My Belfast sister

There is nothing to see here. This is just a story.

In 1997, i quit my job, sold my things, and got a one-way ticket for Scotland. 

I joined an organisation that enabled women to travel with a network of women all over the world. I found Anna in Belfast. I don’t remember what the tiny entry on her said, in that smudged little photocopy i got in the mail, but certain it did not say “Anglican nun of the Oxford-based order Sisters of the Love of God”. 

I don’t have a religious bone in my body.

I thought the innocent little “sr” was a typo.

I sendt her a letter.

1997 in Northern Ireland was a whole lot of unknowns. There might be peace talks. There was talk about talks. There was talking about talking about talking about having talks. There were bomb scares, bombs, shootings, and kneecappings. Rumblings and rumours of ceasefires. Show of arms, lots of paras. Some hope, but not much. A lot of wait-and-see. Gunfire. Razor wire, armoured cars, watchtowers, peace lines, soldiers, convoys tearing up tarmac, heavy vehicles at night, searches, checkpoints. Saracens with machine gun turrets. A good deal of riots, and helicopters. Lots and lots of helicopters. Sometimes the most important thing on the news was the things that was not said.

Off the ferry from Stranraer, i think it was a sunday afternoon i arrived in Belfast. Calling Anna from a payphone; slanting sunlight on the “up the RA” and “UVF” scratched on the phonebox. At least it didn’t rain.

Hi, its me, i send you a letter.

“I have no idea who you are”, she said. “Get the Silverstream and get off at Ardoyne, but hurry we’re leaving soon”.


Hope house, Alliance avenue, Ardoyne

Sister Anna lived in Hope House on Alliance Avenue, i thought that sounded promising. It was brutal. Ardoyne was poor, catholic, desolate, decrepit; a burned out car decorating one end. Bullet holes, rubbish everywhere, gray and miserable. That distinct northern irish sound of thin plastic bags stuck on razor wire, flapping in the high winds off the Atlantic. A burned out phone-box. British Telecom must have had tough times. I never quite understood it, as the paras surely needed those phone-boxes. Kids just using them as practice torching stuff.

The peaceline was just there (and still is), cutting through sister Anna’s backyard, blocking out light, rocks, and petrol bombs. I seem to remember her back windows covered in chipboard. Also pleased i got the bedroom facing the front, and not the back. Away from that fence; a few meters away from unpleasant coctails.

The area was festooned with ever-taller flagpoles with the union jack or the irish tricolour – one-upmanship in who could make their flag fly the highest. Some smartypants stuck a napkin-sized flag at the end of one of those multi-section, collapsible tent-poles with an elastic rope through the centre. The winner of the tallest-wobbliest-flagpole-competition 1997, Alliance Avenue – Glenbryn estate: 🇮🇪

I didn’t know it then, but that year a British soldier was wounded by an IRA grenade in Ardoyne. A British soldier wounded is not surprising; but the operative unpleasantness is the word is “grenade”, in a residential area. There had also been a gun battle in Ardoyne, between the IRA and loyalists, and when i do the math, it must have been something like a week or two before i arrived. Explains why Ardoyne seemed so extremely post-apocalyptically desolate. People stayed indoors. Only mad nuns and foreigners go out in the midday sun. During four days in july (6th to the 9th), at the Drumcree standoff in Portadown, stats say: 60 officers and 56 civillians injured. 117 people arrested. 2500 plastic bullets fired. 815 attacks on the security forces. 1506 petrol bombs thrown, and 402 hijackings. Four days, in silly little Portadown. I did a rough tally, and 1997 saw 86 situational bombs, and thousands and thousands of petrol bombs. I don’t have the energy for counting arson, punishment shootings, kneecappings, and miscellaneous gun-related fuckery. The radio played only classical music. Sister Anna had no telly.

Alliance Avenue – Glenbryn peaceline today

She was gruff, huffy, eighty years old, and more than half blind, and she dragged me to an all-female organisation, i think it was the cross-community Focolare movement. They sat in a circle, talking about how sectarianism and senseless hate is killing their children, how there is no way forward unless together. I don’t remember all that much about it, except one woman, who was quite vocal. Turns out, she had converted – I think from protestantism to catholicism. Later sister Anna said drily: “the converts are always the noisiest and holiest”. Nun eyeroll.

The group looked at me baffled: what are you doing here? Why would you come to this godforsaken (or over-god-i-fied) shithole? And place yourself in real danger? I didn’t know what to say – they talked of their suffering, and i couldn’t be the light-hearted tourist. I had heard a sad song; i had read a book. I didn’t know what to tell them.

