Belfast Telegraph

Protestant who pulled Virgin Mary from bonfire shows respect still survives

By Malachi O'Doherty

The Shankill man who recovered a statue of the Virgin Mary from a stacked bonfire and brought it to a Catholic priest has created an image of anti-sectarian civility that will be remembered.


Whatever else the legacy of the Twelfth, the tensions and the stand-offs, the dissident republican bomb threats and the incinerated flags, that one story will always be in the files for future writers recalling these times.

And they will find much that is ugly; much that suggests that the Irish Republic and the Catholic Church are reserved in particular contempt by many Protestants. Some went out of their way to buy fresh new Irish tricolours to burn, with the fold creases still showing.

 It is amusing to imagine hardy loyalist lads crossing town to buy their flags over the counter, or maybe they got them online. Either way, they hardly count as trophies.

Another small record of civility in tense times is Wallace Thompson's Facebook page. Thompson is a vociferous evangelical who was an adviser to Nigel Dodds MP

From his mobile phone he sent the message: “My Roman Catholic neighbour has just wished me a great Twelfth and she said it was wonderful to see such good weather. That's a shared future put into practice.”

Remarks like these always prompt discussion about whether or not there was once a golden age in which Catholics enjoyed the parades and helped out.

There are stories of more accommodation between neighbours in rural communities.

The Twelfth that I recall as a child was part edgy and part awesome.

I grew up on the Riverdale estate beside Finaghy Road North, and then the traditional route brought the main parade almost to our doorstep.

Some were anxious about this, but two features of the Twelfth were unforgettable: the awesome appearance of the banners coming over the Railway Bridge like the sails of galleons in a summer breeze, and the money we made returning lemonade bottles we gathered from the flattened field.

There is no point in over-stating this and pretending that we loved the parade. My mother felt she had to go out and cut her own orange lilies for fear they would be read as a sign to drunken bandsmen that they could knock on our door and ask to use the toilet. When they did, she chased them.

But there was a neighbour in a mixed marriage whose garden backed on to open ground between herself and the field, and her tired cousins would pocket their sashes, climb over the fence and come into the house and have their tea.

All of this is precious little to weigh in the balance against the angry mood of the Orange Order and the fears raised by its campaign of civil disobedience against the Parades Commission.

But it is a reminder that these two communities who define Northern Ireland do not live in irredeemable contempt of each other.

The recovery of the statue from the stacked fire is a strong symbol of decency and consideration because of how differently that statue is understood by Catholics and Protestants.

For many Catholics it is a focus of prayerful worship informed by a belief that the Virgin Mary is the ‘mediatrix' of all of God's grace.

This, in Protestant theology, is pure heresy. In their conviction God deals directly with the individual, with no one in between.

For Catholics, the statue represents visits to Earth by the Virgin Mary, delivering messages, usually through children. Catholic theology has evolved under guidance from these apparitions to now include revealed ideas, such as that Mary was born without original sin.

For Protestants, all revelation is in the Bible and there is no mention there of Mary's Immaculate Conception, her physical assumption into Heaven or her promise to visit us.

This one statue emphasises a difference between Catholicism and Protestantism that makes them as remote from each other as Hinduism and Islam.

And for a Protestant man to preserve the integrity of a statue, which to him must be an idol, and to show such feeling for what it means to Catholics, creates a symbolic gesture in which neighbourliness matters more than tradition or belief.

That's exactly what we need more of.

Wallace Thompson also recorded on Facebook that this is the first Twelfth since his mother died.

“She loved the Twelfth and the orange blood that flows through my veins is largely inherited from her.”

That's worth remembering and respecting, too, that despite the crassness of the bonfires, Orangemen and women, in the main, do not come out to annoy Catholics.

They are participating in a tradition that connects them to their parents and forebears beyond them. If Wallace can enjoy his Twelfth in a manner his mother would be proud of — what harm?

‘An image of anti-sectarian civility that will live on’

Belfast Telegraph Digital


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