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Church of Ireland cleric swaps Arctic for life in Northern Ireland

Rev Darren McCartney tells Stephanie Bell about his time as cleric in the inhospitable climate of the Arctic, his new role as a rector back in Northern Ireland, and he and wife Karen's joy at becoming parents

Darren, Karen and their son Liam enjoy the beach in Warrenpoint
Darren, Karen and their son Liam enjoy the beach in Warrenpoint

A Church of Ireland cleric and his family have swapped the harsh frozen landscape of the Arctic to live by the seaside in south Down. And watching their three-year-old son Liam run through the sand and splash in the water near their new home in Warrenpoint has brought a special kind of joy to Bishop Darren McCartney and his wife Karen.

The couple had been married for over 17 years and had accepted that they might not become parents when, much to their surprise and delight, little Liam came along.

Having lived most of his three years with his parents in the freezing Arctic, since returning home in May Liam has found the simple things in life here a huge adventure.

His adoring dad, Rev McCartney, who has just been instituted as rector of Clonallon and Warrenpoint with Kilbroney, says: "He loves being out and about because in the Arctic for a large part of the year he would have been confined to the house.

"He loves the seaside and the beach. He had never seen trees before and he keeps going on about the flies. You can see him standing watching the trees and the wind blowing the leaves and he is not sure what to make of it.

"At first he was frightened of leaves when he saw them on the ground because he didn't know what they were.

"Each week you can see the change because last week he brought me a leaf whereas before he would have been a bit hesitant about going near them. Seeing the cows and the sheep in the fields has also amazed him."

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Darren (45) has returned to Down and Dromore after seven years as Suffragan Bishop in the Diocese of the Arctic, which covers an area of one-and-a-half-million square miles. During their time in northern Canada Karen (45) worked for the Nunavut Government as a social development coordinator while Darren used a snow mobile to attend to a flock of Inuit people in the vast sub-zero parish of Nunavut.

From his igloo-shaped cathedral in the region's capital Iqaluit, Rev McCartney travelled far and wide bringing comfort to his scattered community over an area covering one-and-a-half-million square miles. He moved around on skidoos and in twin-engine aircraft to minister to the fifty thousand Anglicans that made up his flock there.

Darren is originally from Dundrod, while Karen, who was a music teacher when they met, is from Cavan. They first set eyes on each other when she visited his local church to take part in a concert.

Karen and her son are all smiles in the cold
Karen and her son are all smiles in the cold

"I met her when she asked for directions to the wash room," he recalls. "It was dark and I escorted her through the graveyard to the washroom and I left her there to find her own way back.

"We were both 23 and we married two years later and now have been married 20 years."

It was very early in his ministry that Darren and Karen first volunteered to go to the Arctic, where they spent three years from 2004 in the Inuit hamlet of Pangnitung.

The McCartney family enjoying some time together at their new home in Warrenpoint
The McCartney family enjoying some time together at their new home in Warrenpoint

Darren had spotted an article in the Church of Ireland Gazette about a bishop asking for people to go work in the Arctic. "That interested me," he says.

"My grandfather, who died when he was 93, had been to Canada when he was in his 20s and he shared stories about it with me when I was a kid and talked about this amazing wilderness and how it was so different from home."

After three years in Canada, he returned home where he did a curacy at St Nicholas Church in Carrickfergus for three years and then became rector of Knocknamuckley in 2009 until the chance again arose to return to the Arctic in December 2012.

"Our time at Knocknamuckley was really good and when the chance came up to go back to the Arctic obviously we talked about it," he recalls. "We had six years away from it and we were refreshed and happy and decided we did want to go back."

Darren's ministry covered a vast frozen wilderness of 1.5 million square miles in the North West where there were three main territories. The temperatures and the long winters proved challenging and there were many dark days when the sun never shone at all. "The seasons are much shorter there and it is winter for most of the year," he says.

"During the winter we had 24 hours of darkness in some places and for most of the winter we only had a couple of hours of daylight from around 11am until about 1.30pm.

