Belfast Telegraph

Heart scare reunites clerics who struck a blow against bigotry with a handshake

By Eamon Sweeney

A Church of Ireland minister who once received death threats for shaking hands with his Catholic counterpart in a Co Londonderry town has conveyed his best wishes to him after he recently suffered a heart attack.

In what should have been a symbol of ecumenical reconciliation on Christmas Day, 1984, then Presbyterian minister Rev David Armstrong and Catholic priest Fr Kevin Mullan shook hands outside their respective churches in Limavady. But instead, the simple yet powerful gesture, given the political climate at the time in Northern Ireland, became a focus of hatred against the Protestant cleric.

It recently emerged that Fr Mullan, who is Parish Priest of Drumquin in Co Tyrone has suffered from a heart attack. Now recovering at home, the Omagh-born clergyman told the Belfast Telegraph that he has no intentions of retiring.

Highly respected throughout Northern Ireland, Fr Mullan said: "I hadn't been feeling as energetic as usual and then I deteriorated." Fearing that he would not be able to make it to hospital alone because he was suffering from breathlessness Fr Mullan contacted a local nurse who came to his aid. After assessment at the cardiac unit in Omagh Hospital he found himself in Altnagelvin where he had a stent inserted into his heart.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph he said: "I spent 22 days in Altnagelvin and I have to return to have further surgery in the autumn. I am resting at home now and I have had plenty of well-wishers. I want to pay tribute to the medical staff up there who were very professional."

Fr Mullan also played a central role in helping his community come to terms with the drastic after-effects of the Omagh bombing, which happened almost 19 years ago, on August 15, 1998.

Following the events of Christmas morning 33 years ago, Reverend Armstrong received numerous threats on his life. Left with no option, he took his wife and four young children to England. He later retrained as a Church of Ireland minister and served in Co Cork before his retirement from ministry.

Rev Armstrong told the Belfast Telegraph: "I am very sorry to hear Fr Kevin has taken ill and myself, my wife and four children all wish him a very speedy recovery. My children have a very high respect for Fr Kevin.

"He is a man without walls or barriers and always a ready smile even for those who may not agree with him. He is a lovely Christian and is 100% faithful to his church and to his Lord. He is my pal in Christ."

Recalling his and his family's ordeal in the 1980s Rev Armstrong said: "Fr Kevin and I go way, way back and we struck a blow against bigotry. We were pioneers that crossed the divide. In fact, it was Kevin who initiated the whole thing. When I arrived at my church on Christmas morning, he was at my door. I brought him in. It was a step towards reconciliation and a step away from hate in Northern Ireland.

"My family paid a very heavy price, but Kevin always kept in touch. I will never forget that for family events Kevin drove through the centre of Ireland to Cork to be there. We will now be on our way to Drumquin tomorrow to visit him."

Fr Mullan, who is now 71-years-old, has been a priest for 46 years.

Speaking of recent illness he told the Belfast Telegraph: "I was always on the go. I find it hard to be sitting down, very hard. In fact, it never crossed my mind that this could have been the end of the road."

Nevertheless, the cleric admits that three weeks in hospital certainly put things in perspective for him.

"I am full of thoughts of if I go, what a mess I will leave behind me," he laughed.

"I am only a quarter of a mile from home and of course my family has been very supportive every single day."

However, he added that despite the setback, the thought of retirement has not entered his head.

"I'm not considering it. What would the world do without me!" he laughed.

Belfast Telegraph

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