You Probably Don’t Know What This Is?

If you are over 50 years old and a Catholic from West Belfast, you may know what this is.StJ1

Most Catholics will be familiar with prayer cards, typically sold in Catholic “holy” shops. A holy picture, a medal and a prayer, often a novena prayer on the back. Typically, Jesus, the Virgin Mary and just about every saint in Heaven…well the popular ones.

You might well have seen a “Saint Christopher” on the dashboard of a car. You might well have seen a “Guardian Angel” in a baby’s pram or cot.

In the Catholic world, there is a saint for every occasion. Saint Gerard Majella (pregnant women), Saint Jude (hopeless cases), Saint Francis of Assisi (animals) and so on.

To non-Catholics these prayer cards might be seen as blasphemous idolatry or a harmless and eccentric devotion by Catholics. To a post-Catholic generation who were born Catholic but are now much too intelligent for such childish things, they are embarrassing reminders of a religious family background.

The prayer card above is…Saint Joseph, foster father of Jesus and spouse of the Virgin Mary.

I have been looking for this prayer card for years. It is easy enough to find prayer cards that reference Saint Joseph “husband and father” or “the worker, carpenter” but I really wanted this card for personal reasons connected to The Troubles. The prayer on the back of the card explains why.


The second paragraph is the relevant one. In the mid 1970s, we lived in constant fear of sudden death. Being shot by loyalists from a passing car, walking past a IRA car bomb or being shot accidently or for the fun of it by the “Brits”. But the real fear was abduction, torture and  (eventual) death.

So a lot of us carried these cards and in my case just about the last thing that my mother said to me when I left the house was “have you got your prayer to St Joseph”?. Like it says in the text, “falling into the hands of the enemy” from the Shankill Road or the Village was not a good thing.

The history of the Troubles is not just about Bloody Sunday or Bloody Friday or Narrow Water …it is a lot of small stuff. Like the prayer to St Joseph. If I mentioned it to another person my age, they would understand. Maybe you…younger than me…this is new to you. If you’re Catholic or a former Catholic, ask your parents.

I carried a prayer card. It was crumpled up in my wallet. And the Troubles stopped.

Did it work? Well, it is easy to dismiss as lucky white heather or a rabbits foot. A good luck charm.

Obviously I am still alive.

But people who carried it were murdered. In one notorious case, a bloodstained prayer card was sent to the home of a victim with a mocking note.

It is also true that many captured or killed IRA folks carried the prayer card. In one court case, it was stated in evidence that all of an active service unit was found with the cards.

Apart from some half-hearted efforts to find the prayer card in “holy shops”, I have not really given it much thought. But a few days ago, I found this pristine card in my Auntie Sheila’s possessions. In its own way, it is an artefact of the Troubles.

I suppose she had it for me.

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