The Diocese of the Arctic
The Diocese of the Arctic

"We would have ice from November until the middle of May and the temperatures with the wind chill can drop to below minus 50. Minus 30 was a normal winter temperature. If you go out you just had to dress for it and wear a Canadian goose Parka to keep warm. You don't go out for long and you are confined more to the house.

"One of the biggest challenges for me was travelling and being on the go for long periods of time which meant I was away from Karen and Liam."

There is no doubting that the couple were overjoyed when they discovered they were expecting Liam. Karen returned home to give birth and stayed here until Liam was five months old before returning to the Arctic.

Their son has grown up used to icebergs and snow and since coming home for good in May, the beauty of the local landscape is something which not just Liam but the whole family is appreciating.

Darren breaks into a wide smile as he reflects on the joy of becoming parents: "We were both content and after 17-and-a-half years we had to come to terms with the fact that we might not have any children and if that was meant to be, we accepted it. Liam was a great surprise. He is absolutely beautiful. He is our wee cutie."

He is clearly also relishing being back in the more hospitable environs of Co Down. "It is absolutely amazing being home, the climate is amazing. It is wonderful to see such greenery all about -things are growing and it is so healthy and life is easier. It is easy to plan simple things like going for a walk.

Darren, Karen and Liam wrapped up well in the Diocese of the Arctic
Darren, Karen and Liam wrapped up well in the Diocese of the Arctic

"I think if you take something away for a while and then reintroduce it, you do see it through a different set of eyes and that's how it feels being back home. We have a beautiful country, it is absolutely beautiful and people here are decent and friendly."

That's not to say that the many people he got to know during his ministry in the Arctic were not friendly and, in fact, one of the hardest parts of coming home for the family was leaving so many good friends behind.

"It was hard to leave friends," admits Darren. "Many of them are like my family, and God willing we will definitely go back."

As well as the natural beauty of the local countryside, Darren has a renewed appreciation of life here on many fronts, having experienced the hardship facing people because of the isolation of the Arctic.

The difference in the cost of living was one of the first things to strike him: "When I went to Tesco, I couldn't believe it, as three bags of groceries came to £37. The same groceries would have cost 150 Canadian dollars, which is around £90. Just like here, some people are working and some are not and some have great jobs and others don't and a lot of the income would go into groceries because the cost of living is very high."

Taking ill was another challenge facing the people in the community he served. With no doctors or nurses trained to a high level in the local health care centre, if someone became seriously unwell, they faced a five-hour flight to the nearest hospital for treatment, usually on their own, leaving family behind.

The McCartney family enjoying some time together at their new home in Warrenpoint
The McCartney family enjoying some time together at their new home in Warrenpoint

Darren says: "I had a friend who took sick and needed an amputation of one of her legs and for a period it was touch and go as to whether she was going to live or not as she was at risk of blood poisoning.

"She had to fly out leaving her husband and child at home and was in intensive care miles away from home on her own. As well as being ill and being miles and miles away from their own country, people also face language barriers and the added stress of not knowing what their doctors are saying to them."

Darren and his family did find it tough leaving the community which they had got to know so well, but they are enjoying starting a new chapter of their lives back home in familiar surrounds.

He was instituted as rector of Clonallon and Warrenpoint with Kilbroney on June 25, in St Bronach's, Rostrevor, when he was heartened by the people who came from all communities to the service.

He adds: "There were a lot of people there from across the community and I was thrilled that people came down from the local monastery where I had had a retreat before. I thought it was wonderful seeing the community come together. I think when you invest in cross-community it pays off and gives people hope that things can be better."

He adds: "I am very much looking forward to once again being located in a parish and investing in the ministry of the parish.

"It is a passion of mine to see the local church reaching out to all with the love of Christ. I love to see followers of Christ develop the gift or gifts that God has given them for this task.

"It is my desire to support and see people participate within the life of the community of faith. We are very much looking forward to making our home here."

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