Perspective One – From a Wanderer.
Today’s Wonderful Wander began in the beautiful Clonard Monastery as sunlight poured through the stain glass windows on the 60 people gathered for the walk. The group was welcomed by Jim Deeds, the host of the wander, with some poetry and context setting—this was not to be a guided tour, as much as a walk down and up the spine of West Belfast, hearing stories from locals along with way. Fr. Ciaran O’Callaghan, who helps lead Clonard’s peace and reconciliation work, shared a bit about the history of Clonard Monastery and noted that today’s walk was a wonderful antidote to the historical division of West Belfast.
The group meandered the short distance between Clonard Monastery and the convent of the Sisters of Adoration on the Falls Road. Our large group filled the chapel of the convent, with Catholic and Protestant people from all parts of the city squeezing into the beautiful space together. One of the older sisters who had arrived at the convent during the Hunger Strikes spoke of how, at the time, the chapel was often filled with crying people, alcoholics and children. She said that now the chapel was a much quieter place, but was still filled with people praying both day and night. Jim described the convent as a “hidden gem” and those participating in the wander seemed to agree—at least one person was overheard making plans to return to the chapel for prayer.
Conway Mill was our next stop, and many in the group were clearly delighted with the new discovery of this beautifully renovated community resource. While in the Mill, the group was treated to more poetry from Jim and also from Glen Bradley who joined Jim in hosting the second half of our wander. The group was also treated to a trip right up to the top of the Mill to visit the photography studio of John Mallon. John shared his beautiful photography, as well as the lovely view of Clonard and the West from his studio windows. He also, movingly, shared his story of struggling with issues of mental health and the loss of family and friends to suicide. His work and words were a powerful reminder of the possibility of healing with the deep support of community.
On the way to the Shankill Road, we passed the famous International Wall containing the Falls Road’s constantly changing sets of murals. We then stopped in the former “No Man’s Land” between the gates that can still close off the Falls and Shankill Road from each other. There, we heard beautiful poetry from Jim and from Nirmal, a visitor from Pakistan, who shared her appreciation of the city and her gratitude at being welcomed by the people of Belfast. Crossing onto the Shankill Road, we stopped briefly at Conor’s Corner, the corner of the road dedicated to famous painter and former resident, William Conor.
The group was welcomed to the Garden of Remembrance for the Somme and the Shankill Bomb by the pastor of West Kirk Presbyterian Church, Rev. David Clawson. Jim and David both spoke of the history of the area and of the deep impact of the Shankill Bomb on the local community. David also spoke of the themes of his sermon at the 20th anniversary service of the bomb—the desire of the church to, like Jesus, share the tears of and be a part of the transformation of the local community. His exhortation to not just pass through the area, but to remember that the surrounding houses were full of “men and women of great glory and consequence,” was an appropriate thought for the whole of our wander.
We finished the walk with stops at the Hugh Smyth mural, the Shankill Road Cemetery and Hugh Smyth’s former home. In each stop, Glenn shared thoughts, memories, and poetry relating to his experience growing up on the Shankill and of Hugh Smyth, who was his uncle. Smyth was one of the people who helped young Loyalists move towards the political process, and Glenn spoke passionately of his own eventual movement towards politics, undoubtedly inspired, in part, by his uncle.
Finally, the group made its way to the Shankill Methodist Church where they were welcomed by the Rev. Colin Duncan and treated to tea and coffee by church members. Several of us spoke wonderingly of the fact that such a diverse group had openly and joyfully journeyed up and down the West’s interface when such a thing would have been much more difficult not long ago. The wander was wonderful, indeed—a lovely experience of temporary community and an opportunity to continue learning about our wounded and wonderful city.