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The Jesuits in Northern Ireland

Irish Jesuit Brian Mac Cuarta spoke recently at the Université de Caen in Normandy to a conference marking the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. His brief was to address the conference on the work the Jesuits have done in cross-community reconciliation. As historian and as director of the Roman Archives of the Society of Jesus, Brian was well positioned to address the subject, but his reflections drew mostly on his personal experience of working with fellow-Jesuits on community development in Portadown, Co. Armagh, in the 1990s.

Brian’s address was very well received. “It was a joy to hear him speak,” says Dr Alexandra Slaby, one of the organisers (pictured here with Brian); “He engaged warmly with everyone, and his talk was a powerful series of testimonies to successful cross-community initiatives by the Jesuits.”

He offers his reflections on the conference here:

Home thoughts from abroad

Quite unexpectedly, I was invited to travel to Caen, Normandy, to talk at a conference on Northern Ireland (29 Mar 2019). We were about 25 people, mostly French, younger academics teaching English in Nantes, La Rochelle, Paris and Caen, and some students. It was fascinating to discover this vibrant network of people dedicated to Etudes irlandaises, and to hear their reflections on the northern scene since the Good Friday Agreement. Arts in the community; the Foyle Peace Bridge as a new image of the city; a teleconference from TCD on trends in political unionism; how, since 2009, the Ulster Museum has represented the Troubles; and a detailed study of the Border were among the themes.

I offered a few personal reflections on the experience of living in Portadown in the 1990s. The Jesuits were involved in community development, leading to the formation of a co-operative, which in turn facilitated the emergence of a business centre in a derelict factory. Where once masked youths rioted to mark the anniversary of internment (9 Aug 1971), now people hurry to their workplace in one of the many small businesses. The late Brother Davy Byrne kept in faithful contact with some bereaved families, and reminded his busy companions that simply being present to our neighbours was important. The week of guided prayer in the parish opened the richness of the Bible to many.

Responding to the invitation of some local Protestants, I joined in setting up a cross-community citizens’ group. We held debates on contentious issues, and memorable Christmas services against the backdrop of the killings (we were in the ‘murder triangle’). When peace came (1994), we organized a cross-community Passion Play, recounting Jesus’ last days. It involved an Anglican parish, the Presbyterian church, and the Catholic parish. In all about one hundred people took part. Most of us had never been on the stage. In the dark evenings of that winter and early spring (1994-5), several times a week we met in our different church halls. People divided by fear and violence could at last relax. Space for conversation, impossible just a few months ago, was now emerging. Older people could reconnect with former neighbours and work colleagues – the abrupt and acrimonious population shifts of the early 1970s had ruptured relationships. In a deeper but unarticulated way, the drama, the tension and the suffering of Holy Week provided the backdrop to our newfound coexistence and indeed collaboration. Every seat was taken in the Town Hall when finally the curtain went up on the performance.

An interest in history, choral singing, and the Irish language all provided points of contact with a wide range of groups. Working on the frontiers within Northern Ireland in those years, the support and example of the Jesuit community sustained me. The Society’s academic tradition, and engagement with ecumenism and reconciliation, also provided a horizon. Above all, friendships were sustaining – evening chats in the home of an Irish speaker; a small prayer meeting in an Anglican couple’s sitting room; a tour of World War I battlefields with a unionist cultural group, led by a friend from university days; experiencing the Presbyterian story through a lengthy bus trip across Scotland with the same group.

Brian Mac Cuarta SJ