When we were young, our mother insisted on the daily communal recitation of the Rosary.
Throughout our teenage years, suitors to my elder sisters calling to our house would pause on the doorstep and turn an enquiring ear towards the living room window; on hearing the familiar mumbling they would choose to ‘wait out’ these devotional prayers.
Still, we were taught to show respect for our ‘non-Catholic’ neighbours.
Only later was the division alerted, if relationships developed that might lead to marriage.
‘What’s wrong with a good Catholic girl?’
Some Northern people insisted that they detected physical differences in those others:
‘Their eyes are too close together’.
To some Catholics, Protestants were considered dour, unfriendly and uptight.
Some Protestants thought of Catholics as disloyal, dirty and sinful.
Our separate identities were often given away by the distinctive first (and indeed sur- ) names burdened upon us: on the one side, William or Elizabeth; on the other, Patrick or Bridget: Murphy was Catholic, Montgomery was Protestant.
I considered myself fortunate to be blessed with two wholly neutral names.
That fact bestowed an advantage upon me in my relationships in the early 1970’s when in my late teens I migrated to cosmopolitan South Belfast.
Well, cosmopolitan by our standards: Holy Land terraced streets of destitute students and nurses, of indeterminate religion or none, surrounded by the religiously-segregated ghettos of Lower Ormeau and Donegal Pass.
I settled in.
Tuesday was Nurse’s Dance night at the City Hospital.
I spotted her and moved in as the band struck up its final set of tunes.
‘Have you just arrived?
I was searching for you all evening.’
‘What? I don’t think I know you?’
I don’t think I know you?’
‘You know me now!’ I gasped, rather desperately. I spluttered out a lie.
‘I’d like you to know I’m not asking out of desperation because it’s the last dance …’
Ach, I was the lad with the glib tongue.
I knew how to charm a girl!
‘No?’ and her eyes twinkled.
We huddled together later in a telephone box on the corner of the Lisburn and University Roads, getting to know each other.
‘Daylight will change everything,’ she reflected sadly.
‘We could wait here and see how untrue that is,’ I rejoined.
Finally her taxi arrived.
‘May I have your shoe?’ I asked.
‘How else will I find my Cinderella in the morning?’
We swapped contact details.
We were so alike that our ‘religious’ differences were merely a source of amused conversation. Her name marked her out as of the ‘other side’. So did her address in Knockbreda. Her people were Protestant and loyalist.
We were young and easy and, obviously at that stage not planning marriage, so we joyfully explored each other’s diverse background as our relationship blossomed.
I introduced her to Irish culture – dance, theatre, literature and music (Sean O’Riada, Ceolteoiri Cualainn, The Chieftains) – and she took to it all, like a swan to water.
She thanked me later for giving her ‘gifts of the mind’.
Foolishly – with an air of bravado – we would walk across Peter’s Hill from the Falls to the Shankill, figuratively as well as literally crossing the great divide, indifferent to the very real danger. Then I would leave her home.
We would park yards from her home so that we might share an unobserved embrace.
One night the driver’s window was tapped gently and a young man was there flashing a card.
‘UDA Police,’ he explained quietly. ‘May I ask what you are doing?’
I was startled – and very frightened, but I tried hard to conceal it.
It was 1974 – the worst year till then of our Troubles.
The mutilated bodies of innocent Catholics were turning up all over Loyalist Belfast.
I struggled free of my nightmare and re-found my tongue.
‘You’re doing a good job. Glad of your protection.’
I hoped my voice sounded calm and controlled. Sincere, even.
I was drawing my driver’s licence from my wallet. I was confident that neither my name nor my Belfast address revealed my origins. I handed it to him. I identified my girlfriend and pointed out her home three doors away. The UDA would know that her father was a prominent local Presbyterian and shipyard worker and beyond their reproach.
‘No problem, sir. Sorry to disturb you. Have a nice night.’
And he was off.
I had never before heard of UDA Police.
We quickly parted and I sped across the Knock Dual-Carriageway towards home.
I didn’t intend to allow time for the UDA to set up an ambush with me as target.
I wasn’t invited into her home. The adults there knew of my religion. It took some years to persuade them of any good qualities I might have, but the ‘religion’ issue meant they would not attend our marriage ceremony, which was celebrated a year later and was less happy that it should have been, for their absence.
Unfortunately my mother-in-law passed away suddenly a few years later.
Her widower was left to fend for himself. His married sons, staunch in their reformed religion were yet loath, when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, to receive him into their homes on any long-term basis. As husband of his only daughter I didn’t hesitate to offer though George and I were poles apart in many ways and his daughter and I were raising our own family then in a particularly Republican area of my native town.
George was fiercely independent, but while considering my invitation he came to visit, and soon chose to stay with us.
His tirades on the evils of the Church of Rome were endless and difficult to listen to – not to say to counter. I tried appeasement, without success.
I changed tack.
To know the essence of his argument I researched the charges against the medieval Church. Then once at the height of a future diatribe, I added another charge he knew nothing of.
‘Did you hear of the Pope who gave birth to a child while in office?’ I inquired.
He was reduced to stuttering.
‘But … then … why..?’
I explained that I taught in a Catholic school and that my livelihood, and that of his daughter and his grandchildren depended on my selective silence.
We could speak together after that.
Eventually we even became quite good friends.
George, staying now on the edge of the notorious South Armagh, was curious to learn about everyday life in ‘Bandit Country’.
