‘Leaving will be a big wrench ... we have so many happy memories and life has been good to us here’
You realise how much things have changed in Northern Ireland over the past couple of decades when you take a group of Belfast teenagers on a trip to France and they are aghast at having their bags searched.
The Dean of St Anne’s Cathedral, John Mann, has seen some huge changes in Northern Ireland since he first came here in the early 1970s as a pharmacy student at Queen’s University Belfast.
But it was that incident that has really hammered home how much the city has changed since those days.
He explains: “The senior girls choir — they’re teenage girls and we took them to the Eiffel Tower where we had our bags searched and they said ‘What’s this?’
“I said ‘It was like that in Belfast. That was what it was like — you don’t remember. We actually had to explain to them that this is what it was like in Belfast.”
His wife Helen says it’s a sign of just how Northern Ireland has come.
“I said to them ‘That gives me such pleasure, to think you’ve grown up in Northern Ireland and you don’t remember being body searched’,” she says.
Spring is just starting to touch the peaceful south Belfast street where the pair have lived for nearly six years in the Deanery, a home to which they will be bidding farewell within weeks.
Hellebores and cyclamen bloom in pots on the doorsteps of the red-brick house, a sign of their love of gardening, and family photographs line the piano in the drawing room.
After almost 40 years of serving in Church of Ireland parishes in Northern Ireland — albeit with a detour to Hampshire in the late 1980s — Dean Mann is on his way to a new parish in Dorset. It will bring them closer to their children, who are now married and live in England.
Their daughter Rowan is married to Graham Dickinson and is a primary school teacher, while her younger brother David works for Barclays’ Bank and is married to Catriona.
“We’re moving to a big parish in Swanage which is right on the coast — it’s an old-fashioned Victorian tourist resort.
It has 9,500 people and that expands to 30,000 in the summer,” John says.
“It was a big decision — do I do three more years in the much more higher profile role of Dean of Belfast or do a bit longer in a less high-profile role? It’s easier to spend longer in parish life than it would be at St Anne’s — we talked about it and decided this would be the better option.
“It was a really big decision as my wife loses her job as well and that is a tough thing. She has been in the job for 13 years as a GP practice nurse,” he says.
“It won’t be an easing down to retirement but it’s a step towards it. But in a sense it’s the start of something fresh. I think it will be exciting.”
His wife admits she will struggle with the decision.
“I have mixed feelings about it. No doubt about it, it will be a big wrench,” Helen admits.
“I have a sense of loss, even about our bungalow on the North Coast. We go there every week and we will be letting it out. We’re going to miss it very much. I’m going to miss my work colleagues and my patients whom I’ve known a long time. I have so many happy memories and life’s been good to us here.”
John was born and reared in London, the second of seven children. His father Edgar was a GP and his mother Joan was a nurse.
“We were brought up in the church — we were a very church-oriented Christian family.
There would have been a great sense of focus, of families being involved in church and church providing a lot of the social activities,” he says.
“I suppose that I always had it at the back of my mind — I wonder would ordination be for me. Certainly, the thought was there from quite a young age.
“In actual fact, the A-levels I took were all in science subjects. I had intended to do something in the science line.
“I’d always been interested in botany and in fact when I came to Queen’s it wasn’t to do theology, it was to do pharmacy and I changed course after a year there.”
When he was 18 and preparing to move to Queen’s as an undergraduate, the family moved to the Isle of Man — and that is where he met Helen.
“My father took a small country practice there. I was just at the stage of going to university and I was offered a place at Queen’s, which was only a hop across the Irish Sea,” he says.
Helen says her home village of Laxey was a beautiful place to grow up. Her father Bill trained as a market gardener but ended up working as a driver for the Civil Aviation Authority. Her mum Dorothy ran a seasonal cafe on the vintage Victorian railway.
“It was pretty idyllic. You have the beach at one end of the village and at the other end you can walk up a mountain with a glen in the middle,” she says.
“It was a major tourist destination, so it would have been very busy in the summer. Tourism was always part of my childhood. It was always very busy in summer with lots of activity.”
