When I said good night to Fr Gary Donegan CP, rector of Holy Cross Ardoyne in his monastery one day last week it was nearly two o’clock in the morning.
I was heading home having spent many hours in the Fermanagh-born priest’s company as he patrolled the Catholic side of a sectarian inter-face close to his monastery to help ensure that everything stayed peaceful.
“It might just take a few stones to be thrown from either side for the situation to get quickly out of hand and you have to keep a close eye on it.”
Father Gary (49) had more things to do before he could go to bed – in addition to saying any late night or pre-dawn prayers.
He would shortly get into his car and drive the 150 yards or so to the Twaddell roundabout flashpoint to check that all was quiet. When I had a look on my way home there were still about twenty loyalist protesters milling around with armed police in protective gear and perhaps 10 police land rovers in close attention.
And before he could finally turn in for the night he had to keep an appointment with someone who had phoned up around midnight – in the middle of our interview – to say they would be arriving at 3 am to hand him some illegal drugs which he would pass on to the police.
Some years ago Fr Gary made headlines when he received a rifle complete with telescopic sights and a silencer which he passed on to the police. Drugs and guns often come his way and one deduces the police appreciate he is an honourable conduit through which dangerous material can be safely taken out of circulation.
“I have been DNA tested and finger-printed and have surgical gloves on hand in case they are needed.”
The loyalists are angry that “for the first time in history” Orangemen returning from the big Belfast demonstration on July 12 were prevented from parading past Catholic homes in Ardoyne where they are not welcome.
A major contributing factor to their not being welcome is their previous behaviour and their refusal to respect residents by sitting down and talking seriously to them about their plans.
Fr Gary says the fact that his parishioners did not have to endure the return parade reduced tension on the Catholic side though he accepts this has had a contrasting result on the Protestant side confirming the zero sum mentality.
Another factor which helped reduce tension on the Twelfth itself was the handing over to him by Shankill Road community workers of a damaged statue of Our Lady which they had retrieved from an Eleventh night bonfire. “We deeply appreciated that gesture. The statue is now repaired and we’re calling it Our Lady of Grace because that was a graced moment.”
But for all of that Fr Gary Donegan and his community in Ardoyne have been living on edge for a long time not knowing what will happen next.
Every night for three months loyalists and Orange have protested the decision, and every Saturday the Orangemen try to complete what they describe as “their walk home”. Every week the commission tells them they can’t do it and police are deployed in strength to keep the peace at a cost of £50,000 a day which after nearly three months has run up a bill of around £4m.
“How many nurses, teachers, and classroom assistants could you employ with that kind of money? How many hospital waiting lists could you cut?” asks Fr Donegan.
The PSNI say the 150 officers needed each evening alone could be otherwise tackling organised crime, burglaries and domestic abuse.
The night I was there was typical says, Fr Gary. An Orange parade with bands, banners, large Union flags and several hundred loyalist supporters came up Twaddell Avenue to the Crumlin Road interface blocked off by about 12 police land rovers with perhaps double that number in the side streets. Sometimes they sing “offensive songs such as the Famine Song” in contravention of the Parades Commission determination.
I left feeling humbled, having experienced at first hand just a taste of the work he does seven long days a week in the cause of building up Christ’s kingdom in an exceptionally difficult place.
One is conscious that the ministry of Gary Donegan entails much “heavy duty” work different in scope and nature from that of many hard pressed priests and ministers elsewhere.
This is Ardoyne after all, a parish where he points out 99 souls were murdered during the Troubles, “the largest loss of life in any parish”.
The place where Catholic schoolgirls as young as four were shamefully attacked during the blockade of Holy Cross primary school in 2001, making headlines around the world.
And where within the space of a few days two young men took their own lives in his church grounds amid a suicide epdemic that saw 13 teenagers die in Ardoyne in the space of six weeks in 2004.
Walking with Fr Gary along the interface it is clear he is a much loved pastor with an easy folksy style who knows his people well.
Later he marvels at the “full spectrum of people” who stopped and chatted including “churchgoing and non-churchgoing Catholics, mainstream nationalists and republicans, dissident sympathisers and Protestant policemen from Fermanagh and Tyrone.
“I treat them all equally seeing the face of Jesus in each one.”
He has been “buoyed up by my hero Pope Francis, a gift of the Holy Spirit” whose invocation to minister to the marginalised “has made me and priests like me mainstream”.
He cites Pope Francis’ address in Rio “where he called on priests to get into the mess and you don’t get much messier situations than a place like here with all its social deprivation and Troubles legacy”.
Fr Gary “puts 80% of my effort into the 80% who do not cross the door” of his church – a stat one suspects Francis would approve of. As a Passionist he is passionate about “our first vow, to preach Christ crucified”.
He praises Benedict for his “supreme courage and humility” for making Francis possible.
On a very personal level he cannot help recalling with joy and gratitude Pope Benedict rising from his chair to give his mother, Christina Donegan a helping hand during the canonisation Mass of St Charles of Mount Argus, the Passionist saint, in 2007.
Opportunities to visit his mother and father, Michael and brother Mark, who has MS, back in Newtownbutler are limited, making his annual trip with his Dad to Croke Park for the All-Ireland Football final, and a short family holiday in Donegal all the more precious.
He recalls “the seedling of a vocation” in his mid-teens watching Fr William [Hickey] CP of the Graan, near Enniskillen, minister to his terminally ill Aunt Tess with incredible love and kindness “changing her whole demeanour”.
Another profound experience was “seeing Christ” in his close friend Fergal O’Harte, only 14, who was also terminally ill with cancer.
Fergal showed “remarkable courage and maturity” in caring for his heartbroken mother who had lost her husband, two sons and a cousin in a horrific car crash in 1979 which killed eight people, at the time believed to be the worst car accident ever in Ireland.
Fr Gary says: “I fought with God because I felt unworthy and because I could not see how He could permit such tragedy but the more I fought Him the closer I got to Him.”
After ordination in 1991 Fr Donegan spent nearly 10 years at the Graan where Father Brian D’Arcy CP is Rector recalling his fellow Fermanagh priest’s “great kindness”.
He was appointed to Holy Cross in early 2001 and succeeded Fr Aidan Troy CP as Rector in 2008.
Neither he nor his parishioners expect the protests to end before the conclusion of the Haass negotiations on parades, flags and the past and he is “an optimist but also a realist”.
He was “pleasantly surprised” to find the Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore “so well briefed and focussed” during a recent visit to Holy Cross. He feels it important Dr Haass “hears the grassroots from both sides” and if something is going to work it will “require a certain amount of compromise and horse-trading”.
A tall order on past form but Fr Gary is “hopeful” because “hope is so much a part of our faith”.