‘It’s the finest place on God’s good earth – with the best people,’
I assured him with conviction. ‘I’ll take you there.’
‘Shouldn’t we inform the Army? Maybe get an armed escort?’
My father-in-law had many fine qualities but discretion was not one of them.
‘What would the people there do to me if they found out who I am?’
I smiled ruefully. The irony of reversed roles was not lost on me.
‘I will telephone ahead. I will tell them who you are!
They will bake fresh bread. Then they’ll make you tea, shake your hand, chat and warmly welcome you.
You won’t want to leave.’
George was a nature lover but as a city man had little knowledge of the great natural beauty of South Armagh. Before we had got anywhere special he was effusing about the hawthorn blooming at the roadside.
‘You haven’t seen anything yet,’ I promised him, as we rounded the beautiful Camlough Lake and headed up Sturgan’s Brae.
The pastoral vista was stunning.
Our destination was my uncle’s home at Annamar. Peader was recuperating from serious injuries received in a road traffic accident.
He lived in the field next to the ancient fairy fort of Lisleitrim and I was always convinced he was a product of it. He was Darby O’Gill incarnate.
George was stony-faced, puritan in attitude and quietly measured in speech and in taste. Peader smoked, drank whiskey and swore so freely that it was now a natural part of the man. I led the former down to the lower room where the man-of-the-house was abed and I left them to it. They were adults! I closed the door behind me as I left.
I had to go down later and practically drag George out. The two men were talking continuously, with clear prejudice, in different veins and on different topics.
They established a lasting friendship.
But another visitor had arrived who was held in the greatest respect by everyone not just in that household but in all Ireland and in most countries of the world and by people of all religions. Local man Tom Fee had been elevated to his vocation’s highest rank (short only of Pope) when he was ordained Cardinal of The Church.
I introduced George to his eminence Cardinal Tomas O’Fiaich. When I got the chance to whisper privately to my father-in-law, I warned him not to raise religious issues.
[‘For your grandchildren’s sake’, I hissed.
‘But John, we… ‘ he sounded disbelieving that I would let a chance like this go begging,
‘we… we could sort him out together’.
George was certain now that I was on the same side as him in the ‘religion’ matter.
How I persuaded him to keep his own counsel, I’ll never know.]
Because we were peripheral to the visit’s purpose – the Cardinal’s sick call to his friend and parishioner – we stayed mostly in the background and later George warmly described ‘Father Tom’, the name he always retained with his oldest friends, as a most interesting gentleman. This time the “.. but ..” was left understood, rather than underlined.
In those days I was teaching in a Catholic school in a neighbouring diocese.
Our Senior Management took their religion far more seriously than their teaching vocation and all stops were pulled out for the visit of any prelate.
When it was announced that the Cardinal was to visit, the resultant flurry of activity was amusing to observe. Not only was the school painted and spring-cleaned but equipment that previously was ‘beyond our means’ was hastily purchased and prominently displayed. Classes that might show poor behaviour were excused or sent off on ‘educational visits’. The remaining classes were doubled up to ensure that all Senior Management was available to meet the Cardinal. Some research was invested into the proper form of address for a Cardinal.
Privately in the week before, I informed the Principal of my family’s connections, the fact that we were acquainted and that the Cardinal might like to see a familiar face.
My rationale was dismissed contemptuously.
‘You are needed to keep troublesome boys out of sight.’
Yet even I had to get a short lunch break and it was then that I took the initiative.
I strayed into the Assembly Hall where all were grovelling before the illustrious visitor, showering attention upon him. He spotted my approach and instantly sprang to his feet.
‘Do you work here, John?’
His greeting rang across the hall.
I was pleased that he recognised me and recalled my first name in this unfamiliar environment.
With a mystified look he turned towards the Principal who remained seated.
‘No one informed me’.
It was clear that he had asked after South Armagh staff members.
‘Father Tom,’ I said quietly, ‘It’s good to see you.’
There were a loud, astonished, collective gasp at my lowly term of address to the Cardinal. He ignored it and draped an arm around my shoulders. We alone were standing.
‘I’d like you all to know,’ said the Cardinal, ‘that John’s mother and uncles are not just my former schoolmates but my lifelong friends too.
Peader, your uncle (he was addressing me now)
never missed an Armagh GAA game with me and ‘the team”.
He smiled. He knew that I knew the story. They had a private box at Croke Park and Kieran O’Malley, another member of ‘the Team’ had often had to place a friendly, gagging hand over Peader’s mouth as he directed a rant of swear words towards any referee who dared to censure an Armagh player!
‘Tell me, John, how is that fine Presbyterian gentleman, George, your father-in-law?
I do hope his illness has not worsened?’
It was all I could do, not to laugh out loud.
The term Presbyterian had been artificially inserted into his sentence and was pointedly directed at the hypocritical Senior Management.
He went on, among other things, to apologise to me for his inability, on the former occasion when he visited Peader as his pastor, to give due attention to George and me.
Then he insisted that a teacher be found to cover my class so that we could have the craic together. We did. For an hour!
The school ‘Senior Management’ never afterwards forgave me my intrusion into their exclusive presence on such an auspicious occasion.
I suspect indeed that, ever after, they individually basked in a warm glow of spiritual superiority over the Cardinal also; a man who deigned to honour some ‘fine Presbyterian gentleman’.
As if such a creature could possibly exist !
… end …