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'John Wayne of religious world' James McConnell says he will keep on shooting from the lip

On the eve of Pastor James McConnell facing court for his remarks on Islam, he says he has no fear of prison... and would do it again

By Suzanne Breen

Published 14/12/2015

Pastor McConnell outside court
Pastor McConnell outside court
Pastor James McConnell relaxes with his wife Margaret
With Margaret after he graduated
On their wedding day

The library in Pastor McConnell's Greenisland home is brimming with bibles and books on Christianity. Yet, at the heart of this most spiritual space, sits a very non-religious item.

A replica of John Wayne's Colt 45 revolver is mounted on the wall.

"I might take that with me into court," jokes the firebrand preacher, "but I don't know if I'd get it past security!"

The legendary cowboy is his idol. "I like a man who takes no nonsense, who says it as it is. I run my church and my life like that. Indeed, I've heard it said that I'm the John Wayne of the religious world," declares the pastor.

Today, the 78-year-old preacher will stand in the dock of Belfast Magistrates Court charged with making "grossly offensive" remarks about Islam. They could land him with up to six months in jail, but he's not in the slightest nervous.

"I've faced far tougher times," he says. "I grew up in east Belfast. My mother died when I was eight and I lost my father when I was 12. For the four years before my father's death, he and my sister were in the sanatorium with tuberculosis.

"There was nobody to look after me. I roamed the streets from that tender age and I slept under a big fir tree in Ormeau Park.

"I had no home, no money, and nobody to talk to except God. He's more real to me than any human being. He's always looked after me and he's not going to let me down now."

Pastor McConnell lives in a bungalow on the shores of Belfast Lough with his 80-year-old wife Margaret. It's a cheery space. Lights blaze in all the rooms, most of which are a dazzling white.

Margaret suffered a bad fall in September, breaking her wrist and tearing ligaments in her leg.

"I'm the chief cook and dish-washer now," says the pastor. "It's been boiled egg and toast every night!" quips his wife.

They met almost 60 years ago at a church in Sydenham. He was a young preacher and she had already been saved by the Rev Ian Paisley.

"Margaret was just lovely," says the pastor.

"She was quiet and reserved, which I liked. And she looked the part. She was slim with long dark hair."

"Jim was very handsome," says his wife, "but most of all - he was fun to be with."

They had no money for the cinema or eating out.

"We used to walk the parks. Victoria Park, Ormeau Park, name the park and we were in it," says McConnell.

They have two grown-up daughters, Julie and Linda - who is responsible for the day-to-day running of Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle - along with one grand-daughter, Rebecca.

The pastor has more than 6,000 books in his library.

"Paisley had 55,000, so I've still some catching up to do," he says. He was good friends with the former DUP leader: "The first thing Paisley would do when he'd visit this house was go into the library to see what I was reading.

"And when we'd meet at functions, he'd ask me what I was preaching and he'd take down some notes on a napkin.

"I was very fond of him and I miss him dearly. He was a larger than life character but, most importantly, he was kind."

Pastor McConnell has the hand-written notes of every sermon he has ever delivered. "There's some of the words that got me into trouble!" he says, pointing at bundles of pages.

"I began preaching at 13 and I still have the jotters in which I wrote those sermons."

Margaret says keeping her husband's library ship-shape would be time-consuming: "It would be a huge job cleaning all the books, so we don't. We just blow the dust off them."

McConnell's library includes books on Enoch Powell and Winston Churchill. But there are surprises too.

On top of a pile of favourite DVDs sits 'The Wind That Shakes the Barley', the very pro-republican film set during the Irish war of independence and civil war.

"It's a great movie," says the pastor. "I'll watch anything. It's important to know all sides of the argument." The latest addition to McConnell's collection of religious texts is a bible sent by London-based Muslim cleric, Dr Muhammad Al-Hussaini, who will be in court today supporting him. "For James with many blessings, Muhammad," reads the inscription.

"I respect Dr Al-Hussaini very much," says the pastor. "He doesn't share my views but he respects freedom of speech. Since I was charged he has been in regular contact with me and my solicitor, offering whatever help he can."

Plaques with biblical quotes adorn the McConnells' home but they are still outnumbered by ornaments of cats, which dot every shelf and sideboard. Belle, the pastor's six-year-old black cat, curls up on his knee.

"My daughter rescued her from a home where she was being ill-treated," he says. "I love animals. At one stage, I was feeding 16 wild cats a day. My son-in-law had to step in and look after them when I went preaching in America."

Belle never leaves McConnell's side. "Even when I go for an afternoon nap, she comes too," he says. "You don't let me do that, Jim!" jokes his wife.

A piano takes pride of place in the couple's sitting-room. "That's mine, Jim hasn't a musical note in his head," says Margaret. "You should hear her playing," replies McConnell.

"It's certainly not always religious songs, more like what you'd hear in Dodge City!"

The football pitch, he says, is where he once shone. He was asked to sign for Linfield when he was 28 by the legendary Jackie Milburn, who had transferred to the Blues as player-manager from Newcastle.

"I'd kick a ball about most nights with young Christian converts and Linfield heard about me," he recalls.

"I was honoured by their offer, but I wasn't tempted. I was a preacher and that was a calling I was never going to leave."

As he faces court today, McConnell remains as confident of his convictions as he did all those decades ago. "I haven't had one sleepless night about this trial," he confides.

"I do worry sometimes but not too much," says Margaret. "I know that Jim can hold his own."

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