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Belfast St Patrick's priest Eugene O'Neill on how his grandfather was in the IRA, the exuberant Twelfth and building mutual respect

The Antrim-born cleric on how Ian Hay Gordon, who was cleared of the murder of judge’s daughter Patricia Curran, came to work on the family farm,  and a moving encounter with a relative of a Shankill Butchers’ victim

Father Eugene O'Neill
Father Eugene O'Neill
Fr Eugene and the triptych Sir John Lavery donated to the church in 1919
Father O’Neill outside St Patrick’s Church on Donegall Street in Belfast city centre
Father Eugene O'Neill

By Laurence White

Father Eugene O'Neill is the administrator (parish priest) of St Patrick's Catholic Church on Donegall Street in Belfast. An exhibition entitled Same Difference and featuring photographs of St Patrick's and Redeemer Central further along the street was held last month. It was to mark the centenary of a triptych entitled Madonna of the Lakes presented to St Patrick's by noted artist Sir John Lavery. Fr O'Neill (52), who hails from Antrim, talks about his life and the work of the church.

Q: Were you from a devout background?

A: We went to church, but I didn't know I was a Catholic until I was nearly finished primary school. I didn't know about religious differences. That was never a topic of conversation in our home. As a child my life was spent playing with my friends. I went to Protestant clubs and they went to ours, but I didn't know they were Protestants. As far as our family was concerned the Troubles was about bad people doing bad things. The television was turned off when news of the Troubles came on.

Q: Yet your paternal grandfather was involved in the Irish War of Independence.

A: He was a cattle dealer's son from Glenravel in Co Antrim who fought in that war and I have a photograph of him and his comrades at the Curragh in 1922. Some joined the Irish Army, the others went back to their farms. My grandfather came back north determined to continue the fight, but soon realised the war was truly over.

He was exiled for 10 years by the Stormont government, as were many other ex-IRA men, and he spent that time dealing cattle between Scotland and Donegal until he was allowed back to Northern Ireland. The authorities determined where he would live and that place was Antrim. It was a garrison town and they probably thought he could be better watched there.

His father bought him a farm.

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He had absolutely no bigotry. During the Second World War he supplied milk to the British Army camped in the area and also to the Americans, and to some French or Dutch soldiers. They were all waiting to take part in the D-Day landings. My grandmother thought the British soldiers were very scrawny, so she gave them extra eggs and milk.

There is a great photograph of my grandfather's house after it was built with a Union Jack sticking out of the chimney. Apparently that was what the builders did in those days when they finished a job and it never caused him the slightest concern.

His land bordered Holywell Hospital, where those with mental illness were treated and some men came from it to work on my grandfather's farm. One of them was Ian Hay Gordon, who had gained notoriety after being convicted of the murder of Patricia Curran, the daughter of a former Attorney General. His conviction was overturned in December 2000, nearly half-a-century later.

Coming from farming stock, there was no bigotry among my father or uncles. One played bridge regularly with Harry West, a former Stormont minister.

When I was five or six my grandfather's friend allowed me to wear his sash and I remember thinking it was a very grand thing. The two adults thought it was a great laugh.

Q: Did you always want to be a priest?

A: Having spent a considerable time in hospital as a child, from the age of 10 I wanted to be a doctor, but in my mid-teens at St Malachy's College in Belfast I received a very powerful sense of call to the priesthood. There were lots of priests on the staff - they were interesting men who threw their lives into education. One ran a film club and I remember seeing Monty Python's Life Of Brian in the college at the same time as Belfast councillors were trying to ban it in the cinema.

But I was not devout and after leaving school I went to St Andrews University in Scotland. I wanted to experience something different and see if my calling would persevere.

I found life at university very free and open. People were interested in ideas and very open to religion. The Catholic Society was one of the largest there - we gave great parties. Its members were of all religions and of none. It was a place where my mind came alive.

It was the first place I met Conservatives - Michael Heseltine came to talk to us one day - and some of the students were the children of Cabinet members.

As a schoolboy I had been a fervent socialist, but at university I realised you could like someone even if you totally disagree with their politics or their vision of society in the future or even religion.

St Andrews was a proper breath of fresh air when I was there. I wish every student in Northern Ireland had the opportunity to study abroad. I think it would change things.

Q: Your first parish when you became a priest was in Ballymena at the height of the Harryville protests, when loyalists surrounded the church. Was that frightening?

A: It was not frightening for me as a young man. It seemed hugely exciting and constant drama. Ballymena was a very interesting society and the people were full of wit and fun and craic. The Harryville crisis to me was just reality.

I was aware that there was very sophisticated monitoring of the protesters going on (the protests were part of the wider dispute over Orange Order marches) as well as behind-the-scenes negotiations.

There were three other priests in the parish led by Monsignor Sean Connolly, a man of judgment, deep calm and prayerfulness. He brought a sense of security and I felt secure.

At times there were hundreds of protesters outside the church, throwing eggs and spitting on our car. It was terrible after loyalist terrorist Billy Wright was shot dead in the Maze Prison.

There were 1,000 demonstrators outside faced by 300 police officers. We had to arrive at the church an hour before the service, as apparently the sight of us in our priestly garb could be provocative.

A friend later told me she saw three armed officers in the congregation - they never knelt down and were constantly scanning the church for any sign of trouble.