John and Helen met in the church choir and they started going out in the summer holidays after John had been at Queen’s for a year.
Helen says: “Our first date was playing tennis — strange since I don’t really play tennis, but I said I did. I found an ancient tennis racquet laying around somewhere. I didn’t realise he actually knew how to play tennis.”
John turned up in his tennis whites, butthe game had to be called off after the ball became tangled in Helen’s hair — and they never played tennis on a date again.
John began his studies at Queen’s in 1973 and lived at the Church of Ireland student centre. He admits moving to Belfast was a major shock to the system.
“I’d never been in Ireland and I knew nothing really when it comes down to it,” he says.
“I learned a fair bit about the politics of Northern Ireland and Ireland as a whole over the course of the next while.
“It’s not something you learn quickly either — there are all sorts of nuances to Northern Ireland politics and it’s not an entirely black and white situation.
“I did learn a lot and no doubt, as most English people do, made plenty of mistakes by misunderstanding.”
But he became involved very early on in Christian cross-community efforts, particularly attempts to bring young Catholic and Protestant people into contact with each other, including one memorable visit to the Lake District.
“We stayed in a youth centre right up on the fellside and I remember trying to keep them in the centre at night — it was a nightmare,” he says.
“I remember one time we said we will take all the shoes off them as they won’t be able to go out without them. So there was a big pile of shoes in the leaders’ room — can you imagine the smell?
“We decided this would solve matters. Not at all — they’d managed to secrete some shoes.
“They would lend them around. It didn’t matter if they were Protestant or Catholic or whatever — that wasn’t the problem. They shared their shoes around so that they had enough that they could go out one at a time.”
After completing his degree at Queen’s, Dean Mann returned to the Isle of Man where he worked on the railways for a couple of years. “I had had a student job there working on the electric railways on the Isle of Man — it was a great summer job and they kept me on until I decided what I was going to do,” he says.
Helen was 18 and at an early stage of her nursing training when they married.
“I didn’t think about it at the time — it seemed like the right thing to do. People did get married earlier then,” she says.
“I finished my training in 1979 and, in the meantime, John took the decision to seek ordination. He always knew he wanted to go into the church.”
John was ordained for a parish in Newtownabbey and the couple moved to Northern Ireland just before Christmas 1979.
Helen says: “My parents were very concerned because I was their only daughter, they’d grown up in the Isle of Man and in 1979 things weren’t very good in Northern Ireland. It was never out of the news.
“I must admit I never had any qualms about moving, but it was a huge challenge. I had visited John at university so I knew about the ring of steel about the city centre and getting searched in shops.
“But we came to Cloughfern parish in Newtownabbey and what made us — and my mum and dad — more settled about the situation was that the people were so lovely. It’s a remarkable parish and people were so welcoming and kind.
“I did struggle at first in Belfast with the accent and how fast people spoke, although I did adjust very quickly. People on Isle of Man actually tell me I now speak with a Northern Irish accent anyway!”
John spent three years as curate assistant at Cloughfern, then four years at St Columba’s in Knock, east Belfast, before becoming rector of Ballyrashane and Kildollagh outside Portrush. Meanwhile, Helen worked in Whiteabbey Hospital before giving up her job to care full time for her children Rowan and David.
After four years, the family moved to a parish in Hampshire until John received a fateful call from then Bishop of Connor Samuel Poyntz asking him to consider returning to Cloughfern as rector.
Helen recalls: “We hadn’t intended to come back because we were very settled in Hampshire, but we just saw it as a sign. We really hadn’t thought about it and it just came out of the blue.
“It was a big upheaval for the children — our daughter was about to start secondary school and David was in P6. It was a difficult time for them to come back. It was a big culture shock because they had been living in the countryside.”
They lived in Cloughfern parish for nine years, then John spent nine years in south Belfast as rector of St John’s, Malone, before being appointed Dean of Belfast in 2011.
In recent years, the cathedral has hosted commemorations for the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic, the beginning of World War One, the Somme, the Ulster Covenant and the death of Nelson Mandela.
