January 21, 2009

A cross-border priest helping to heal a divided people

Rev. Sean Nolan, parish priest of Errigal-Truagh in north Monaghan, is another of those tireless and unsung heroes of cross-border cooperation and reconciliation we rarely hear about. Like his unionist friend Billy Tate1, he was toiling in this often stony field long before it became fashionable or fundable.

Errigal-Truagh has three defining characteristics: its geographical isolation as an awkward triangle sticking up into Northern Ireland from the South; its legacy of deep religious divisions left over from the 17th century plantation of Monaghan and Tyrone, exacerbated by nearly 30 years of violence along the border, which in this parish was nominally spanned by 9 border crossings, eight of them closed by the British Army during the conflict; and the peripherality and poverty of a remote rural area largely forgotten by a faraway Dublin government. When he arrived in the parish in 1990, Father Nolan resolved to take on the Sisyphean task of tackling all three issues.

Along with the local Truagh Development Association, he started with the educational problems, assisted by three local primary school principals and their staff. There were seven small, rundown primary schools in this part of north Monaghan with around 350 pupils, but not a single remedial teacher. There was a high level of dyslexia which was not even recognised by the Department of Education and Science as a problem then. It took this little group of activists the best part of 10 years, but eventually (with help from Monaghan Education Centre) they persuaded the Department to let them have three remedial teachers, all trained in ‘Reading Recovery’, a pioneering programme imported from New Zealand for children with literacy problems which was the first of its kind in the Republic of Ireland.

Meanwhile, again with the Truagh Development Association, he was trying to make friends across the border. After several unsuccessful approaches they managed to contact the mainly unionist Aughnacloy Development Association across the River Blackwater in Tyrone, a place where killings by both the British Army and the IRA during the ‘Troubles’ had only exacerbated the atmosphere of deep inter-communal fear and antagonism. Moving slowly and carefully because of this legacy of mistrust, he worked with them to identify a range of areas where they might learn to work together: from the care of the elderly to reactivating the old cross-community pastimes of hunting and horse-racing, from youth activities and sports days to talent shows.

For a number of years in the late 1990s and the early years of the new century the Truagh Development Association received funding from the EU’s Peace Programme. They also won an AIB Better Ireland award and a prize for tolerance from the French city of Strasbourg. In 1998 Bertie Ahern came to visit. But the money ran out and Father Nolan’s health ran out with it: in 2003 he suffered a brain haemorrhage.

After six months he was back. He became involved in extensive consultations to develop a Blackwater Valley Learning Centre, which would not only incorporate a new primary school, but would also reach out to educationally disadvantaged adults in the area. In 2005 this spanking new community education centre was opened at Knockconan, two miles from the border just off the main Monaghan-Derry road, with four areas of provision: primary education, childcare programmes, ICT training for adults and community learning and peacebuilding courses.

The group’s latest two-year EU funded programme, with the Belfast-based Workers Educational Association as partners (mainly thanks to the WEA’s then border region organiser, Eithne McNulty), was an ambitious one, spanning the whole border region from Derry to Dundalk, from Newry to Letterkenny. A highly skilled and hard-working coordinator, Fionnuala Cole, oversaw the organisation of a wide range of accredited and non-accredited training courses and workshops which brought together nearly 400 people: Catholics and Protestants, republicans and members of the Orange Order, people from both sides of the border, even some immigrants from Africa and Eastern Europe. Together they studied peacebuilding, religious and ethnic difference, the challenge of building more positive relations, and the cultural identities of their various communities. They visited one another’s parliaments, parades, cemeteries, churches, halls and homes. They sang and danced and socialised together.

When it ended last year the project’s evaluation said that it had succeeded beyond all its targets in “getting people from nationalist/republican and unionist/loyalist backgrounds to engage with each other in a deep and meaningful manner.”2

The days of significant EU funding are nearly over. However eight cross-border community groups in the Blackwater Valley are now working on a wide range of rural regeneration programmes, supported by agencies and groups like Pobal in Dublin and Saver-Naver in Markethill, the two governments, and planners and academics from the Armagh-based International Centre for Local and Regional Development.

Meanwhile Father Nolan is back across the border talking to Orangemen and Free Presbyterians. “What I want is simple,” he says, “to learn to share and to celebrate what we have in common in this beautiful Blackwater Valley.” But he also has a warning: “There is still a huge residue of mistrust here, and deep-seated communal wounds that need to be healed. We need to keep working together at these networks of friendship, while at the same time building economic and social structures that are based on inclusion and equality. If we don’t then the legacy of isolation, bitterness and poor leadership will lead to another explosion happening in some other place or in some other way.”

Andy Pollak

1 Note from the Next Door Neighbours: Cross Community Gaelic Games take to the Road July 2008
2 Peter Quinn Consultancy Services, Evaluation of Cross-Border Peace Building Programme, 2008