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Gladys Ganiel: On her son's religious upbringing, the Troubles and her new book Considering Grace

What Presbyterians really think about how their Church helped them during the Troubles years

Difficult subject: Gladys Ganiel discusses faith in her new book
Difficult subject: Gladys Ganiel discusses faith in her new book
On the move: Gladys winning the Belfast Half Marathon in 2014
Gladys Ganiel with her husband Brian O’Neill and son Ronan
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson
Bertha McDougall
Considering Grace: Presbyterians and the Troubles by Gladys Ganiel and Jamie Yohanis, is published by Merrion Press is available on Amazon and local book stores priced at £15, and at www.presbyterianireland.org/consideringgrace for £12.

By Stephanie Bell

A bit of banter between Irish and English friends on the conflict in Northern Ireland set the course for a young American student to become one of our foremost academics in the area of religion and the Troubles.

Dr Gladys Ganiel, an author and sociologist at Queen's University, Belfast, had no idea as a young student in Rhode Island that religion had caused a divide here. Now, studying the implications of that split has become her life's work.

Gladys specialises in researching the Northern Ireland conflict, evangelicalism, Christianity in Ireland, the emerging Church, and charismatic Christianity in Zimbabwe and South Africa.

She is also a leading commentator in the media on the link between religion and politics here and has written a number of books on the subject, the latest of which has been published this month.

Considering Grace: Presbyterians and the Troubles - which she co-authored with Jamie Yohanis - records the deeply moving stories of 120 ordinary people's experiences of the Troubles, exploring how faith shaped their responses to violence and its aftermath.

The book is being seen as the first of its kind to capture such a full range of experiences of the Troubles of people from a Protestant background and Gladys (42) admits that she was moved to tears while writing it.

She says: "Jamie did 75% of the interviews and I did the rest and as I was writing the book it was hard going. Many of the stories were really tragic and traumatic and I was sitting here some days crying.

"It really is that sad and you nearly traumatise yourself reading it - and that's not nearly as bad as what the people themselves experienced."

When it comes to her own faith she regards herself as a Christian. She was brought up in an evangelical Baptist church in her home state of Maine in the US and is now married to a Belfast Catholic, Brian O'Neill (43), who runs his own website company.

They have one son Ronan (4), who attends a Catholic school and a Protestant Sunday School. For Gladys it is about teaching him about both religions so that when he is old enough he can make up his own mind.

"I met Brian in 2008 and the fact we are of different religions has never been an issue.

"I take our son to Fitzroy Presbyterian Church, where there is a great Sunday School, and he goes to a Catholic primary school, where he is getting religious instruction and so he has the best of both worlds and can decide for himself when he is older."

That her life has taken her across the Atlantic to make her home in Belfast studying aspects of our troubled past is a huge leap from when she was a teenager planning to be a journalist.

A keen runner who still competes in marathons for Northern Ireland and Ireland, it all came about after her curiosity was piqued during an innocent conversation with fellow running-mates from Ireland and England.

She recalls: "I have been into running since I was 12 and got an athletic scholarship to study at Providence University in Rhode Island.

"Our coach was Ray Treacy, from Waterford, whose brother is the Olympic silver medallist John Treacy.

"I was studying political science and running for the university and we had a lot of Irish people in the team as well as some English people.

"It was 1998 and Belfast was hosting the World Cross Country Championships and the English boys started joking with the Irish about religion being the problem in Northern Ireland.

"For me, religion had only ever been a positive thing in my life growing up, and I was raised in an evangelical Baptist church in Maine, so what they said made me very curious."

At the time Gladys was writing part-time for her local newspaper in Maine and had hoped to pursue a career as a sports writer.

She was also writing for her local university magazine and as part of that had to interview professors on their research work.

The realisation that newspapers were facing challenging times with the advent of the internet made her rethink her career choice. In the end, she decided to come to Dublin to do a PhD and satisfy her curiosity about the part religion had played in the Troubles here.

