In c431a Welsh Shepard found his way to this part of the world and changed the place for all time. Patrick or Patricius had already been here previously after being sold into slavery by Irish pirates, now he was coming back as a preacher to convert a pagan island to Christianity, ordaining priests to spread the gospel and building chapels to house the converted. Yhat’s the story anyway although the sources are scarce, only two documents survive which were actually Patrick’s work, the ‘Confessio’ and a ‘Letter to Coroticus’.
These works of literature helped create the mythology of ‘St Patrick’ and in the 7th century Armagh took the story onboard and the rest is history. Ireland became a Christian catholic country and remained so ever since despite the Reformation and British occupation, in fact, our history would probably be a different story without the influence of the Church over the last millennia and a half. While Martin Luther, himself a former catholic pries,t sold the Protestant Reformation to most of northern Europe, Ireland rejected the 99 theses. Also, Jean Calvin and his second wave of reformed Christianity and indeed John Knox and his Scottish version which, in time, would bring unadulterated sectarian bigotry where once Columba brought his wisdom!
The influence of the Catholic church throughout the country and the work of the local priests among the people here created a country which differed from the Government which ruled from Westminster. Despite all the criticism that the church has taken in the modern era, we should recognise that only for the deep-felt faith ingrained in the people, it’s very possible that we would have converted to post Reformation thinking and became subjects of the Crown. Which gave us our independence from British rule was a mixture of nationalism and catholicism down through the centuries. Despite being treated by London as a peasant people, the mixture of defiance led by local clergy gave us something tangible which defied a foreign Government who while destroying our language, inflicting a horrendous famine, imposing the Penal Laws, usurping our rights as a free nation, military repression, emigration and evictions, they never succeeded in making us ‘take the soup’!
The Penal Laws were the harshest form of punishment ever introduced by the British Government. In the 17th and 18th centuries it was forbidden for Irish Catholics and indeed some Presbyterians to hold public office, having firearms and joining the army, becoming an MP, a ban on being a practising solicitor, gaining a foreign education, inheriting protestant land or owning a horse, becoming a Teacher or a Priest, and so on and so on. A litany of laws which would make South Africa’s apartheid regime in the 20th century appear like the most progressive society ever?
Saying Mass was banned and priests had to go into hiding for fear of punishment or death. When you read over these words in 2020 it appears incredulous that society was ever thus, but that’s the way it was after the Reformation and the Williamite wars of the 16th century. That it didn’t succeed in the objective is a powerful statement to the strength and conviction to a native people, in many cases led by the example of local clergy who defied and denied the influences of the Reformation.
During the worst of times during the Penal Laws, it was illegal to say Mass so we had thousands of Mass rocks spread all over the country where priests and the people would congregate in secluded spots to reaffirm their faith, cleanse their souls and deny the right of a foreign country and Government to plunder their religion and national consciousness. These mass rocks remain to the present day as a reminder of how things were. One I used to walk up to when I was younger is out in Stragraddy on the high road facing the Mountain Bar near where ‘Paddy the Cope’ used to live. It’s fascinating to think that a few hundred years ago locals were gathering there to hear mass in a secretive manner. You could imagine that there were ‘lookouts’ positioned around the mass rock to warn of the appearance of the authorities, the priest like a fish in the sea of support. The modern church mightn’t like the analogy but sure it was like an IRA convention held in darkest Mayo under the guise of a Marian pilgrimage to Knock!
I have met some wonderful priests over the years as well as some fire and brimstone merchants who would make Paisley appear like an altar boy! The day Pope John Paul XXIII died in 1963 we were making our way through St Teresa’s chapel grounds in Andersonstown, when all of a sudden the bells started ringing and I suppose we were mimicking the bell sounds when the PP Rev McNamara looked out the window of his house, ‘Getaway home you heathens, have you no respect for the Pope dying’ or words to that effect…Sure, we didn’t know the bells were ringing for the man who transformed the church in the 20th century. We were only nine years old!
Another experience in my young years was one day I went to confession in St Teresa’s, we had to walk the half-mile as there was no chapel in Turf Lodge in the early ’60s. Anyway, I went into the confessional after rehearsing ‘my sins’, ‘bless me, Father I had impure thoughts, I dreamed that Marilyn Monroe was the Virgin Mary’!! After getting absolution, my penance of ten Hail Mary’s and being informed that JFK mightn’t agree, the young priest stunned me, ‘……is your mammy going down to Donegal this summer’? I couldn’t get out of the confessional quick enough and ran all the way home shocked that the priest knew me, I thought in that dark confessional I was incognito, confession was never the same again!
A few years later when they were fundraising for a new chapel in our area, Fr McKillop who would become our PP used to run film nights in an old shed beside his house up the Hannastown which was a few hundred yards from the estate on the country road leading to the airport. Actually, it was on the site where Gort na Mona CLG are domiciled now. Now, whether McKillop had a liking for scary movies or not it seemed that most of them were Dracula, Frankenstein etc, so there we were walking home after the film down a dark country road with the wind blowing and us scared shitless waiting on Christopher Lee jumping out of the hedges to suck our blood from our frozen limbs. We were twelve and I never forgave Bram Stoker or Fr McKillop for frightening the bejesus out of us at that young age!
When I was 15 I was seriously involved in cross country running for the school and we took part in races all over Ireland. After school, I used to train with a new young curate, Fr Pat Coyle. I’ve mentioned him previously in my writings, he was a superb athlete and competed in the European championships in ’72 for the country. He would take a few of us on five-mile runs up that same Hannastown and then head off on his own for another 20 miles. What a man! But it wasn’t Fr Pat’s ecumenical contribution to our welfare or his exhilarating exhibition of running skills like Kip Keno or Usain Bolt which fixated our young minds. Well, actually it WAS his ability to cover 100 metres in 10 seconds that caught our imagination.
