Coalisland clergy working together for peace

As pastors we needed to make this a wider conversation

If you take a walk through the town of Coalisland, Co.Tyrone, you will see multiple signs of ‘the legacy of the Troubles’, from the last hundred years. From the steps of the parochial house follow the path through the graveyard of St Mary and St Joseph’s Church, past graves and memorials to members of the IRA, some killed in the SAS ambush at Clonoe Chapel in February 1992. Exit the graveyard and walk down the hill towards the centre of our small town and you will pass the plaque on St Patrick’s Hall, commemorating the Irish Volunteers who gathered to participate in the Easter Rising in 1916. Further down the hill on the right is the Republican History Museum. Across the road is a cairn commemorating the start of the first civil rights march in Northern Ireland in August 1968. Follow the route of that march towards Dungannon and you cannot escape the sight of the disused police barracks. After several hundred metres turn into Brackaville Church of Ireland graveyard, passing the headstones of UDR soldiers killed on nearby streets. Reach the steps of the rectory, from where you will see a memorial to an IRA volunteer, just across the road.

These are just some of the visible signs of political unrest and historic violence in Coalisland. If you’re a passing visitor you won’t see the many invisible signs which trigger fear, painful memories and a sense of injustice every day for many locals. The Church of Ireland rector (Rev. Andrew Rawding) and I live and minister in the town and are faced with the challenge of addressing the impact of these visible and invisible wounds. Do we ignore the trauma, the unresolved grief, sense of betrayal, mistrust, guilt, shame and the hidden divides? Do we pretend that everything is OK and that everyone has moved on?

Extreme violence is no longer a daily occurrence in Coalisland. But high levels of suicide, alcoholism and substance abuse in recent peace process years suggest that violence has been internalised and peace has not been processed mentally, emotional and spiritually for many people. As clergy in Coalisland we’ve been fortunate and able to talk to each other about the issues and mutually support one another. But we know that many clergy are operating in isolation, particularly when it comes to ‘the legacy of the Troubles’. We also know that clergy are human and they also carry the scars of violence, fear and trauma.

A wider conversation

Andrew and I realised that, as pastors we needed to make this a wider conversation, which we hoped would be for the benefit of other clergy in Mid-Ulster and Northern Ireland and so we initiated a conference in Coalisland, working with the Irish Churches Peace Project. The conference was titled ‘Go, and do thou likewise’ taking as its model the gospel of the Good Samaritan.

The command to love God and to build his kingdom of mercy, still needs to be reasserted in our time. Different fears hold us back from challenging, comforting and healing. There are times too, when such fears cause us to be followers within our communities rather than leaders of them. In polarised communities though, these conversations are seldom held between clergy from different backgrounds.

Leading academics in conflict resolution, reconciliation and mental health –Brandon Hamber, Gladys Ganiel and Peter McBride addressed the gathering. Rev. David Clements who was the Methodist minister on the Shankill Road, Belfast at the time of the Shankhill bombing and Fr Stephen Kearney who was the Catholic parish priest of Greysteel at the time of the Greysteel massacre shared their personal stories. All clergy were given the chance to listen to each other, talk about painful and contentious issues, and acknowledge each other’s experience.


Some people don’t like the ‘e word’ of ecumenism, the idea that clergy of different denominations interact together. We give preference to ‘f words’, like faith and friendship; taking steps of courageous faith to build friendships which transcend suspicion and resentment for the benefit of our community. It is, in the words of Nelson Mandela, the walk through the valley of the shadow of death, which leads to a table in the presence of our enemies. The biggest enemy is fear. It prevents us following the example of the Good Samaritan and responding to the command: ‘Go, and do thou likewise.’