A year ago I walked along back roads, hill paths and beaches from Belfast to Dublin to raise money for homeless charities in the two cities. I then sat down and tried to write a book about my experiences. By last spring I had a book-length manuscript which was frankly not very good. So I am leaving it aside for the moment, but dipping into it for the occasional blog or feature article. And since it is the summer, like most other observers of Northern Ireland I am happy to take a break from its endless, deadlocked politics of narrow ground and narcissism of small difference, and to tell a couple of stories from last year’s walk.
On the third morning I found myself in Dromore, a small town just off the main Belfast-Dublin road in County Down. And because it was a Sunday morning, I went to church – twice. In the Church of Ireland cathedral – founded by St Colman, a Scottish follower of Patrick, over 1500 years ago – I met a local farmer’s wife who had attended the Dublin Masonic Girls School in Ballsbridge in the 1950s, had a son working in the city as an engineer for Wyeth, and declared: “I love Dublin.”
Cheered by this unexpected display of northern Protestant amity for the Irish capital, I then walked across town to the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church in Rampart Street, which is part of the same denomination as my own Unitarian Church in St Stephen’s Green. Built in 1800, this is a beautiful church, designed on classically simple Presbyterian lines, with the preacher’s pulpit at its centre surrounded by warm wood-panelled pews. Here the minister insisted on taking a special collection for the homeless charities I was walking for, raising over £200, and feeding me tea and cake after the service.
This used to be a congregation that was radical, politically and theologically. In the late 18th century many of its members came from the Kinallen and Dromara areas east of the town towards Ballynahinch, which were strongly in favour of the United Irishmen. In the mid 19th century one of its members was the young Andrew Malcolm, later to become one of Belfast’s outstanding philanthropists, a doctor in the city’s fever hospital and founder of the Belfast Working Classes Association, who worked himself to an early death, aged 38, campaigning tirelessly for improved drainage, ventilation, water to every house, street cleaning, public lavatories and strict building controls in the appalling slums that sprang up around that city’s unregulated textile mills.
Until 1980 its minister was Rev Alexander Peaston, a graduate of Oxford and Harvard, and a proud liberal Unitarian. Now, in common with the vast majority of northern Presbyterian churches, it is more narrowly conservative, with a strong Orange element in the congregation (although the Orangemen have been here for many years). But lovely and generous people, provided you steer clear of politics.
That Sunday afternoon I went walking with the charmingly named ‘Down Danderers’ across Slieve Croob, the group of hills which rises (along with the River Lagan) between Dromara and Ballynahinch, just west of the Mournes. Here on a clear day one can see all nine counties of Ulster, as well as north Leinster, southern Scotland, the Isle of Man and Cumbria. The group walking on this July afternoon was an ecumenical one: Catholics, Presbyterians, Baptists and people of no religion at all enjoying the bracing air and the marvellous cross-border views in cheerful harmony.
I then took a side trip to visit the Marian shrine at Slievenaboley. This is a largely forgotten place, a small, lovingly tended shrine high on a 1,000 foot hill which, when one approaches it, is well hidden behind, of all things on a bleak Irish mountainside, an eight foot privet hedge. Forgotten that is by all except a small group of pious Catholics from all over the North who gather there every Sunday afternoon for a prayer vigil. When a Marian apparition happened here in 1954 it caused a sensation in Northern Ireland at a time when the place was dominated by a kind of extreme anti-Catholic Protestantism that most people in Western Europe probably thought had died out in the 19th century. 1954 had been declared a Marian Year by Pope Pius XII. The apparition took place in October of that year at a place called Windy Gap on Slievenaboley (‘mountain of the summer pasture’). The lowland area to the west, stretching through Dromara back to Dromore, was overwhelmingly Protestant, complete with numerous small evangelical churches and missions halls, and the Catholics were largely restricted to the hills.