Sister Anna was listening but fidgeting. She was deeply religious, but also exquisitely pragmatic and at times hysterically funny. She wore no weird nun habit, only standard frumpy charity-shop threads. A solid gold wedding ring though. Bride of Christ.

She had no idea who i was, but she took me around Belfast day and night. She was close to blind, so didn’t care about the time or daylight. She knew Belfast – and we just walked in to random houses, and people would welcome us and serve tea, biscuits, and stories. “Is there a house with a light on? Lets see if anybody is home, and get some water”. Sometimes the residents didn’t know what to make of this blind lady with a foreigner in tow. They would look at me quizzically over sister Annas head – this tiny old lady chatting non-stop in her posh accent – hoping for an explanation to this unannounced invasion of english gentry into their home. All i could do was shrug. Sometimes they’d know her, they’d laugh, and stretch out their arms. They’re hospitable and friendly to a fault, the people of Belfast. It didn’t matter; it always ended with tea and stories.

I found it a little unsettling, her very english accent loud and clear through the dark night on catholic estates with few streetlights working, grabbing door handles so as to walk directly into someone’s front room without warning. I tried to not sound british or irish; i mumbled in passable aussie. We walked up streets and down streets, into the Falls, into Shankill, back to Ardoyne. She surely knew when we crossed from one side to the other. These crossings always made me tense up.

We talked to a mother and her son of about 10. He had been detained by police with “unnecessary force” – he was strip searched and found to carry a “suspicious device” in his school bag. A lemon trumpet. A thing to get lemon juice out of a lemon, for his tea. They picked him off the street and threw him in jail and no one knew where he was. 10 years’ old, his family couldn’t find him, he simply did not come home from school, nobody knew anything. The police would neither confirm nor deny he was in their custody until the family dragged out a rather famous solicitor who stomped around and made a lot of noise. It took them until 2 in the morning to figure out where the kid was, it took another 12 hours to get him out.

This is how you create a fresh, enthusiastic generation of youthful energetic hate and violence.

Sister Anna

I heard loads of stories like this, and i vowed to remember them. I don’t. There were so many, and during the subsequent years in Ireland these little snippets faded. I have forgotten most. But sometimes they come back to me in little flashes. I wonder if sister Anna teased out these stories from people, not for us to hear or learn or bear witness as you might think, but to let people tell them. To let them own their stories, to talk of their personal everyday horrors; for them to examine the stories themselves. To tell it to someone that truly didn’t matter; we were not police, journalists, not an enquiry, a solicitor; nor neighbour, paras, army or – indeed – confessors who would meter out penance. Let them turn the story over like a pebble in their hand, and see it new, and how the shape changes a little. We were truly nobodies, and perhaps there is a power of hope in that. These nightly expeditions with sister Anna were disorientating. It was rarely me that found the way home through the dark streets. “is there a streetsign here? what does it say?” I’d read the name of a tiny street. “AH! let’s make a left and then a right”. She knew her way and didn’t need sight. She had mine.

She was so energetic, i had to take some time off during the day to slow down and explore on my own – meaning; having a pint, lounging on grassy bits, doing the international backpacker-thing. It didn’t work. When you live with a nun in a part of the city where taxi drivers are legitimate targets and you’re told never to go without armed escort, happy hour at backpacker central just wasn’t doing anything for me. Later, i lived in Belfast and enjoyed the pubs and vibe around the university, but Belfast was never a party town to me regardless of how many pints i downed. It was the seams; traversing between This Place and That that was unnerving. I felt safer inside Ardoyne, Falls, Shankill, or downtown; than crossing from one to the other. That sometimes invisible line down the street, that is The Divide. You must know it’s there. Your language must change with it.

Sister Anna. Courtesy of Focolare Belfast

She used to drive a moped and would speed around Belfast; englishwoman, high anglican protestant nun; talk to everyone. She got rioters to stop throwing rocks and molotovs, and the police to stop firing rubber bullets so she could get through. She had to, she told them “it was important”. What was important, was that she tested her hypothesis: they weren’t deep down that serious. This meant there was hope. A minuscule ceasefire so a nun could put-put through on her moped, the paras guiding her to avoid the broken glass; and the police holding fire. Hope. QED.

A guy in a balaclava broke into her house, and there was nothing to steal, she told him to behave, made him tea, and patched the wound he contracted smashing through the door. They talked all night, it was pissing down; she got him to undress and dried his clothes. She attended his wedding some years later. Something about his kids i have forgotten.

She gave the neighbour girls a couple of wooden crosses while i was there. Beautiful woodwork. In hindsight, years later, it dawned on me that she probably got them from prisoners. This was the sort of thing they’d make in Long Kesh.

