to renounce Catholic tribalism as a contradiction in terms. He suggested a double solution: to respect the other tribe’s right to want to be British or Irish and to work together to improve local economic and social conditions.
Jesus didn’t say, “Woe to the Brits,” or “Woe to the Prods.” He didn’t say “Woe to the Tadhgs” either. He said, “Woe to the rich.” Hume’s Social Democratic and Labor Party was dedicated to the creative entrepreneurial rectification of local social and economic wrongs suffered by unjustly treated workers. In 1960, observing that working class people were condemned to an economic rut, Hume founded the first Credit Union in Derry with a grand total of £5.19. It now has over 31,000 members and assets worth over £97 million. It was his proudest achievement because it put people before profit, enabling them to rise out of economic squalor. He was twenty-three years old at the time. Four years later he was elected President of the Irish League of Credit Unions. Hume believed that civil rights should be the political priority. “You can’t eat a flag,” was one of his favorite phrases. “Spill sweat, not blood,” was another. If the more immediate problems were creatively addressed, all the rest would fall into place not by force and immediately but organically over time.
This position earned Hume angry opposition from within the ranks of Catholic Nationalists, because it meant relativizing the political ideal of a United Ireland. Later on, he would provoke equally angry opposition from the ranks of Unionists and self-described moderates precisely for engaging in dialogue with the very Catholic Nationalists he had earlier alienated. When I write “angry opposition,” I mean he put his life in danger; not just his political life; his life, literally. He was accused of kowtowing to terrorists, but Hume, believing in the persuasive power of truth, persisted with heroic patience: “It’s important not to react to the reaction, because you lose judgment and perspective.”
Hume’s solution might seem obvious, but it was hugely original in its context and required a radical, generous change of paradigm on all sides. My father, for example, dreamed of a United Ireland. He had to renounce that ideal. As a young man, I had problems with that; only many years later did I see the wisdom of it. When he prayed and fasted, he prayed and fasted for peace in Northern Ireland, not for nationalist political unity, and he made this clear to his nine sons in the intentions of the daily rosary. Hume asked Protestant Unionists to take the same, parallel step, and asked the other two main entities in the conflict, the British and Irish parliaments, to relativize their territorial aspirations too. It was a bold vision indeed. Its partial fulfillment is a political miracle.
Martin McGuinness eventually yielded to Hume’s argument. He renounced the use of arms and joined the peace conversation. His arch-enemy on the other side, the Reverend Ian Paisley, also joined the conversation, accepting that McGuinness would be part of it. McGuinness had the reputation of being a practicing Catholic, “a daily communicant,” throughout his life, even while directing a violent movement responsible for the deaths and mutilations of many people. I was in the room when he came to Sr. Clare’s home to venerate her body before the burial the following day and express his condolences to her family, who received him with affection and familiarity. His change of path is a credit to Hume and to McGuinness himself, but he fails an ultimate Catholic litmus test: in 2015 he changed his position on abortion, supporting it “in certain cases.” It’s been said that human tenderness leads to the gas chamber: “The poor child is deformed and the mother will suffer, let’s compassionately kill it,” with emphasis on the word it. McGuinness claimed his new position was compatible with “his” Catholicism. Martin, please: abortion is not Catholic.
In the five short years since McGuinness changed his position, and three short years since his death at the age of 66, Sinn Fein has become an abortion-on-demand, feminist, Marxist political party, and you now have the mind-boggling situation where voters in Derry who are genuinely Catholic and genuinely Nationalist feel obliged in conscience to vote for the Protestant Unionist party founded by the Reverend Ian Paisley because of its stronger anti-abortion stance. Hume was so correct: Catholicism, for many, has been reduced to tribalism. It has to be said with sadness, not satisfaction, that if McGuinness deserves credit for his change of heart regarding violence against the post-born person, he also deserves criticism for his change of heart regarding violence against the pre-born child.
John Hume spent three years as a young man studying to be a priest until he realized it was not his vocation. He graduated from university with a degree in History and French. He was a historian and a Catholic. He knew Irish history and he knew his Faith. He lamented a state of “political immaturity among Catholics.” He urged Catholics to “play a fuller part in public life.” As well as Catholic ignorance of politics, he lamented also the reality of Catholic ignorance of Catholicism. Thanks to Catholic ignorance of politics and of Catholicism and Irish Catholic history, the Catholic vision of the Catholic leaders of 1916 who gave birth to the Irish Republic in the South has been utterly betrayed, just as it is in the process of being utterly betrayed in the North.
