Sharing the best of our tradition

Andrew O’Connell visits Drumalis Retreat Centre

Each autumn for the past five years I’ve headed north to the Drumalis Retreat Centre in Larne to give a talk to the final year students from Assumption Grammar School, Ballynahinch, Co. Down.

The students come for an overnight retreat before the busyness of their exam year gets underway. The trip to Drumalis is a chance for them to pause for reflection before the focus shifts to exams.

It’s something I look forward to each year because it’s a chance to meet some very engaged students accompanied by a group of teachers who are deeply committed.


This year I gave the opening talk on ‘Faith in a Changing Ireland’. We discussed postmodernity, the digital revolution and the need to understand our faith in order to appreciate it and live it. After that there was a meditation in the chapel and a period of silent prayer before the Blessed Sacrament.

It’s always impressive to see how at ease the students are with adoration and meditation. Their teachers have already spent time introducing them to it in school. 

The evening retreat finishes with popcorn and a film. The programme for the following day includes a talk on St Augustine with the group reflecting on his beautiful verse, Late have I loved you.

I always leave Drumalis with a sense that these students are being given the very best of our tradition.

Back at school they have morning prayer and even a prayer group for parents. Global injustice isn’t forgotten either and there’s an opportunity for an immersion experience in India with the Saphara group.

On my way back to Dublin after this year’s retreat I remembered a story told by Fr Robert Barron, producer of the excellent Catholicism DVD series. He tells how he visited his niece who was about to begin her final year of high school. Her textbooks happened to be stacked on the kitchen table. He went through the pile and found Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Virgil’s Aeneid (in Latin!), and a large, intimidating physics textbook. Then he examined her religion book and described it as resembling a comic.

He went out, he says, and bought her Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles, Augustine’s Confessions, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Chesterton’s Orthodoxy and Bonaventure’s Mind’s Road to God.  His niece, he felt, was being short changed and was missing out on Catholicism’s equivalent of Shakespeare. 

The Faith, of course, is not an ideology demanding study and intellectual assent. It is an encounter, a relationship with Christ. However, we do have a smart intellectual tradition and we should be doing more to share it. We owe it to the young people we serve to introduce them to it.

We needn’t worry that they’ll be put off. If they’re able for advanced calculus, they’ll manage Augustine.

Historical irony

The Drumalis Retreat Centre occupies a large house which was originally built in the 19th Century and served as the family home of the Presbyterian industrialist and philanthropist, Sir Hugh Smiley.

The Larne Gunrunning of 1914 was planned in its drawing room and the house was the assembly point for the Larne Battalion of the Ulster Volunteer Force before they went to collect rifles and ammunition coming ashore from the Clyde Valley.

Itís one of those ironies of history that the house would later become a Catholic convent which would, in time, become a well known place for inter-Church engagement and reconciliation.


Changing times

The Sisters of the Cross and Passion moved into the house at Drumalis in 1930. Their annals provide an interesting insight into the conditions of the time. The nuns, weíre told, brought with them ìeight chipped good glassesî and ìtwo cracked water jugsî.

A priest is recorded as expressing worry that the sisters might become ìtoo luxuriousî in their new home. There is no record of any concern being expressed about the lifestyle of the local bishop who arrived in a limousine on his first visit to the sisters.

In the post-war years retreats were offered to ëWoolworths Girlsí, ëTelephone Girlsí and to ëDoctorsí Wivesí.

The first television arrived in 1962. Today the house boasts WiFi and, marrying the old with the new, the password is in Latin!

Visitors to the retreat centre these days will receive a warm welcome from Sr Margaret Rose, Sr Anna and Scott, the convent dog.