The Dean describes St Anne’s Cathedral as “irreplaceable” for Belfast and outlines how the church has changed to become a venue for everyone.
“It provides a place for people to come for commemorations and celebrations and is of course open to the whole community. It’s been our policy, certainly since I’ve been here, that we do everything cross-community,” he says.
“Our choirs are half Protestant and half Catholic — a lot of people don’t know that. It isn’t by chance — it is our policy because we feel that it’s going to be a place where people come for important occasions in the life of Northern Ireland and the city of Belfast. Those that are up front providing the music should be from across the city.
“It’s impossible to get a completely neutral space of course — it is a Church of Ireland cathedral, but within that we do our best.”
The office of Dean of Belfast is probably at its most high-profile at Christmas, with the Black Santa tradition where the Dean holds an eight-day vigil outside the cathedral to collect money for charity.
In his six-year tenure as the Black Santa, John is proud to have raised more than one million pounds for charity.
“What I think is really good about it is that the way it’s set up in Belfast is that most of the money goes to small local charities. Lots of these charities don’t have much fundraising muscle and the sort of grant that the Black Santa can give can be very significant to a charity,” he says.
“Whether people are giving 50p or £2,000, the principle is the same. People bring their children because they were brought by their parents.”
Throughout his career in Northern Ireland, John has come into contact with many people who have been affected by the Troubles.
“It’s mostly people having traumatic experiences, having been caught up in events or members of their family having been involved, and the ongoing effects of these things, which are still to be felt in our community today,” he says.
“It’s so easy for people who haven’t been affected at all to live out their lives today as if it never happened. I think a lot of our problem today is getting that balance right, from recognising the deep hurts and trauma of the past and yet at the same time being prepared to move on. Any post-conflict situation in the world faces this sort of difficulty.
“For example, these young people in our choirs — to what extent should they be aware of and recognise what has happened? Or should they be allowed to move on and live their lives? We have lots of services that are recognising historic events. These youngsters sing in the choir while these services are on and at times I’m sure they are wide-eyed with amazement with what they’re hearing.”
Helen says her conversation with the girls in Paris underlines how much Northern Ireland has changed, but she adds: “It’s come on so far and yet I feel we haven’t taken that final step to really work together in proper meaningful way.
“I think it’s such a shame. I sometimes feel that rather than being held in mutual respect it’s more like being held in tension — I’ll give this and you give that. Wouldn’t it be good if we could say ‘what could I do to make that possible?’ You don’t get anywhere by continually raking over the past. The middle ground seems to be fading.”
Helen says there were occasional times when she questioned whether to stay in Northern Ireland.
“There were one or two times, when things were very bad in the 80’s. That awful time when those two soldiers [Corporals Derek Woods and David Howes] were murdered at a funeral in west Belfast and we all saw the horrific pictures on television of them being taken prisoner, beaten up and then taken away to their deaths, I remember thinking how awful to think that is happening here.
“But I think it would be awful if you didn’t question it at times. You do have to develop a certain resilience. But it didn’t stop us coming back.”
She says she has never had any serious doubts about her faith.
“I am not a fatalistic person. I don’t subscribe to the idea that everything is mapped out for you. Of course, I do feel that there is spiritual guidance, but I always think when some atrocity happens that God is as upset about it as we are.
“I think when some people say to you ‘it’s all a plan’, you think that can’t be right — that can’t be planned for me.”
John says his faith has changed over the years, but he has never gone through any serious period of doubt either.
“I describe it as a process of shedding things,” he says.
“One of the most important things that we need today is to be more reflective people. What we find in society today is that because of social media, people give instant sound bites, and we probably all need to spend more time and think things through more carefully.
“Certainly in terms of my faith developing, I would probably think about things much more deeply before saying them.”
The couple expect to retire to the Isle of Man eventually, but say there is no doubt they will be back to visit Northern Ireland.
“In a sense, we’re at the start of something fresh and I think it will be exciting,” John says.
“But we will be back. We certainly won’t be forgetting Northern Ireland. We’re going to miss a huge number of people that we’ve got to know here.”