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Interview: How I know human decency trumps politics – Fr Brian D’Arcy

Priest and journalist Father Brian D’Arcy discusses how politics and religion were always intertwined in his life, even as a young boy.

Fr Brian D'Arcy

In Jude Collins’ new book, Whose Past is it Anyway? The Ulster Covenant, the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme, Father Brian D’Arcy discusses his Fermanagh childhood, politics and The Troubles in Ireland.

OUR FAMILY WAS nationalist but not republican.

We were Catholics living in a townland that was completely Protestant and strongly unionist, but at the same time, my father’s father was a member of the British Army and was killed in the Dardanelles on 15 August 1915.

Although I never saw him, a picture of him in uniform was on the wall and he certainly wasn’t denied. But nobody knew anything about him, including my father. It meant nothing to us at all.

My mother’s family were Corrigans which would have been a republican family and indeed her father was badly beaten on a number of occasions by the Black and Tans. So you had these two family things coming together.

We were total Gaelic people but my mother would say, “Don’t get involved in the IRA”. There used to be Easter Sunday ceremonies in our local graveyard; some families would have stayed for those orations, the rest of us went home.

Division

When I was a young boy we went on the bus to St Michael’s in Enniskillen – but a six-mile journey – with neighbouring pupils from Royal Portora School, the Collegiate school. In fact, we walked together – St Michaels and the Collegiate were right beside each other – maybe two miles up the hill and we were very great, as young fellahs would be, with the girls that were walking with them up to school.

The convent school was in a different direction altogether. You had all these farmers son of Protestants and Catholics who had far more in common than working-class sons like I was, of either view, class did bring people together. The farming community was one and the working-class community.

But there was another division – between those of a nationalist background and those from a unionist background – because, you see, the B-men were the problem. Among the boys going to school it was never spoken about.

The way we got over it was that the ones going to St Michaels spoke Irish on the bus so that nobody else could understand. I mean there was no malice in any of it at all. But in school – we were taught by a priest – there was a kind of nationalism taught that was almost like Judaism, in the sense that it was linked to religion. Politics and religion became close.

And then, of course, for two months of the year the two communities were utterly separated. None of us could get up and down the road, as they marched up and down, preparing to go to the Twelfth of July. And then 12 August was also a big day, so there was no peace until 12 August.

And then on 15 August we had our sports and every Catholic went to that event. So it was insidious. No one ever told me but there was a pattern of a life that was based around these things.

Segregation

Politics has definitely played a huge part in my priestly life, no doubt about it. I’ve had to think and work hard at it because I came from that segregated background. I spent a little time in South Africa, because our older is working in South Africa, in Botswana, where there is that whole idea of segregation and division.

In South Africa it was particularly difficult because you had the Afrikaaner Churches justifying apartheid from the Bible – an awful way of looking at it. Some people like Bishop Hurley in Durban, were great heroes to me. He was a white man, originally from Offaly, long before Archbishop Tutu – a man who was walking with his black people, long before there was any of this. And so all of these things came together in my mind.

Meeting Dev

I met de Valera as a student – he came to Mount Argus as President and I was asked to accompany him around and I had a conversation with him. Where I grew up, around Enniskillen, you could be arrested – many men were arrested – for shouting, “Up Dev!” And here I was, standing beside Dev! [Laughs] Sadly he was quite blind at that time but he was an absolute gentleman. In fact he had taught mathematics for a Passionist school before we went to the Holy Ghosts, and he had in his mind that little connection. So Dev, to me, was also a hero and in many senses still is.

I happened to be ordained in 1969, exactly when the Troubles began, so from my first day that was what was going on. I went into journalism.

Tim Pat Coogan and Fintan Faulkner in The Irish Press said “You have connections up in Ardoyne. Would you go up please and interview the chief of staff of the IRA for us quietly? We’re not going to publish it but we might publish what you write in it.”

And I did that, not knowing what I was going into. I was brought to him in Belfast, to his house, with a coat over my head in the back of a car. I had no idea where I went. I interviewed him and wrote up a report, so that Tim Pat and The Irish Press could have a better understanding of the IRA.

Rising above politics

My whole theme of this was to try to grow out of being prisoners of the past. When my mother died, before I was ordained, I suddenly discovered that the Protestant neighbours were wonderful. They thought very highly of my mother and they were the first in the buns and baked bread, and that meant more to me than anything. That stuck in my head: my perception of these people was wrong.

My mother kept children of Protestant neighbours while they went to celebrate the Twelfth of July; my father milked the cows for a Protestant neighbour, George Lee, while he went to the Twelfth of July.

In return George Lee would loan my father the tractor so that we could cut our meadow around that time, because we wouldn’t have had a tractor ourselves.

And so the bartering and the friendliness and the decency of people rose above the dictates of politics.

That is what my theme has been all up the years.

Whose Past is it Anyway? The Ulster Covenant, the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme written by Jude Collins. Published by The History Press of Ireland.

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Fr Brian D'Arcy

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