The Arc de Triomphe may be a very long way from Ardoyne, but for Father Aidan Troy the north Belfast community still holds a very special place in his heart.
The 73-year-old former Belfast priest, who won international respect for protecting children during the loyalist Holy Cross school protests of 2001, is now based in the English-speaking parish of St Joseph’s in Paris.
He lives in a quiet suburb, just two streets away from the Champs Elysees, in an area that has seen its fair share of troubles in recent times with the yellow vest protests. So much so, that some international journalists have asked Father Troy if he brings trouble with him, or if it just follows him around.
“I left Ardoyne and I have been here just over 10 years,” he says. “The parish is situated in a very lovely location, close to the Arc de Triomphe, just two streets away from the Champs Elysees.
“I live at the church, above the church. There’s a multi-storey building and we’re on the first floor and there are offices above us.
“We have a daily mass here and then every evening there are different things on. There is a marriage course, Bible studies and all the other parish activities. We have five weekend masses — one vigil mass and four on a Sunday — which are all very busy.
“All our masses are in English. We get a lot of people from the north coming here for mass, maybe they are visiting Paris or are in Disneyland Paris with their children and they call to see me.
“Everything is done in English here, but you obviously have to have a working knowledge of French. I wouldn’t like anyone who is very good at French to hear me. People call up for various things, from offices and from the diocese, and I would speak French to them. But once you realise that you’re never going to be a great French speaker, you don’t worry any more.”
Father Troy says that his experiences in the Ardoyne protest — which saw images of Catholic schoolgirls running a gauntlet of abuse from loyalist protesters as they walked to school beamed across the world — gave him a wealth of knowledge and indeed resilience for what would later happen in Paris.
“I do miss Ardoyne,” he says. “I would very much keep in contact and have been back a few times. It was a huge part of my life. In my own heart it will always hold a very special place.
“I knew nothing when I went to Ardoyne. I lived in Rome before going there. But when I got there, I knew the right thing to do. I knew those children were so wonderful and so were their families. And at the end of the day we had to get through that situation in a way that nobody was a victor and no one was a loser. We had to come out of it that the children were alright and the protesters were alright. There was no other way.
“Through mutual understanding, over the next two years relations improved and I got to know so many of the people who had been originally been protesting. Like everything else, we are all the same. I’m not saying that politically or religiously or making little of it. But you have to talk to someone at some stage and you have to say ‘I’ll try and stand in your shoes and you try and stand in mine’. I think that’s the only way.
“The people in Ardoyne taught me so much about conflict, about family and about good times and bad times. The Troubles were here in Paris in 2015 with the awful attack on Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan attack and now we have the yellow vest protests. It’s extraordinary, I have a lot of meetings with the police and they come and say things to me about what is happening and I tell them I have a little bit of experience in these matters. And they say how come? And I tell them I was in Belfast for a few years and they tell me that I probably know more than they do about all this.
“It’s just part of the world in which we live and it makes me even more grateful to the people of Ardoyne, who took care of me, who protected me and who opened their hearts to me.
“Some of those children from Holy Cross School are now parents themselves. I still keep in contact with some of them. Sometimes one or two of them have called here and rung the doorbell to say hello. It’s lovely.”
Father Troy was born in 1946 in Bray, Co Wicklow. His father worked “on the trains” while his mother stayed at home to look after their three children. He graduated from University College Dublin in 1967 with a BA in Philosophy and from Clonliffe College, also in Dublin, in 1971 with a Bachelor of Divinity. In previous interviews he has said that there was no great Damascus moment in terms of the priesthood, “just a slowly growing wish to give the priesthood a try. It was no stronger than that and my calling is still day-by-day by God”.
Father Troy says that it was only when he reached Paris that he was able to absorb what he had been through and says that the trouble and threats he was subjected to prepared him to help navigate his Paris parishioners through their own troubled times, including current fears about attacks on churches and synagogues.
