Creative dance is not the first hobby you’d imagine a nun to have. Then again, as my interview with Sister Anne Kilroy continues, my preconceived ideas of a sheltered life in a convent are blown to pieces by her stories of mediating in disputes across the peace line, and working with refugees in south Belfast.
Originally from Artane, in North Dublin, Sister Kilroy first moved to Northern Ireland in 1981 after accepting a teaching post in Omagh.
It was during her time there between the years 1981-1990 that Anne first became interested in Northern Irish history and the peace process.
“I became really intrigued with the history of Northern Ireland, and my nine years in Omagh gave me a real interest and desire to be part of the peace process,” says Anne.
She was invited to teach music in New Orleans in 1990, but found that her experiences there only further reinforced her interest in the Northern Ireland situation.
“New Orleans had problems with racism, but also with sectarianism too. I began to realise that sectarianism and racism have a root and a cause. It really comes down to two simple words: ignorance and fear.
“This is what causes people to hate each other, because we don’t understand each other and because we fear the unknown.”
On returning to Ireland in 1994, Anne became keen to investigate modes of reconciliation, and so began the study of ecumenics at Trinity College Dublin.
“It involves inter-church relations, faith, and learning about different sensitivities,” she says.
Part of the course was the study of Northern Irish history, and it was on one of the course field trips to Northern Ireland that Anne discovered the work of the Cornerstone community, and the reconciliatory work that they do.
Impressed with what she saw, Anne moved to Belfast in 1997, and spent 18 months as a residential member of the Cornerstone community, on the Springfield road, living on the peace line.
“It was a fascinating time. We met so many people from so many different backgrounds on the peace line, including ex-paramilitaries from both sides, and political groups. I was even involved in mediation between the Orange Order and local residents,” Anne recalls.
Anne’s expression is one of mild bemusement as she reminisces on years gone by, and indeed when I ask her what the most memorable part of the work has been, she says: “My work was full of encounters I never thought I’d find myself in. Going to homes in loyalist areas and getting close to people I never imagined I would have.
“Northern Ireland was, and to an extent still is, a very intense place to live. It gives an extraordinary|opportunity to overcome our fear of difference.
“It certainly did that for me personally. I often found myself in situations where I was not comfortable — often volatile situations.
“I think it teaches us to become more accepting and less fearful of those who are different from us in whatever way.”
After 18 months on the peace line, Sr Anne became a chaplain at Lagan College in 1998.
“I knew I had to work full-time so when the opportunity of chaplain came up, I took it. I spent 10 wonderful years there, working along with the Protestant chaplain,” she says.
Barely an adult herself when she became a Loreto sister at the tender age of 19, Anne says the call to the sisterhood wasn’t an easy one.
“I joined the Loreto sisters just after my 19th birthday,” she says. “It wasn’t straightforward; I struggled with it for a while, but then it nudged and annoyed me to the point that I knew I had to do it.
“I have no regrets. You have certain choices in your life, and you quickly realise that it is impossible to have it all.
“Of course there is a lot you give up when choosing the path I have, like a marriage and a family. But I knew I might never be truly happy if I didn’t give it a try,” she says.
Anne’s face breaks into a smile as she tells me about a new recruit who has just taken her vows as a Loreto sister.
“It takes a lot of courage nowadays to take vows as a nun; it’s not so common a thing now. When I was doing it, it was considered much more as an option.
“I have a good feeling about this girl, though. I think she’ll do well because she’s down to earth,” Anne says, emphasising the last point with conviction.
“That’s what we need, people who are down to earth, who can relate to people and their problems.”
It strikes me that in talking about this new recruit, Anne could also be describing herself, although the modesty and humility apparent from the start means this would never be acknowledged.
After working for 10 years in Lagan College, Anne decided to slow down, and withdrew from her role as chaplain. “I knew I was getting tired. At 65-years-old, I thought maybe it was about time to slow down a bit. I took a year’s sabbatical, if you like, to pursue my hobbies, walking, swimming, dancing, among others.
“During that time I got the opportunity to go to Sudan for two months and help out in a school for the Dinka tribe, which provides education for the women there. Ninety percent of them have had no opportunity of education because of Sudan having been a war-torn country. “My experiences in Sudan made me realise that we never really retire. To keep interested in life, you need to do things for others.
“I then began to consider the practical ways in which I could help people, which brought me to my work with the Northern Ireland Community of Refugees and Asylum Seekers (NICRAS)."
Anne teaches basic English twice a week to the refugees and asylum seekers who attend the City Church centre, and while she tries to maintain a professional teacher-pupil relationship with her students, she admits it is difficult not to get emotionally involved.
“It is hard when you get to know someone, and then they suddenly disappear. You try to call them, but they are too afraid to answer,” she says sadly.
Anne’s time in Sudan unveiled a more creative side to her nature, materialising in the fantastic oil paintings that fill the tiny studio she has dedicated to her pastime. One painting of African tribesmen is particularly impressive.
“It’s an enjoyable pastime for me. I try and sell some for the Destitution Fund, which helps raise money for asylum seekers.”
Having joined the Loreto Sisters so young, I ask if Anne feels her faith has grown over the years.
“It’s important to me to develop my relationship with God through prayer. God is not an optional extra for me, and I think everyone has their own journey to God. For me personally, without a relationship with God, I wouldn’t have the motivation to do what I do. I’m not a pious person. When you’re younger you need more certainties, and it’s okay not to be certain.
“My faith has become more searching and more questioning, and my image of God has got wider. When we confine God to a particular thing, it doesn’t work,” she says.
I ask Anne if she has seen an improvement in Northern Ireland in her 13 years here.
“It’s definitely not as tense as it was. It’s much more relaxed, but there still remains a certain intensity about the place.
“All religious communities in Belfast need to be remembered. Where the troubles were worst is where the most courageous work for peace was going on. There’s still a lot of work to be done. Sadly sectarianism is very much alive and well,” she says.
Despite attempts to slow down, the future looks as busy for Anne as the past has been.
“There’s always more to do. Life is a learning curve. Membership of the church is important to me — it’s where I fulfil my role.
“I also have lots of positive but critical things which I would like to be able to help change. I would like women to be able to take on a much stronger role within the church. It has to happen.
“Terrible things have gone on; one has to be critical from within of the problems with our church.
“All of us and the church have to be much more humble and listening. We have to meet people where they’re at.”
Asked what lasting impression she would like to leave, Sr Anne says simply: “I’d like to think I had a small role in reconciliation, and maybe to have offered a different perspective, from someone outside the Northern Irish community. I must admit I like a bit of variance — I don’t like living with everyone the same. When I first moved up here, to the peace line, I saw one aspect of Belfast.
“As a teacher I saw another part. Now retired, I’ve seen yet another side to the city. In 1997 it was a sense of a call. Now, well, I still think there is still lots of work to do,” she says.
True to her word, as the interview terminates Sister Kilroy is busy preparing to go to a meeting at the Cornerstone Community. The saying may be ‘no rest for the wicked,’ but it seems the good don’t get off too lightly either.