Day Six: In Belfast, a City Still Learning Peace and Healing from the Past

BELFAST – After another traditional Irish breakfast buffet of eggs, beans and black pudding, we departed Londonderry for Belfast. This time, the ride was sleepier, as we watched the countryside roll by and reflected on the trip so far.

Like Londonderry, memories of the conflict were alive in Belfast, with the majority Protestant city, the largest in Northern Ireland, draped in Orange Order flags and Irish tricolors alike.

Our bus arrived early at the Europa Hotel, billed as “the most bombed hotel in Europe.” Driver Ben took us on a quick loop through a nearby Protestant neighborhood, Sandy Row, where we were greeted by murals of the Protestant King William of Orange and Queen Elizabeth II. The pubs in the area flew Israeli flags — a stark difference from what we saw in the predominantly Catholic Derry, where sympathies were heavily pro-Palestine.

As we pulled back around to the Europa, our driver cautioned us not to wear any political memorabilia from Derry while walking around Belfast, lest we offend anyone. He said we’d be able to know if we were in a Protestant or Catholic neighborhood by the art and flags. 

“[It is] totally crazy, but that’s just the way things are,” he said.

Charity in ‘No Man’s Land’

After dropping off our bags at the Europa, we set out for Youth Link NI, a peace-building youth organization that is unique in that it officially involved both the Catholic and mainline Protestant church leaders, according to our guide, Dr. Barbara McDade, who once chaired the organization. 

The charity’s headquarters sit in a “no man’s land” area of West Belfast, near a Protestant enclave of the predominantly Catholic part of the city. “Peace walls,” like we saw in Londonderry, divide Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. Here though, some stand over 40 feet high. Although the risk of petrol bombs and missiles was less of a threat than during the Troubles, both McDade and our driver insisted that the barriers provided psychological protection to both communities.

A Peace Wall along Springfield Road in West Belfast (photo by Daniel O'Connor)

The walls were not the only harsh barriers in the neighborhood. McDade led us on a walk that included a stop outside an Orange Order lodge, blocked off by high fences with spikes that curved outward at the top.

She then led us to a walled-off building, complete with additional high metal barriers, watchtowers and cameras. What looked like a military outpost was simply the local police station in Belfast, McDade explained. On the same road, was a gate that McDade said was manually closed each night to prevent Catholics from crossing into the Protestant neighborhood. 

Here, McDade shared with us the history of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the police force during the Troubles that was 97 percent Protestant. The peace process led to several changes in the police force, now called the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). Affirmative action increased the number of Catholic officers. Still, Catholic PSNI officers often face violence from dissidents of their own communities, McDade said.

“It’s still considered too dangerous for [PSNI officers] to be on foot,” she said of the neighborhood. “The threat, particularly from dissident republicans, is still quite high.” 

We saw a memorial to the Springhill Westrock Massacre across the road, commemorating another tragedy at the hands of the British Army. 

Our group in front of Youth Link NI (photo by Ann W. Schmidt)

Youth Link makes a point to employ asylum seekers for its catering services — including the lunch of curried chicken, vegetables and rice we shared. We also sipped tea and coffee while mingling with Youth Link employees.

After lunch, we gathered in a circle with Joe McKeown, a Catholic and the director of Youth Link, around an eclectic pile of flags, clothing and religious regalia from Ireland and around the world. A portrait of Queen Elizabeth sat over a Palestinian flag. A Gaelic football jersey was beside a Ulster Volunteer Force banner — an illegal symbol of the Protestant paramilitary in most contexts. And an American flag was right beside a Confederate flag — something that he said once made a group of visiting Americans so uncomfortable, they wouldn’t enter the room. 

“These symbols do have power,” said McKeown. A few people winced as he accidentally stepped on the U.S. flag, proving his point.

McKeown told us that his grandfather was killed by a British soldier’s crossfire. Soon after, papers reported that he was an IRA agent. The trauma that impacted his family in the wake of the tragedy had a significant impact on his life. By his teen years, the sight of a British flag would cause him anxiety, he said. 

“My body would go into shivers, I would feel threatened,” he said. Since then, he’s been on a “journey of reconciliation.”

He even tried to meet the soldier who’d killed his grandfather. The soldier had been 18 at the time.

“Kids with guns, trained to kill,” he said. 

'How Do We Remember?'

Next, an interfaith panel joined us to talk about Ireland’s minority faiths. With representation from the island’s Baha’i, Romanian Orthodox, Muslim and Hindu communities, we discussed how the growing diverse groups fit within the Irish story. 

“It’s still being written,” said Adrian Cristea, a Romanian Orthodox leader of the Dublin City Interfaith Forum.

After the panel, McKeown brought us to Clonard Monastery, in a neighborhood with deep Catholic roots. On the way there, we passed another gate that separates the neighborhood and locks from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. Beside a towering “peace wall” we stopped at a memorial to IRA members and civilians killed in the conflict. 

“My mother would not be comfortable with me standing here,” McDade, a Protestant, said. 

Mural commemorating individuals killed during the Troubles (photo by Daniel O'Connor)

McKeown said there are two difficult questions Belfast residents have to ask themselves: How do we recognize the dead, and how do we also acknowledge that there are victims on the other side of the wall? “How do we remember?” 

In the monastery, some students lit a memorial candle for peace, at McKeown’s suggestion.

After a quick dinner on our own, we headed to Belfast Cathedral for a St. Patrick’s Day concert by Anúna, the original musicians behind the ’90s Irish hit Riverdance. Toward the end, the group’s leader, Michael McGlynn, from Dublin, introduced the song Pie Jesu. His version, composed in 1998, commemorates a bombing in Omagh, in the Northern Ireland county of Tyrone. The bombing killed 29 people, months after the Good Friday Agreement was signed on April 10, 1998.