“It was only when I got to Paris I began to look back,” he says. “I would sit and think — not just me but us all — how did we all come through it? I both grew from it and I also had some scars from it. But I will say this. I wouldn’t have missed that part of my life for anything. I was threatened many times. The first few times it happens you are absolutely terrified, but after a while it becomes almost normal. I suppose I thought that Paris might be calmer, but the city has been so badly hit by terrorism over the last number of years.
“Any public building is under threat from terrorism. You can’t say that a church wouldn’t be attacked. Police have asked the churches, synagogues and mosques to take the normal precautions of any public building with large numbers of people coming in.
“I think that it’s true that I can help parishioners navigate their way through this, in the sense that I am terribly aware of the dangers, but I don’t run scared from it. I stand with them and I tell them that we are going to do everything possible to keep them informed. I speak to police regularly and they inform me what they know.
“The police don’t know too much. We know that the very nature of an attack is that it has to be a surprise, but they are very helpful and they give us advice. We have been very fortunate that we have been able to continue, even with the Saturday yellow vest protests.”
And he says that he fears Brexit will impact on peace back home.
“I watch the Brexit issue extremely closely,” he says. “It will affect me too. I can see difficulty in immigration delays and passport controls. It’s been just wonderful here so far; if I need to go to London I just hop on the Eurostar and the train and I can do both immigration in the Gare du Nord and St Pancras in London. And that is all going to change. That is nothing as bad as what people with businesses will feel. God help them. And people travelling. I just hope that there will be some smooth transition, for everyone’s sake.
“Brexit is threatening the Northern Ireland peace process also. I think anyone who is negotiating who has even read about — never mind lived through it and has seen the last 20 years of the Good Friday Agreement — just couldn’t contemplate going back to what we left.
“Without doubt it’s one of the greatest examples to the world of how people from diametrically opposed views were able to get something together that is an internationally binding treaty that gives us the peace that we have had for the last 20 years and I think it’s a huge responsibility on government, on citizens, on everybody, that we do everything possible to preserve that. I just couldn’t contemplate how bad it would be if that was to break down.”
He says he would never want to see Northern Ireland’s peace destroyed by Brexit and perhaps another Holy Cross situation arise from divisions.
“There was a feeling at that time that the situation was in no way going to undo the Good Friday Agreement,” he says. “But still it just reminded everyone — and it went around the world — of just how very fragile community relations can be.”
Father Troy says that despite the challenges facing the Catholic Church worldwide he hasn’t experienced any anti-clericalism in his role in Paris. Despite dwindling numbers attending church in Ireland, his services in Paris are always full.
“I think we are a slightly different type of parish, with us being a language parish,” he says. “We have over 2,000 people every weekend coming through our doors. The church’s capacity is quite small, so we are packed for every single mass, which is a lovely experience.
“We have around 40 different nationalities and there are a lot of young people who come to mass here. There are as many young people as old people. It’s a lovely balance.
“The challenges facing the Catholic Church over here are more or less the same as in Ireland. There have been a lot of scandals here as well.
“There has also been a very definite separation between church and state. There’s obviously a very different atmosphere here, although there is a lot of clarity about it and there is no hostility.
“Obviously here, like everywhere, you would have a certain amount of anti-clericalism, but I have never personally, come across any nasty incidents at all. I say that truthfully. I have never found, even when I am dressed as a priest on the train or buses, anyone passing any remarks.”
Father Troy is set to lead a Retreat at Long Tower Parish in Londonderry next week. Beginning tomorrow, the Retreat talks will focus on Baptism and Reconciliation, with a final talk on the Eucharist on Wednesday, April 10.
The event is a parish retreat,” he says. “Derry had a huge tradition all over the years where they would bring in people to speak in parishes during Lent in preparation for Easter.
“I have been very kindly invited to go along to Long Tower Parish and to be there for a number of days. We will have Mass in the morning, sermons at night and I am just so honoured to be asked to go and do that. I won’t be speaking about any of my experiences with regards peace and reconciliation. I am not going to give talks about conflict resolution, sectarianism or anything.
“It will be more concentrated on the people, however examples may come in. But I’m not big enough in the world just yet to do a lecture tour!
“I’ll be really talking in the context of the parish and people preparing for Easter. But people can come and see me and talk to me.”