"When I was interviewing the professors for the college magazine it struck me they were getting paid to read books and I thought that if I could do a PhD I too could go into the academic world and really enjoy it," she explains.

At 22, she travelled to Ireland to study for a PhD in social sciences at University College Dublin, specialising in studying politics, evangelicalism and the conflict in Northern Ireland.

She started her career in Belfast in 2006 lecturing on conflict resolution and reconciliation at the Belfast campus of Trinity College Dublin, which was known as the Irish School of Ecumenics.

She then joined Queen's School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work in 2015.

Her research has included two books about evangelicalism in Northern Ireland, and an award-winning book about the emerging church.

As well as her new book on how Presbyterians responded to the Troubles, she has written Unity Pilgrim: The Life Of Fr Gerry Reynolds, a biography of the Redemptorist priest who worked for peace and reconciliation and was based at Clonard Monastery.

The aim of her research, she says, is to understand the socio-political roles of religion in Northern Ireland: "I suppose if I have learnt anything by my research it is that things are always more complicated that they seem.

"It all goes back to the conversation in university when the English guy said that religion was part of the problem in Northern Ireland.

"In my research I am trying to find out if religion contributed to the conflict and yes, while it can contribute to violence, it also has played a part in achieving peace and harmony as well.

"I've learnt not to take a one dimensional view of how it functions socially and politically."

This research was taken a step further in her new book Considering Grace.

Presbyterians tell stories of their experiences of the Troubles along with victims, members of the security forces, emergency responders, healthcare workers and 'critical friends' of the Presbyterian tradition.

It also includes the perspectives of women and people from border counties and features contributions from leading public figures, such as former Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon of the SDLP, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson of the DUP, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris, and former Victims' Commissioner Bertha McDougall.

While many talked about how they were supported by ministers and congregations in times of injury or bereavement, others did not hold back in their criticisms, which included a hurtful neglect of some victims, disappointment that the Presbyterian Church did not stand up to what some saw as the Rev Ian Paisley's sectarianism and a lack of emphasis on reconciliation.

Gladys points to John Brewer's book Ex-Combatants, Religion, and Peace in Northern Ireland as having already established that the church didn't do enough for victims during the conflict.

She believes Considering Grace goes a step further: "I think more surprising in terms of the Presbyterian Church's role was the ministers and the part they played as first responders which I refer to them as in the book.

"That's something which surprised me, the level of support they provided and how important they really were in providing that support. They weren't trained for it, like a lot of people weren't, but it didn't stop them stepping in when there was death and tragedy.

"I see the book as being more about the future than about the past. But I also think it is important that the Presbyterian Church has tried to be self-critical through this project. Now it's up to the Church to reflect on the criticisms that have come from their flock and try to respond. I think other societal institutions need to be self-critical about their role in the past as part of a wider process of moving forward.

"In light of the pain and trauma I think we need to ask ourselves what do we do with this? We need to remember the past which was really horrible but we never want to return there and I think we need to look at what we do now to ensure that we don't."

Outside of her academic work, Gladys is still a passionate runner and ran for Ireland in this year's European Championships and for Northern Ireland in the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

Home life revolves around her husband Brian and young son Ronan. Her family in the US are regular visitors to Belfast and Gladys is looking forward to having them here for Christmas.

She adds: "Training takes up a lot of my time and my life is family, running and work. I love Belfast and I find people here are kind and friendly and they are always ready to strike up a conversation with you.

"In athletics everyone is very welcoming and supportive.

"As for work, Considering Grace was released as a popular book, not an academic book, and in the New Year I will be looking to see if there is scope for an academic publication from it."

  • Considering Grace: Presbyterians and the Troubles by Gladys Ganiel and Jamie Yohanis, is published by Merrion Press is available on Amazon and local book stores priced at £15, and at www.presbyterianireland.org/consideringgrace for £12.

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