On another occasion bangers were set off outside and I could see parents pulling their children closer every time a firework exploded.

We decided to stop giving interviews about the situation. Police said they just made things worse. The idea was to deprive the protesters of the oxygen of publicity.

I remember thinking that the situation was terrible, it was deep violence and civil disorder. How would we get back from this?

We did move on, just by being calm and not provoking a reaction by acts of bravado. We were also supported by a wonderful ecumenical group of clergy. What I learned was: keep calm, be patient and things can change.

Q: That was a message which was relevant in two other parishes you served in.

A: In Glengormley, St Bernard's Church was burned down and there was a very strong loyalist reaction to Cemetery Sunday celebrations in the area. Prayers being broadcast on a PA system overlooking Rathcoole were never going to go down well. The problem with bands playing provocative tunes outside St Patrick's Church was over by the time I came here two years ago, but there are constant conversations going on in the background between all the stakeholders to ensure mutual respect. In the last three years marches have gone off with exuberance and festivity and we have Mass even on the Twelfth.

I love music and I go to the Proms every year, but it is only recently that I realised that through the Orange Order, massive amounts of music is learned by working class groups.

Classical music in Belfast is for middle class kids, but here are working class people playing music to a very high degree. These bands are a bit like the colliery bands in Yorkshire. They help hold communities together, giving people skills and access to music, which is a thing of beauty. I believe the Orange marches would attract more people if they were rebranded as a great folk march, because at its best it is exuberant. However, there are elements which are problematic.

Q: This is a very historic parish. What is being done to preserve that history?

A: We are currently sitting in the oldest room in Belfast. This house, which is our presbytery, is the oldest constantly occupied home in the city. There are three grand drawing rooms and I would like to turn them into a mini-museum outlining the historical context of the parish. Daniel O'Connell, Eamonn De Valera and Joe Devlin all sat in one of these rooms at different times.

The original church was finished in 1815, the date of the Battle of Waterloo, and 14 years before Catholic emancipation in Ireland. It was the first Gothic building in the city and Donegall Street was the Malone Road of its time. In 1877 the church we now see was built.

This is a very historic part of the city and there is a committee working to ensure that it is properly preserved. Part of that heritage is the Orange Lodge in Clifton Street, which has tremendous artefacts, and St Patrick's also has some.

Noted painter Sir John Lavery donated his triptych to the church in 1919 and Sir Edwin Lutyens, the outstanding architect, designed an altar on which to display it. That is priceless, but it has disappeared. Sir John painted two large portraits of Edward Carson and nationalist leader John Redmond and said they should be hung together. Carson said he thought the pair of them would be hung one day in the streets of Dublin. Sir John always did things in pairs and he also donated sketches of the royal family "to the other side" when he gave us his triptych. But we don't know if that was to the Presbyterians or the Church of Ireland and we don't know where those sketches are.

We also have a very valuable reliquary which holds a relic of St Patrick, but it is in the safekeeping of the Ulster Museum.

Q: There will be a large number of students coming into the parish. Have you any plans for making contact with them?

A: This parish is changing all the time. In the 1950s there were six priests tending to the spiritual needs of 20,000 parishioners, now there are two priests with 6,000 parishioners. Huge numbers of people have moved out, either by choice or through redevelopment.

Our role is changing. The church used to provide youth clubs, Scout troops, boxing clubs and sporting activities. Now those are all provided by other organisations. We are there for the religious moments in people's lives.

However, we are going to work in conjunction with the Jesuits in Belfast to provide students with ecumenical worship and spiritual information. The Jesuits are one of the world's greatest bodies of educators and their graduates from schools and universities are very loyal to them. They have great resources available to them. All this is very exciting.

Q: Is priesthood a lonely and onerous task in modern society, given that nearly every parish has only one priest?

A: It is not lonely. The struggle for priests is to find time for solitude for prayer and reading. At times the workload is phenomenal. I remember a time a couple of years ago I had six funerals at the same time and I was the only priest in the parish.

I am on the board of a group planning a new school and on the board of governors of one of the largest amalgamated schools in the city. I help make appointments of teachers and have 6,000 parishioners to visit each month.

I also have to find the £2m needed to finish restoration of the church. We have already spent £1m. I was involved in the recent photographic exhibition and it took months of planning. I have to attend every meeting of every group I am associated with, otherwise my views would not be considered.

Q: Are you glad that you became a priest?

A: I love it. There is not a week goes by that I don't get an act of kindness or an insight into people's real life. I remember when I was training, sitting in the garden of a woman's home. She had it landscaped and it was beautiful. She thought it was a very peaceful space. It was only when I mentioned it to the parish priest that I learned her son had been murdered in the most obscene manner by the Shankill Butchers. It showed me that you can find peace even after such horror.

Q: What interests do you have apart from music?

A: I am part of a priests' hiking club. There are 10 of us and we hike all over Ireland. I have been part of that group for 20 years and it is one of my greatest focuses of belonging.

I am also part of a small group of priests who meet once a month, spending five hours together talking about our lives, praying and then having a meal before returning to our homes.

I used to do a lot of work for the BBC. I did Thought For The Day on Radio Ulster and also worked for Radio 4 and wrote a lot of articles for newspapers. I do some live broadcasts now, but I don't have time to write scripts.

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