When we were in full-scale riot mode in the early ’70s, lobbing bricks and petrol bombs at the ‘defenders of the Reformation’, the next thing Fr Pat would appear and as we all knew him from the youth club, sure he could clear a riot situation in as quick a time as he ran the 100 metres while the heroes of Arnhem were struggling for hours with feral youths, apparently the local Army commander phoned PP McKillopand he would send Fr Pat to enter the Alamo although he was more concerned with keeping our lives safe than satisfying the whims of a foreign soldier!
In the Long Kesh years, there were some great priests who used to come in to visit us, and one used to bring in materials to hand-make rugs. He was a brilliant wee man whose name eludes me but from South Derry. We would make some rugs for him to fund raise for his parish, a man of the people. In the Cages during the 70’s Fr Faul, Raymond Murray and Archbishop Tomas O’ Fiach were regular visitors and exposed the reality of life in a British concentration camp. O’ Fiach once described the H Blocks as being worse than the slums of Calcutta! Priests would say mass in the Cages with a full colour party kneeling in front of them. They would also smuggle ‘comms’ in and out, and were a source of great comfort during those difficult times. Hunger striker, Raymond McCreesh’s brother was a priest, also John Francis Green escaped from the Kesh dressed as a priest as did Patrick Gallagher in later years. And Martin Monaghan from this parish, a saintly figure it has to be said, did the same although dressed as a History Teacher! Archbishop McQuaid in the ’50s or indeed Cardinal Cathal Daly in the ’90s mightn’t have approved, but the ordinary priest was a man of the people, the iconic pictures of Edward Daly and the white hankie on Bloody Sunday with the lifeless body of Jackie Duddy personify the era!
On arriving in Termon in the late 70’s I met up with some wonderful characters of priests, firstly Canon McDaid, he was friendly with Uncle John and they would spend many a Saturday evening after mass having a few ‘aperitifs’ at the Mountain Bar. The wee Canon had a funny way of talking with nasal intones, ‘sure we’ll have another wee Bushmills John for the road’, the wine on the altar would never be the same! In the ’80s two real characters arrived in Termon, Rev Eugene McDermott and Fr Jackie Fitzgerald and it was a pantomime from day one. Their backgrounds were diametrically opposite. Eugene’s dad had been in the RIC and Jackie’s mum in Cumann na mBan during the War of Independence. The story goes that Eugene’s dad was disarmed and stripped by the IRA who took his revolver but at least left his trousers, Eugene wasn’t impressed by this little nugget of history but Jackie would rile him especially during heated about the issues of the day, the Hunger Strikes, Falklands/Malvinas, Miners’ strike, Eugene was always on the side of the establishment whereas Jackie, it can be said, appeared to embrace the rebels!
One night Eugene landed at the ‘Mountain’ and mum was down for Xmas and cleaning away and preparing the dinner. Uncle John introduced her, ‘Annie this is the new PP, Rev Eugene’. Annie shook hands and continued working away but every time she came through the bar John would start the introductions again, ‘Annie this is………’. After the fourth time of introduction Annie had enough, ‘listen John I know who it is but I’m busy cleaning your bloody house’. Annie didn’t take prisoners and John being a Holy Joe told her to go back to Belfast on the first bus!
As for Jackie, well no recollection could compare to the night he brought Pat McGrattan and I to St John’s in Fahan. We were down in Buncrana painting his mum’s house with pictures of her in a Cumann na mBan uniform in 1920 on the wall. Jackie knew Reggie the proprietor very well and after a great welcome we were seated at a long table fit for a king with six waitresses attending us like something in upstairs-downstairs, the best of wine and cigars ordered and a meal which looked like it was made in the tv programme, ‘Lords and Ladles’. Apres meal, we had a chat with Reggie and a little liqueur, an Italian amaro. It was far from amaro and Cuban cigars we were reared! Reggie told us that John Hume and the Bishop of Chicago dined there the previous week. What he made of the two Termon painters in their paint splashed work clothes in his red velvet boutique hotel was something else! As we left, Reggie bade us goodbye and the cheque like Jack Charlton’s was never cashed or maybe went on the next Termon trip to Lourdes account! Sadly, I only saw Jackie once after that, both were retiring and the community raised 2100 for them. Eugene being the PP received 1400 and Jackie the balance. I met him the next morning and he said, ‘700 yo-yo’s Paddy, not to be sniffed at’. Sadly, both were dead within a short time, both very educated men, writers, philosophers and characters supreme!
As for the present, Fr Pat is ensconced in Termon. I’ve known Pat for a long time, we played football together back in the day. He’s a great football man and the lack of it on Sky hasn’t helped his lockdown time! He has done wonderful work in Termon, creating a pathway to the cross on the hillside in Cnoc na Bollan which was erected to commemorate the Eucharistic congress in 1952. Pat has created a walkway with the stations of the cross in stone, a permanent structure in remembrance of his time and the faith he embraces. On New Year’s Eve, he leads the annual walk to Doon Well, the holy meeting place below Doon Rock where the Chieftains of Ulster were crowned up until 1603, a historical site in situ within its modern-day ‘sanctuary’, preserved by another man of the people. They are classed as a link between humans and a deity and deliver a message from ‘above’, although the two priests I golf with, Richie and Gerry might use divine intervention to see their Drives go straight down the fairway or a 3′ putt sank on Captains Day. The Lord works in mysterious ways!
*Paddy McMenamin’s debut book on a personal perspective on the conflict in Northern Ireland will be published in Spring 2021.