Recalling the priests and religious who stood up during the darkest of days

Recalling the priests and religious who stood up during the darkest of days St John Paul II in Drogheda.
The story of the Church and individual clergymen during the civil conflict in the North deserves to be told, writes Michael Kelly

Forty-one years ago this week, on September 29, 1979 Pope John Paul II travelled to Killineer, near Drogheda in Co. Louth and made a passionate plea for peace.

It was the first day of the Pontiff’s visit to Ireland and the first ever visit by a Successor of St Peter to Ireland. After celebrating Mass for an estimated 1.25million people in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, the red papal helicopter travelled to the border county where John Paul II led a liturgy of the word with some 300,000 people. Many of the Catholics who thronged the site lived in the North and had longed for the Pontiff to cross that border, but the security services deemed it too dangerous as loyalist paramilitaries had threatened violence against the Pope and Catholics travelling to hear his message.


Priests and parishioners were in the frontline and many churches had been damaged or destroyed in sectarian attacks. At the same time, the Church was working night and day to try and prevent young people joining paramilitary organisations.

John Paul II was only 59 at the time, and with a booming Slavic voice he addressed the violence in the North head on. He was acutely aware of the injustices faced by the Catholic community, but equally unshakable that violence was not the answer.

“Now I wish to speak to all men and women engaged in violence. I appeal to you, in language of passionate pleading. On my knees I beg you to turn away from the paths of violence and to return to the ways of peace.

“You may claim to seek justice. I too believe in justice and seek justice. But violence only delays the day of justice. Violence destroys the work of justice. Further violence in Ireland will only drag down to ruin the land you claim to love and the values you claim to cherish.

“In the name of God I beg you: return to Christ, who died so that men might live in forgiveness and peace. He is waiting for you, longing for each one of you to come to him so that he may say to each of you: your sins are forgiven; go in peace,” the Pontiff said.

It was powerful stuff and was met by rapturous and sustained applause by the congregation. It also gave fresh heart to the many priests, religious and lay Catholics who were working to challenge injustice while insisting that violence can never be a solution.

Dr Margaret Scull is an historian who has studied the work of the Catholic Church in Ireland during the period of civil conflict we euphemistically call ‘the Troubles’. Her book The Catholic Church and the Northern Ireland Troubles looks at the darkest period in modern Irish history; the years of violence between 1968 and the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.


The partition of the island in 1921 effectively split the Church in Ireland in two. On the face of it, the hierarchy remained a single unit – but southern bishops soon immersed themselves in the affairs of the new Free State and northern Catholics and their leaders effectively found themselves marooned. The Archdiocese of Armagh, Derry, Clogher and Kilmore dioceses found themselves split by the border with some parishes in the south and others in the northern state.

Dr Scull examines how he northern bishops found themselves trying to be the voice of a put-upon community victimised by widespread discrimination in areas of housing, employment and voting rights. The rise of the civil rights movement in the late 1960s inspired by events in the United States and led by a generation of young Catholics who had benefited from the 1947 Education Act gave fresh focus to the Catholic community.

Vatican Council

Inspired by the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) which saw justice as an integral part of the Gospel, many priests had stepped up and understood their role not just as spiritual leaders but as giving voice to the frustrations and aspirations of their congregations.

Operation Demetrius in 1971 – which saw the British army round up hundreds of young Catholics and imprison them without trial – was a tipping point for many. Dr Scull recalls how 300 priests in the North signed a petition demanding that the policy of internment be withdrawn. Some priests were even taken to court for boycotting the British census for the region that year. Dr Scull points out that they were only saved from imprisonment for not paying the fine when an “angel investor” steps forward and pays the court.

At this point, the book reveals a sharp divide between members of the hierarchy who were reluctant to rock the boat, and priests and sisters working on the ground who were very vocal in their criticism of the policy of internment.

Dr Scull argues – convincingly – that the issue of internment is one that unifies clergy in Northern Ireland as well as their clerical colleagues in the south and even in Britain. She credits the late Fr Denis Faul (1932-2006) with trying to build a consensus amongst clergy at home and abroad on the issue.

The book lays out how understanding personalities within the hierarchy is key to understanding the approach from Church leaders. Dr Neil Farren, for example, was Bishop of Derry from 1939-1973 and preferred to work behind the scenes rather than via public statements. He was replaced by Edward Daly who was only 41 when appointed. Dr Daly became an outspoken critic both of paramilitary violence and violence perpetrated by the security forces.


Another change in leadership in Armagh shifted the focus in the primatial see as well. Cardinal William Conway died in 1977 and was replaced by Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich. A native of South Armagh, he was an unashamed Irish nationalist and the British authorities had reportedly lobbied against his elevation. Dr Ó Fiaich’s tenure marked a more robust approach from the Church to the British authorities and the cardinal famously had a tense relationship with the then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Dr Scull focuses on the many priests who acted as mediators with the Provisional IRA in a bid to end their bloody campaign of violence. There are prominent voices like the late Fr Alec Reid CSsR, but Dr Scull argues that there are other priests who will probably take their role to the grave with them.

Dr Scull says priests and religious sisters and Protestant ministers had no hesitation in putting themselves in risky situations to try to bring together republicans and members of the British government to create conversations.

She describes the clerical approach to bringing about an end to the conflict as “a bit of carrot and stick”. She points again to Fr Faul who is a vocal critic of the IRA in the media insisting that no one should be talking to them until they declare a ceasefire. At the same time, people like Fr Reid, Fr Gerry Reynolds CSsR and others are working behind the scenes.


