When Fr Ciarán O’Callaghan CSsR gets up every morning and looks out from his bedroom window in Clonard Monastery he sees, just metres away, the tall and forbidding so-called peace wall that separates Catholics and Protestants in west Belfast.
The wall, one of more than 40 such structures in Belfast and of well over 100 in the entire North, is nearly 50 years old now, having been erected in a convulsed city after the burning of Bombay Street, at the rear of Clonard Church in 1969.
It is a potent physical reminder, if one was needed, of the depth of the fear and distrust that cannot be legislated out of existence even by as celebrated a constitutional dispensation as the Good Friday Agreement.
The burden of what that wall represents confounds all who are striving to embed peace in Northern Ireland, including Fr O’Callaghan, the former rector of Marianella in Dublin, who came to minister in Belfast for the first time in the spring of last year to head up the Clonard Redemptorist Community’s Reconciliation Project, after the death in November 2015 of Fr Gerry Reynolds CSsR, a pioneering worker for cross-community healing during much of the Troubles and after.
Fr Ciarán, 60, a native of Dublin, a biblical scholar and multi-linguist (most of the 10 languages ranging from Hebrew and Greek to Danish and Portuguese, I coaxed him into saying he had some command of are “rusty and fragmented”) who obtained his licence to teach at the renowned Pontificio Istitutio Biblico in Rome, is one of the triumvirate which constitute the Redemptorist leadership in Ireland as well as being a part-time member of the Clonard mission team.
It can be seen, with hindsight, that he received some preparation for the changes he would experience in ministering in Belfast, when he spent two relatively brief periods on the missions in Brazil both before and after his ordination as a priest in 1983, in Marianello, by Filipino Redemptorist, Bishop Ireneo Ali Amantillo, one of the few bishops appointed by Pope John Paul I.
“Coming from a comfortable middle-class family in Ireland it was a great culture shock to see people living in such abominable conditions, a real eye-opener,” he says.
Before he discerned a vocation to the priesthood in his teens he wanted to be a scientist, “excited by the moon shots of the Sixties”.
He took a primary degree in experimental physics at NUI Galway, followed by a theology degree and when he returned from Rome with his Licentiate in Sacred Scripture he undertook his doctorate on the Book of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), one of the wisdom books of the Old Testament, under the guidance of the eminent theologian, Seán Freyne, in TCD.
When I was writing this article Fr Ciarán was making final preparations for the Clonard and Limerick Novenas, both concluding this week.
Speaking to The Irish Catholic in Clonard he wanted to disabuse people of the idea that he was somehow stepping into Fr Reynolds’ shoes. “They would be too big. Gerry laboured here through the bad years. I come to it at a time when the fruit of all that he and Ken Newell [ the Presbyterian minister] did is there. So, if I am doing anything I am standing on Gerry’s shoulders.”
Fr Ciarán said that he expressed a wish to come to Belfast “to work alongside Gerry, not to replace him or anything like that” around the time Marianella was put up for sale more than two years ago.
He expected it to be “very tough” leaving Dublin “which I loved” after 26 years, much of it spent as a teacher of Scripture in places such as Maynooth, Kimmage and the Milltown Institute.
“However, I haven’t looked back, I am really enjoying it in Belfast, so far it has been quite pleasant” even if there have been times when he has had to “leave my comfort zone”.
He recalls meeting Fr Reynolds just a few weeks before his death and discussing initial plans but neither of them knew “that the Lord had other plans for Gerry”.
“The idea of engaging with other Christian people, with Protestants and unionists, people who would have grown up with a view of life very different to the one that I grew up with, sounded very exciting. It was a new world for me.”
He recalls with pleasure an early visit to Orange Order Grand Secretary Rev. Mervyn Gibson’s Presbyterian Church in east Belfast.
“We got an absolutely courteous welcome. The area was coming down with Union flags and I said to myself this is not the world the Christian Brothers in Dundalk [where his family moved to] taught me about.”
Nor was he quite prepared for people coming up to him and asking, “what do you think of the Queen?” a subject that was very much on their minds.
He replied that “she is a very fine lady and she made a very good visit to the Republic of Ireland” and went away thinking “whatever our religious or constitutional differences we are all just human beings”.
Fr Ciarán is mindful that he has still much to learn about the nuances and complexities of post conflict Northern Ireland and if he has been hurt by sincere fundamentalist Protestants telling him that they don’t regard a Roman Catholic priest as a Christian, he is not saying.
Of what he calls “the inter-face wall” that greets him every morning he avers: “People want that wall, they feel a sense of security [from it]. There is a lot of good going on [but] there are also still wounds, still divisions. No, I don’t understand the nature of those wounds and divisions, I am not here long enough and my engagement here so far has been a sort of insulated one, within the confines of what Gerry did.
“I have a lot more to learn and over the next year we’re going to focus on trying to make connections with Protestant churches on the Shankill Road.”
Fr O’Callaghan may have more to learn and notwithstanding his Redemptorist leadership and missionary responsibilities he has something to show in the relatively short period he has been here.
“We have set up the Clonard Peace Ministry Advisory Group. There are two Catholics and four Protestants on it. I am the chair of the group and the Rector of Clonard (Fr Noel Kehoe) is also a member. Two of the Protestant members are women and three of them are ministers in their own churches. We have begun our work reviewing what has been happening in this ministry over the last years. We will now proceed to develop a plan for the future of this ministry prioritising certain activities and developing new ones.”
If it is a clear morning when Ciarán O’Callaghan peers out of his window – as well as that wall mentioned at the start – he will also see, in the distance six miles to the east, the striking edifice of Stormont and the unfulfilled dream of generous power-sharing it currently symbolises in this period of political deadlock following the collapse of the Good Friday institutions back in January.
Fr Ciarán, ever committed to the Redemptorist mission to minster to those on the margins, ever the Christian optimist and proclaimer of hope, prefers the word “hiatus” to “collapse”, but there is no disguising his disappointment at what could be a prolonged political impasse with dangerous consequences.
The current political vacuum, he warns, “creates an environment for the resurgence of sectarianism”.
“The Clonard-Fitzroy fellowship [co-founded in 1981 by Fr Christopher McCarthy CSsR and Rev. Ken Newell] has been engaging with the parties to express our concerns. We have had good engagement but it remains to be seen where the political future is going”.
Three and a half years ago Fr Gerry Reynolds told this reporter in this newspaper that the politicians “must keep working at it”.
Fr Ciarán O’Callaghan, his successor at Clonard, would concur but whether enough people in the North feel sufficiently exercised by the continued absence of power-sharing is another matter.