I went to Irish College in St Michael’s, Omeath, in 1972. I don’t think it was very successful in so far as learning the language went but a couple of very strong memories remain with me from that experience. The first is of being with the children displaced from Belfast. 1972 was the worst year of the troubles in Northern Ireland, Stormont had fallen, Direct Rule was introduced, the streets were flooded with British soldiers and the IRA campaign of terror was in full flight. In May of that year eight people were killed in Anderstown, the Catholic heartland, when an IRA bomb exploded prematurely. Many people had to leave their homes and crossed over the border into the neighbouring counties. Our Irish College received many children from that conflict. Even as an 11-year-old I can remember them being traumatised, fragile, scared. We slept in dormitories, according to our age, but every morning you would see 2, 3 or 4 brothers in one bed, they felt safer together.
The second memory is also strong, maybe a little strange, but next to the Irish College was a Shrine to Our Lady and some religious items were sold from a little wooden hut. Medals and rosary beads, little statues and prayer cards, candles and scapulars. The Belfast children loved to go there and with their few pennies buy medals and beads to wear for prayer and protection. They had an innate faith that God and Mary would watch over them.
I’ve thought a lot about that period in history in recent days, looking at the images from Ukraine of tanks, and rocket launchers, barricades and brave men and women are seen protecting their towns and villages, hoping to repel the immensely powerful military forces which have invaded their neighbourhood. The death and destruction is heart breaking. Seeing lines of people inching towards shelter and generous people welcoming them in, restores faith in humanity. Sisters, priests, brothers and parishes are there with them, offering refuge and safe space, food and clothing. As some among them come here, in time, we might like the Irish College, find a space for them and inspired by their courage, our faith and the example of others, do all we can. We pray constantly for peace.