The book argues that Church leaders initially thought that the conflict would be short-lived and worked towards ending the violence. A 1972 ceasefire ultimately broke down and this led the Church to see the conflict as a longer-term thing that needed a longer-term strategy.

Almost from the beginning of the Provisionals campaign of violence, they complained – unfairly – that priests and bishops were quick to denounce republican violence while having little to say about violence carried out by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) or British army.

The collapse of the 1972 ceasefire also sees Church leaders in the US take a more arms-length approach to Ireland. Many had been content to be involved in fundraisers for civil rights in the North, but now there were real concerns about the destination of some of these funds.

Dr Scull shows how Cardinal Ó Fiaich became somewhat of a bête noire for unionist leaders and even some senior people within Protestant denominations who perceived him as soft on the IRA. Dr Scull describes the cardinal as “a larger than life character” who is unapologetic about his nationalism while criticising violence from all sides.

The impact of the hierarchy of England and Wales in the conflict – particularly that of Cardinal Basil Hume who was Archbishop of Westminster from 1976 to 1999) – is examined in detail. Dr Scull argues that the interference of Church leaders on the neighbouring island actually hurt the efforts of the Irish clergy to bring about understanding and an end to violence. She claims that Cardinal Ó Fiaich’s nationalism tended to rub the English hierarchy up the wrong way.

He and Cardinal Hume, according to the book, got on like chalk and cheese. There was even a rumour that when Msgr Ó Fiaich was appointed to succeed Cardinal Conway in Armagh that Dr Hume worked frantically in Rome to ensure that the new Archbishop of Armagh would not get a ‘red hat’ with the influence this would bring in Rome. Dr Scull says she has been unable to substantiate the rumour, but if he tried, he failed and Dr Ó Fiaich was elevated to the College of Cardinals by John Paul II at his first consistory.

The cardinal visited Long Kesh prison in 1978 where republican prisoners had been engaged in a so-called ‘dirty protest’ where they rubbed excrement on the walls of their cells to protest their treatment.

Dr Ó Fiaich pulled no punches when he spoke to journalists. “Having spent the whole of Sunday in the prison, I was shocked at the inhuman conditions prevailing in H-Blocks, three, four and five, where over 300 prisoners were incarcerated.

“One would hardly allow an animal to remain in such conditions, let alone a human being. The nearest approach to it that I have seen was the spectacle of hundreds of homeless people living in the sewer pipes in the slums of Calcutta. The stench and filth in some of the cells, with the remains of rotten food and human excreta scattered around the walls was almost unbearable. In two of them I was unable to speak for fear of vomiting,” he said.


This infuriated the authorities in London who immediately started briefing the Vatican against the cardinal and encouraging English bishops to lobby Rome on the issue.

A major challenge for the Church emerged following the hunger strikes of 1981 when ten republican prisoners starved themselves to death. The intransigence of the British government in allowing the men to die handed a major propaganda victory to the IRA and Sinn Féin who began translating this into electoral success. Before that, the bishops were able to argue convincingly that there is no real support in the Catholic community for the IRA. The post-hunger strikes electoral success makes it clear that Sinn Féin is here to stay, Dr Scull argues.

Now, she says, the Church has to switch its message and speak more directly to Sinn Féin now that it is more of a political player/ The Church puts it up to Sinn Féin to choose between the armalite and the ballot box.

Church leaders remained trenchant in their criticism of the Provisionals, but many observers asked then and now why the bishops did not move to excommunicate members of the IRA or other paramilitaries involved in violence. Dr Scull reveals in her book that the theme of excommunications comes up again and again in the archives. She says that her research reveals that English Catholics and their leaders were particularly exercised about the issue of excommunication.

She says that the English bishops never took up the issue publicly but did write back to correspondents agreeing with the idea of excommunication. For the Irish bishops, Dr Scull believes that the leaders on the island were performing a balancing act: they were concerned that excommunicating members of the IRA would isolate members of their own Catholic community that did see the IRA as the only force against the British security forces, especially in some very trauma ridden-areas.

She believes that the bishops felt that if we excommunicate the IRA, we are isolating these people – telling them that their voices don’t matter.


As the peace process is gaining momentum, the Church is also engulfed in a scandal in relation to the handling of allegations of abuse made against priests and religious. The care of Norbertine Brendan Smyth became notorious and continues to tarnish the Church’s reputation on both sides of the border.

Dr Scull argues that the scandals deal a body blow to the Church and as an institution it loses moral authority. People who were sympathetic to the IRA and felt that the Church was unfair to the paramilitaries also seized the momentum to give the Church a bit of a bloody nose, she says.

However, at the same time as the decline in moral legitimacy, Dr Scull charts how individual religious sisters or priests on the ground continued to have an impact. But, institutionally she believes that the Church took a step back.

As well as the peace process, the role of people like Fr Reid in decommissioning and the work of reconciliation the book looks at where the Church finds itself in a more secular culture. While Dr Scull argues that Church leaders don’t have the same sort of power or influence on the national or even international stage, they are still actively working to create opportunities in their own communities.

She cites the examples of priests on the ground who are trying to stop so-called punishment attacks or working with communities on the interface trying to create dialogue between groups.

Again and again, the book comes back to personalities and Dr Scull skilfully tells the tale not so much of the Church as an institution but the individual priests and religious who took – and continue to take – huge risks to make progress and build a better society. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude, and this book is a masterful contribution to a still evolving history.

The Catholic Church and the Northern Ireland Troubles 1968-1998 by Margaret M. Scull is published by Oxford University Press.