On the 3rd of August an article on Hume appeared in The Atlantic saying that John Hume “was not a saint” because of “the compromises he championed and the complexities he recognized.” The author of the article goes on to affirm that Hume’s vision was imperfect and incomplete, concluding: “When giants die they are sanctified, but they do not often become giants by being saints. As Hume would have acknowledged, life is more complicated.” The underlying assumption is that political ingenuity in messy situations is not compatible with holiness. Sadly, even now, many Catholics labor unwittingly under that same assumption. Nothing could be further from the truth. Hume would have wanted nothing to do with such a position. He tirelessly condemned ignorance of politics and ignorance of Catholicism among Catholics and non-Catholics. In fact, in Hume, the Catholic Church may well have a canonizable model of Catholic Social and Political Doctrine.
Sr. Clare Crockett, contrary to some mistaken impressions, was a good student who completed her secondary level education with strong grades. Keenness to learn was part of her personality. Her mastery of Spanish was impressive. The same goes for her mastery of music. She became a cultured and gifted teacher. Like Hume, she abhorred the reduction of Catholicism to tribalism and is on record as saying so on several occasions. She showed deep interest and involvement when, in 2010, the British Prime Minister David Cameron publicly apologized for the actions of the British Army on Bloody Sunday in the Bogside Massacre, right next to where she grew up. In his prophetic novel 1984, George Orwell portrays manipulation of language and ignorance of history as strategies that facilitate manipulation of the masses in totalitarian regimes. Sr. Clare was not ignorant of politics, or history, or Catholic doctrine. She was intellectually and politically aware. It was important to her. Centuries of historical pressure forged her family and her personality, shaping her for better and for worse into who she was. The better we know our history the better we know ourselves and the better placed we are to grow with the aid of God’s grace in the right direction. Like my father, she fasted and prayed for peace in Northern Ireland and followed its political evolution. Catholicism, as has often been said, is not an either/or religion, it’s a both/and religion. A Catholic can be both a politician and a saint.
In the final years of his life, John Hume suffered from dementia. Like Mother Angelica of EWTN, another world-changing communicator, he was purified in the end by silence. His wife Pat declared that she never had to worry about him leaving the house and getting lost in the streets of Derry, because there was never any shortage of people to take his arm and guide him home. She called Derry a “dementia-friendly city.” Her husband had truly won the hearts of his people, as has Sr. Clare.
A Derry native, local historian and friend of the Home of the Mother, Thomas Gallagher, wrote to me saying, “Yes, there is a growing draw to Sr. Clare, especially during the lockdown. Every second or third home in the city had her photo in the window. Also, it’s so apparent that she reaches outside the doors of the Church to those in our society who don’t attend Mass or pray. She is an inspiration drawing them back to faith. It’s amazing, the draw and connection she has with people. So, when they go to visit her grave, it’s out of real need and to petition for their worries and concerns, whereas others visit the burial places of political statesmen as a mark of respect.”
It was Thomas, along with his brother Seán, who organized the pilgrimage to Spain in which Sr. Clare discovered her vocation. His thoughts on John Hume are relevant too: “A remarkable, humble man, a man of Faith, a man that I believe was blessed by God to fulfill a mission. It’s a David and Goliath story and John Hume was David. The stone in his sling was reason and common sense and vision in the midst of mayhem. Hume was a practicing Catholic and I believe chosen by God in answer to the prayers of centuries. His worldwide recognition is significant: the only person to win the Nobel, Ghandi and Martin Luther King Peace Prizes. He gave all the money he received for the prizes to charity. Ill health shortly after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement took away any personal glory. In my time I believe God has heard and answered the prayers of generations of suffering Irish Christians by shedding light into a great darkness through the vision of Hume, the conversion of McGuinness from the use of arms, and the inspirational vocation of Sr. Clare.”
May the visits to the three tombs of Derry long continue. If accompanied by serious historical, moral, political, and religious reflection, together with prayer, the fruits may be abundant for Northern Ireland, for the whole island, for Britain and the world. It’s a lot to hope for, but if anything comes out of this story, it’s that miracles do happen. Sr. Clare, pray for us.