What happened was that an eight-year-old boy called Seamus Quail was tending cattle on his father’s small hill farm when the Virgin Mary appeared to him. He said she stood on a rocky outcrop on the top of the hill, dressed in blue and white. She then walked down in a circular path to the spot where the shrine to ‘Our Mother of the Hill’ now stands. Seamus is a shy man who does not like to talk about his experience over 60 years ago, but he insists that around 120 people have seen the vision as well as him.
The local Protestants were not impressed at this example of Catholic superstition. The early 1950s was a time of fierce Protestant-Catholic contention, with the Archbishop of Canterbury 12 months before the apparition denouncing “the oppression and denials of just liberties which lie at the door of the Roman Catholic Church”, and commending a booklet which accused Rome of “duplicity, reckless and impertinent propaganda and wholesale exploitation of simple people’s credulity.” Many Protestants in the area objected strongly to a shrine being built and the Rosary being said; worshippers there had to ask for police protection; the pillars that supported the hedge and shrine were painted the red, white and blue colours of the Union Jack, and a flagpole was erected in a Protestant-owned field beside the shrine where to this day the British flag is flown around the 12th of July. Despite this harassment, Seamus Quail says proudly that the Rosary has been said at the shrine every Sunday for the past 63 years. I missed the vigil on my walk through last July but came back a few weeks later to sit in the pouring rain for an hour listening as reverently as I could to the Apostle’s Creed, the Our Father, the Hail Marys, Glory Bes and Glorious Mysteries that make up the Decade of the Rosary.
I came away from that little ceremony feeling sad: sad at the continuing deep gulf of understanding and affection between my conservative fellow Presbyterians in Dromore and – a short few miles away – their neighbours, the devout, old-fashioned Catholics of the Slievenaboley shrine. All lovely people, but living cheek by jowl in mutually uncomprehending parallel universes.
Just as in the 1970s and 1980s when, as a journalist working in Belfast, I was one of the few people who could move safely and comfortably between republican and loyalist areas, once again I felt enormously privileged and fortunate to be able to cross the barriers in this deeply divided society: a northern Protestant who is a happy citizen of the Republic of Ireland, with a County Antrim grandfather who set up his own evangelical gospel hall and a wife whose County Cork grandfather was a travelling Irish language teacher (timire) for the Gaelic League and was interned in 1916 (not forgetting a Czech socialist father along the way). What a sorrow it is that other children from a British-Northern Ireland Protestant background were not as fortunate as I was to be able to come together with their Irish Catholic neighbours to enjoy the cultural, environmental and linguistic richness of this fabulous island of ours.
I ended that Sunday, after a walk along the Lackan Bog Path (near Moneyslane), a gorgeous hidden gem of wetland that is utterly unknown outside this unfashionable corner of County Down, in Vanessa and Russell Drew’s organic farm and bed and breakfast. Here was the inspiration that I had been searching for all day. Vanessa, a striking woman who looks much younger than her 45 years, is a champion bee-keeper and goat-breeder who also keeps sheep, hens and peacocks. Last year she was named Northern Ireland columnist of the year for her gardening column in a local women’s magazine. In her garden, orchard and greenhouse she grows every conceivable fruit and vegetable: from blackcurrants to beetroot, grapes to gooseberries, figs to fennel, artichokes to elderflowers, radishes to rocket to rhubarb.
Vanessa Drew is the kind of person we need in the new Ireland and the new Northern Ireland: a role model for young people in the resource conscious world we will need to build if humanity is going to survive global warming and environmental degradation. I would make fifth year school students – in the Republic those in Transition Year – do a compulsory module on self-sufficiency involving a visit to a small, largely organic farm like Vanessa’s. For students from the South the fact that they would cross the border in the process would make it an even more valuable learning exercise – imagine that they would actually learn that good things can come out of Northern Ireland! Indeed we should all be beating a path to her Ballyroney Cottage in the heart of unblemished mid-Down, a few poc fadas from the Mournes, to see what the future could hold if we start taking green politics and self-sufficiency seriously – and forget about our obsessions (and that includes mine) with history, religion and national identity for a change!
PS Sincere thanks to Denis and Honor Stewart for their generous hospitality during my short stay in Dromore.