I tried to help her with some horrid contraption that was supposed to assist her reading – it was a overhead-screen-thing that inverted text from black-on-white to white-on-black and magnified it a bazillion times. When the letters were 7 inches tall she could see them, but barely two at a time. So the problem was how to align the book so that she could slide it in a straight line along the sentence. Turned out, it was well nigh impossible. A lot of the literature she read contained longish words and tiny letters (ever seen a bible). And repetition, such as “ecumenical” – “oooHHHrrrrgg, i am so SICK of that word!!”

My anglican rosary

Sunday came, and the nun is off to service at St. George (of course. What else). Would i walk her down to the church? How can i refuse, of course i can’t. It was an hour hard walk each way. This she neglected to mention before we set out. Once there, it would be silly to wait outside. Loitering outside places of worship in Belfast back then was not advisable. So i attended the high anglican service. She assured me i was under NO obligation to do anything, say anything, sing anything, or receive communion (I didn’t even know prods did communion in a regular service. High anglicans are weird). That would be utterly ridiculous, and from my perspective, trampling on those who find any meaning in these rituals. Which i don’t. I find them at best patently absurd. Of course, i was the only one skipping communion.

It was a tiny congregation, and the minister was so delighted to see a new face, it was hard to get away – PLEASE COME BACK ANOTHER TIME he yelled after me. Sister Anna just giggled “as if that is going to happen”. She thought it was funny, dragging the fifth generation atheist along to service. She gave me a rosary. I guess there wasn’t much demand for high church protestant rosaries in Belfast.

She came to Belfast in 1971 on an invitation from mother Theresa. She spoke five languages, and i figured she originally came from english gentry. The accent, the music, the languages. Masters in theology at Oxford. She told me of horrors she saw in Europe after the war.

Mother Theresa left. According to sister Anna, mother Theresa said “I cannot help here …the people of Northern Ireland have not suffered enough”. It was pretty clear sister Anna was not impressed; she snorted at her own mention of mother Theresa. The preposterous idea that a minimum threshold of suffering must be reached in order to deserve grace, love, and mercy. The idea that a community, group or country must be exactly the right amount of crippled and traumatised, is deeply inhumane.

She got an MBE. I think she thought that was pretty funny. For services to the people of Northern Ireland. But i also think she saw the marketing value, meaning this glitter would enable her to get more funds for her charities. The Sisters of the Love of God is a contemplative order, and i believe mainly monastic. So sister Anna basically made up her own version within her order. She created her own freedom and space, within which to serve. She defined herself a roving brief.

She had absolutely zero interest in my spiritual affiliations or lack thereof. Sister Anna was not put on earth to save me. She just said “be good”. Feel good, act with integrity, and do the good you can. If you are good, you’ll be happy, and happy people do good. Something like that. Maybe god comes later. Or maybe sister Anna’s god doesn’t give a shite about wether i believe or not, as long as i’m happy and do good in the world. This makes sense to me.

She made me kedgeree, and it was to be honest pretty awful. She loved coffee and biscuits, but glared suspiciously when i said i got her some new (read: not the cheapest shit) coffee. I guess when your entire existence is based on charity, you cannot say no to gifts, but you also want the charity to be as penny-stretching as possible. No decent coffee for sister Anna.

She was kinda demanding, or at least good at getting people to do what she wanted. She got a guy to come get us – so that we could go walking along the river in Lagan meadows – during his working hours. I have a vague recollection that he was some kind of tradesman builder. Plumber or carpenter. Patrick. Gallagher? McLaughlin? A catholic. I guess when the nun calls, your customers simply have to wait. She would latch onto my elbow, set a brisk pace, and she would talk and tell stories for miles. I was exhausted.

She lived in poverty proper. No hot water, no fridge – i met the concept of “larder” in its original sense, complete with mice. Washing was a couple of liters of water heated on the stove, carried upstairs, and placed in a bucket in the bathtub. That’s it, and not every day. I left when i couldn’t manage without a shower anymore.

She was an expert in raising money for cross-community Lagan College. Once a year, there would be an envelope from Lagan, kindly asking… they found me when no one else did. Anywhere i lived, semi-permanently in Ireland, and a couple of addresses in Norway. I have no idea how they did it. I have donated to Lagan College for 21 years. Not because of sentimentality. But the Lagan College people must have been the bravest people i have met. Ever.

I went back to see her a couple of years later, when i lived in Belfast. I don’t think she knew who i was then either (or again)‚ but that was ok, as she never did in the first place. So i bought her coffee and biscuits, heard more stories.

Be good, she said, surrounded by all that blood, pain, and hatred.

i try.

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