“I don't particularly want to talk about the context,” he said. “Everyone here has a story about the Troubles.”

Edited by Ann W. Schmidt


Unexpected Defeat of Referendums Shows Growing Power of Ireland’s Traditional Catholics

DUBLIN (RNS) — At a Mass said in Latin on Sunday (March 10), Ireland’s traditional Catholics declared political victory, days after a pair of referendums aimed at secularizing the Irish Constitution were unexpectedly and resoundingly defeated.

On Friday, the Irish government put two measures to a vote that would have extended the rights of unmarried couples in the country’s constitution and removed language defining women’s roles “within the home.” Both had been widely expected to pass despite enjoying little debate in the Dail, or Irish parliament, and after a rubber stamp by all three of the Irish Republic’s main political parties.

Both proposals failed, even in progressive Dublin. When all votes were counted, 67.7% of voters had rejected the family amendment, while 73.9% rejected the measure dealing with women’s roles, referred to as the care amendment. Turnout was 44.4%.

On Sunday, as pundits and reporters struggled to explain the most strongly rejected referendum in the republic’s history, roughly 200 traditional Catholics, many in their 30s and 40s, gathered at St. Kevin’s Church, Harrington Street, one of the few places in the city where the traditional, pre-Vatican II Latin Mass is still celebrated, for a triumphant celebration and a redoubt of conservative Catholics. 

Even as a much smaller crowd arrived for the noon English-language Mass, those who had attended the 10:30 a.m. Latin Mass — men in tweed jackets and women in long skirts and white, floral head coverings — packed into the tight parish hall for tea, still buzzing with delight at the vote.

Sign for a voting location in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Daniel O’Connor)

The Latin Mass was largely done away with by the Second Vatican Council, when bishops meeting in Rome from 1962-1965 instituted Masses in local languages. However, some traditional Catholics remain drawn to the old Latin rite that dates to the 1500s.

That rite, which was allowed to be said more widely under Pope Benedict XVI, has become a flashpoint under Pope Francis, who in 2021 barred priests from saying it without permission from their bishops. Traditionalists have seen it as a symbol of the larger battle in the church over matters such as LGBT inclusion and the roles of women.

This divide was on display at the entrance to St. Kevin’s, in copies of Catholic Voice, a traditionalist newspaper whose latest issue looks forward to St. Patrick’s Day on March 17 while urging Irish Catholics to have the “courage” to declare that “liberalism is a sin” and deriding the “myths created by the homosexualist movement.” In a time when the pope is allowing priests to bless people in LGBTQ unions, the paper maintained that those who do not oppose “disordered sexuality” are “straddling Satan’s fence.”

The message that Catholic values are under threat from within the church has hit home in Ireland, where society was overwhelmingly Catholic a generation ago. As of 2022, Catholics made up just 69% of the population, down sharply from 79% in 2016. Weekly Mass attendance among Catholics hovers around one-third nationally, down from over 90% in the 1970s.

Accompanying this transformation have been referendums in which the Irish have legalized divorce (1995), gay marriage (2015) and abortion (2018).

But references to both marriage as a fundamental societal unit and to the roles of women in the home will now stay in the constitution. “It’s a great result for women, for mothers, for the homes and for marriage,” said Maria Steen, a prominent conservative activist. “And I think it’s a real rejection of the government’s attempt to, you know, delete all of that from the constitution.”

Steen ran a brief campaign that framed the removal of motherhood from the constitution as both sexist and anti-Catholic. She said Friday’s election result was a sign that the Irish had “gratitude” for motherhood.

St. Kevin’s Church, Harrington Street, in Dublin, Ireland, Sunday, March 10, 2024. (Photo by Daniel O’Connor)

At St. Kevin’s, Michelle McGrath, a conservatively dressed woman in her 40s, said she was unsurprised by the vote result. She attributed it in part to the vagueness of the proposals, which would have equated marriage with other “durable” relationships. “Most people were confused about what it was, really,” said McGrath. “I don’t know what I’m being asked here.”

Confusion about what would be deemed durable relationships seemed to doom the referendum on marriage. In a televised debate on March 5 between Steen and Ireland’s deputy prime minister, or Tanaiste, Micheál Martin, he suggested that the court would decide what constituted durability, which would determine parental rights and inheritances. 

McGrath said deeper frustrations were also at play. Steen and the “No” campaign suggested repeatedly that the broadened relationship laws would have facilitated greater immigration into Ireland, which has become increasingly controversial in the once demographically homogenous republic.

“People are starting to find their courage again in Ireland, and the people who’ve been silenced for a very long time are starting to call out the obvious injustices going on,” McGrath said. “The Irish have been put paddy-last, to use the pun, in their own nation. They have been sent to the back of the queue while minorities get the majority.”

Meanwhile, Shane Duffley, an early-middle-aged man with an intense stare, said the proposal on women’s roles was “messing with Irish mammies.”

“You don’t mess with Irish women,” he said firmly, eliciting strong nods from two friends — one a European immigrant with a small child in tow and the other a tall Irishman who, like many younger traditional Latin Mass Catholics, homeschools his kids.

Maggie, a middle-aged woman who declined to give her last name, said the liberalization of Ireland had “radicalized” the country. “Ireland has changed a lot in my lifetime,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean that everything that the government proposes is something that people accept.”

First published in Religion News Service.