Clonard is the Redemptorist monastery in West Belfast. It was effectively the spiritual home of West Belfast Catholics. It lies on the border line of St Peters and St Pauls and beside the Peace Line at Bombay Street.
My own connexion goes back well over 60 years. I recall a dark winter night. My baby sister was in the pram and I was standing on the axle and we were waiting outside with my mother.
Inside Clonard there was the Mens Confraternity singing the final hymn and then the doors opened and all those men came out. Lights from within. Incense from within…and the men putting on their hats and caps and lighting up their cigarettes.
Uncle Jackie wore a hat and smoked Players. My daddy wore a cap and smoked Gallahers Greens. Uncle Jackie walked with us to his house near the corner of Springfield Road and we walked down Grosvenor Road.
The Clonard Men. The Confraternity Men…many wearing their pioneer pins to signify that they were total abstainers, they were the Old Decency. They no longer exist. Gone with the Wind.
Clonard is NOT a parish. People dont get baptised there. They dont make their First Communion there. They dont get married there. They do not have funeral services there. If anything, there was a kinda resentment with the priests in St Peters (certainly) and St Pauls (probably) that their parish faithful went to Clonard for Sunday for SundayMass or even daily Mass. Not to mention Mens and Womens Confraternities. And Boys and Girls as well.
I think one of the happiest Sundays in my life was the Sunday after Easter in 1961. I was almost nine years old and I had just been confirmed in St Peters and I was now old enough to go with my daddy to the Confraternity Mens (monthly) Sunday Mass at 9am. Beautiful spring morning and getting the Sunday papers in a shop in Clonard Street and home (hungry from pre -Communion fasting) for breakfast.
I always thought that I would be a Clonard altar boy. But I went to a pre-sign up meeting and I did not like the atmosphere and became an altar boy in St Peters instead.
Clonard was different. In St Peters and St Pauls, the priests were nearly all from County Antrim and County Down. Clonard, the Redemptorist “Order” had priests from all over Ireland and they had monasteries in Dublin, Dundalk, Galway, Limerick and no doubt other places. And of course, they were missionary priests who could be posted world-wide and organised parish missions, spending two weeks every year at the request of priests in parishes all over Ireland.
And Clonard was different. Shrines to saints like St Gerard and St Maria Goretti (the teen sexually assaulted and murdered in Italy in the early part of the 20th century. And in my own class of 55 boys at primary school, nine were called “John” and seven were “Gerard” or “Gerald” and in the girls school a lot of “Geraldines” and “Gerardines”.
But my own history with Clonard is really a 1970s thing. We had moved from St Peters parish and the nearest Catholic church was a bus ride or black taxi ride away. And really I liked to travel just that bit further to Clonard.
It was of course now post-Vatican and the Redemptorists had fully embraced the modernity of it all. It had become “charismatic”, a far cry from their fire and brimstone era that many would have known in earlier times. In secular terms, they were noted for social justice and they had been fully behind the ordinary people of Clonard…the Kashmir Road, Bombay Street.
Even the Provos who came out of Clonard post 1969 were part of the Old Decency. Pioneer-pin wearing, Irish speaking, Mass-goers.
In 2020, it is hard to understand how much a young single man in the 1970s, needed Clonard. Simply we feared Death.We feared abduction, torture and (if we were lucky) a bullet in the head. We carried “the prayer to St Joseph” to protect us and we feared not being in a State of Grace when we died. So getting the bus/taxi to Clonard on a Saturday evening for Confession was entirely normal, as was going to Mass two or three times a week.
This week, Clonard is having its annual Novena to Our Lady of Perpetual Succour…a nine day event that means a lot in Catholic West Belfast. Of course this year it is all online because of Corona Virus. And as with most years there will not just be the “Reds” who will be preaching. There will be ministers from other Christian faiths because for decades Clonard has been at the forefront of the Peace Process in Norn Iron. The iconic image of one of the Clonard priests, Fr Alec Reid ministering to the two British Army corporals beaten and fatally shot during a IRA funeral springs to mind as do the secret talks between John Hume (SDLP) and Gerry Adams of Whatever-He-Represented held in the sitting rooms at Clonard.
But while the big Clonard Novena is a nine day event in June, there was the Thursday night Novena. Devotees petitioning for health, wayward sons….Peace. Even when I went to live in Dungannon, I maintained a connexion to Clonard.