In 1978, that most prolific and perceptive of travel-writers, Dervla Murphy of Lismore, published an account of her travels in Northern Ireland, walking, cycling and camping, in a book, under the title “A Place Apart.”
In all the books that have, so far, come out of that recent very troubled history, this, it seems to me, is the most acutely and sympathetically observed study of how two peoples, living side by side, and sharing everyday experiences, so hated each other that they killed and maimed each other over a period of 30 years.
In an introductory page, and following her dedication: “To the Northern Irish who made me so welcome and taught me so much,” she inserted a quotation from Paul Anderson: “I have yet to see a problem, however complicated, which when you looked at it the right way did not become still more complicated.”
Yet, into this complication, that intractability, stepped Fr. Alec Reid (Alex in the official notice) who recently died. He was born in Nenagh in 1931 and was educated there (his mother’s town) in a Christian Brothers school. We could proudly claim him as a Tipperary-man, but Alec Reid goes beyond the bounds of geography into the realm of the essential humanity of a peacemaker.
He seems to have, almost recklessly, ignored the complications; disregarded very real threats to his own life; given a deaf ear to the naysayers and stepped into the murderous morass that was Northern Ireland. And his work done, he disappeared into the shadows, and we only again heard of him when he recently died.
The salient and very scanty facts of his life emerged in the recent obituaries about him and tributes paid to him. He became initially involved through his ministry to the Republican prisoners in the Maze, where he unsuccessfully tried to intervene in the hunger strikes. In an endeavour to save lives, he also intervened in internecine Republican feuding.
And then, he set for himself the apparently impossible objective of trying to get the constitutionalists and the paramilitarists, of the Nationalist persuasion, to talk to each other. It was during this period that he found himself in the full glare of public, and indeed of world recognition. The photograph of the blood-stained priest, kneeling by the body of a stripped and dying British soldier, became, and still remains, one of the most potent icons of mercy in the midst of conflict.
It would appear that he had attended the highly-emotionally-charged republican funeral, where he had received a letter from John Hume, in his capacity as a go-between, when he witnessed the killing of the two soldiers (in plain clothes). They had accidentally driven into the funeral procession. He is quoted as saying afterwards: “This should not happen in a civilised country.”
While trying to bring some elements of human pity to the dying young men, the envelope on the Hume letter became stained with blood. He replaced the envelope, then met Hume and apologised for being late for their appointment. It tells something about the innate modesty of the man that, having experienced such trauma, he felt it necessary to apologise.
Alec Reid was obviously inspired by his deep Christian faith, seeing and interpreting things in a way incomprehensible to many of us. In a TV programme, broadcast posthumously, he described Gerry Adams as “man sent by God” and ultimately the instrument of peace. Many of us still see Northern Ireland as a place apart, a place of shattered bodies, broken lives, orphans, children and “the disappeared.”
He was a Redemptorist, an order of preachers. It might seem that in the sort of delicate negotiations in which he was involved, preaching would have been the least useful of skills. It would have been alienating. So he was clearly exceptionally gifted in tailoring his personal communicating skills in bringing around his spartan monastery table those who did not want to come in from the cold.
We know nothing about what happened around that table during those very troubled years. None of the participants has ever talked about it, nor publicly written about it. All has been shrouded in secrecy and confidentiality, but because it is part of our history, it is to be hoped that somewhere there are written minutes or even reminiscences, some record of how a very sickly seed was nurtured into a very delicate, and still very fragile, flower.
The fact that it will take a generation or two before any such records are made public, does little to stem speculation. Who said what and did what? Was the journey to peace a case of one step forward and two backwards? Was it all by grace, or by gut, or by God? Or a bit of all three?
We do know that the person of Alec Reid himself was the guiding light of that journey. He was, from what we are told, completely trustworthy, and persistent. He would not take “no” for an answer. It was said that he would gently put a foot in a door which was being angrily closed against him. He refused to be insulted or hurt or dismissed.
Sometimes during those very troubled years and probably in 1987/88 the group which Alec Reid assembled was joined by yet another Tipperary-man, Martin Mansergh.
Ireland, today, plays a very important role in the control of conflict in the troubled areas of the world, where our army is involved in peace-keeping. This essentially involves keeping two warring factions apart, and anticipating areas of possible conflict. Difficult though this may be, the role of the Alec Reids of this world is even more difficult. It is the blessed task of the peacemaker, who never seeks the limelight or public acclaim, but who just does what has to be done, because it is the right thing to do.