Martin O’Brien meets a Belfast priest ministering in a parading flashpoint
When the Orange march in Belfast on Monday (as the Twelfth falls on a Sunday this year), attention will focus on potential flashpoints including St Patrick’s Church in Donegall Street where Administrator Fr Michael Sheehan and his parishioners are keeping their fingers crossed that things will pass peacefully and that nothing will mar their ongoing celebrations in this their bi-centenary year.
The celebrations have included a visit from the Apostolic Nuncio to Ireland and culminated in a high profile visit by Prince Charles that has been widely interpreted as an act of solidarity with the parishioners who have seen their beloved church treated with gross disrespect by loyalist elements who profess allegiance to Charles’ mother Queen Elizabeth.
Although sectarian tension has been felt in this district since at least the 1920s and this parish in north Belfast, whose parish priest is actually the Bishop of Down & Connor, suffered grievously during the Troubles, St Patrick’s did not become a parading flashpoint until July 12, 2012 when a loyalist band formed in a circle outside it and played music from the sectarian and racist Famine Song.
This provocative act was captured on film and up to last week had been viewed more than 220,000 times on YouTube. As a result, residents have held protests against parades going past the church and the Parades Commission has imposed restrictions on marches including an order that bands play a single drumbeat “within earshot” of St Patrick’s.
Last month residents called off a protest in response to the commission’s single drum beat ruling during the Tour of the North parade although senior Orangemen and some DUP politicians were incensed that the commission had affirmed “recent profile events” – a clear a reference to the visit of the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall.
Fr Sheehan (54), a native of Lisburn and brought up in west Belfast, has been in St Patrick’s – the city’s second oldest Catholic church after St Mary’s – since 2000 after spells in various parishes in Belfast and Co. Antrim.
He is the eldest of seven brothers, one of whom, Patrick, is also a parish priest in Down and Connor, as are two first cousins. Two other cousins are respectively former hunger striker, Pat Sheehan, a SF MLA and a former member of the RUC.
Fr Michael’s cool head and measured response to the turbulence that has engulfed St Patrick’s in recent years has been seen as contributing to a reduction of tension.
He has no doubt that Prince Charles was well advised in advance by Royal officials and by the Northern Ireland Office.
Speaking in his presbytery last week, Fr Sheehan said: “The Prince of Wales came to this church knowing clearly the history and of what’s been going on outside it.”
Charles’ four-day visit to Ireland in May was historic because it was the first time since Partition that a member of the British Royal Family (and a most senior member at that) had incorporated both parts of the island in a single programme and made a point of beginning his trip, with its underlying theme of reconciliation, in the Republic where he visited Mullaghmore where his great-uncle, Lord Mountbatten, and members of his party were murdered by the IRA in 1979.
When he came to the North, Charles broke with convention by choosing to go first not to an obviously unionist area or to a “safe” neutral place, but straight to a Catholic church that has borne the brunt of sectarian abuse. “I believe they [Charles and Camilla] were making a very important statement by coming here. They did not come here by accident, St Patrick’s was not pulled out of a hat,” says Fr Sheehan.
He recalls that Prince Charles and his wife stayed about an hour during which they heard a presentation of the history of the parish by the historian Dr Eamon Phoenix, viewed the famous Sir John Lavery triptych The Madonna of the Lakes – Lavery donated the painting to the church where he was baptised – and attended a prayer service jointly conducted by himself and the Dean of Belfast’s Church of Ireland Cathedral.
Fr Sheehan says the significance of the visit, which First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness turned up for as well, was not lost on his congregation and he pays tribute to Mr Robinson for making “helpful comments” about St Patrick’s when interviewed there.
He is hopeful that Charles’ visit will have helped the overall situation by setting an example. “The fact that there was a prayer service was a recognition that this is a place of prayer and a place of worship.”
Something clearly lost on loyalist bigots who have insulted this place of God.
Fr Sheehan recalls that he found Prince Charles “warm, affable, friendly”.
“I couldn’t get over him, there was no sense of standing apart or of him being aloof. He smiled, he looked at you when he talked to you. He was just really good.”
One of the “most poignant moments” was when Prince Charles, who had lost his great-uncle in the Troubles, and a parishioner, who had a family member killed by the British army, spoke about their common pain and loss without referring to the respective perpetrators.
“That was a moment that made a difference because Charles did not say his uncle was murdered by the IRA. He dealt with the common reality of grief and pain at the human level.”
Looking to Monday he points out with satisfaction that the Tour of the North went peacefully and hopes that there can be a repeat on this occasion when a similar “single drumbeat” ruling will be in force.
Fr Sheehan acknowledges that last Twelfth the Orange organisers “did seem to create a clear break in the procession” outside St Patrick’s while the leadership stopped at the Cenotaph at the City Hall three quarters of a mile way “ensuring there were no bandsmen nor members of the Loyal Orders standing outside the church and I think that was a huge gesture forward”.
However, it is hard to build on such gestures if those same organisers fail to engage with local residents.
Fr Sheehan makes it clear he supports the right of the Orange to march past his church on the Twelfth provided they do so in a respectful manner, i.e. genuinely observing what he considers to be the reasonable determination of the Parades Commission, something that some bands did not do last year.
“It is right that they [the Orange] should come down past St Patrick’s respectfully and that is all that is ever asked.”
Numerous victims of the Troubles were buried out of St Patrick’s, including victims of the UVF McGurk’s Bar massacre in 1971, a little over half a mile away, which claimed 15 people, the highest death toll in a single atrocity in NI until the Omagh Bombing, and of the notorious Shankill Butchers who roamed the area.
One of their victims, Joseph Morrissey, was abducted from outside St Patrick’s in 1977.
As a priest working at the coal face Fr Michael Sheehan is perforce close to people at their lowest ebb but he is no stranger to personal tragedy himself.
On a Sunday morning in April 2000 his mother, nurse Maureen Sheehan, just 61, was killed as she drove to Mass in St Peter’s Cathedral having just completed her rounds.
A drunken driver and serial motoring offender, Charles Anthony Barrett, crashed into her and was later jailed for seven years and as recently as 2013 was jailed again for driving while disqualified a thirteenth time.
Fr Sheehan recalls that his anger at the time of his mother’s killing “was overwhelmed by grief” and he feels sad that after all these years Barrett is still re-offending.
He and his family (his father died in 2008) take pride in “a huge memorial” to their mother, the Maureen Sheehan Centre, a health centre close to St Peter’s Cathedral, in Albert Street, from where she spent 20 years caring for the sick in the Lower Falls.
Fr Sheehan recalls that after she died the family opened her prayer book and discovered the prayer and Scripture reading that she had read before she left home for the last time.
The prayer said: “God does not destroy what He creates but makes it perfect.”
The Scripture reading included the words: “Do not grieve like those who have no hope.” (1 Thess 4:13)