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 i am 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. Rumours of ceasefires, rumblings of secrets. Show of arms, show of strength. Lots of paras. Some hope, but not much. Most of all a lot of wait-and-see. Gunfire. Barbed wire, helicopters, guns, armoured cars, watchtowers, peace lines, rumbling of heavy vehicles at night, searches, checkpoints, and now and then a tank. And riots. A good deal of riots.

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.

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, and hurry we’re leaving soon”.

?

Sister Anna lived on Alliance Avenue,  i thought that sounded promising. It was brutal. Ardoyne was poor, catholic, decrepit, with burned out cars, rubbish everywhere, gray and miserable, burned out phone-boxes. British Telecom must have had tough times. I never quite understood it, as the paras surely needed those phone-boxes. Perhaps it was just kids practicing torching stuff. The peace line was just there; violence imminent. Ever-taller flagpoles with union jack or the irish flag – a one-upmanship in who could make their flag fly the highest.

She was gruffy, huffy, eighty years old, and more than half blind, but she dragged me to an all-female meeting, I think it was the cross-community Focolare movement. There was no funny nun outfit, only thrift-store stuff. A wedding ring though. Bride of Christ.

They sat around talking about how sectarianism is literally 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”.

The group looked at me genuinely baffled: what are you doing here? Why would you come to this godforsaken (or over-god-i-fied) shithole? Which is properly dangerous? 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 apparently deeply religious, but also exquisitely pragmatic and at times hysterically funny. Suffer no fools.

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 if there was no daylight. She knew Belfast well, and Belfast knew her – so we just walked in to what seems to me to be random houses, and people would welcome us, serve tea, biscuits, and stories. “Is there a house with a light on? Lets see if anybody is home, and get some water”. It inevitably ended with tea and stories.

I found it a little unsettling, her very english voice loud and clear through the dark night on catholic estates with few streetlights working, testing door handles so as to walk directly into someone’s front room without much warning. We walked up streets and down streets, into the Falls, into Shankill. She surely knew when we crossed from one side to the other; to me it was blindingly obvious. These crossing points always seemed to me most unsettling.

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. They threw him in jail and no one knew where he was.

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 became insignificant. But they were important there and then.

These nightly expeditions with sister Anna was exhausting and disorientating. But it was rarely me that finally found the way home through the dark streets. She knew her way.

She was so energetic, I had to take some time off during the days to explore on my own – meaning; having a pint, lounging on grassy bits, living much much slower than an 80-year old nun.

She used to drive a moped, and would speed around Belfast; the englishwoman, high anglican, protestant nun; talk to everyone. Tell the catholic boys they should go home and get some dinner instead of throwing rocks, tell the protestant boys they should go home and get some dinner instead of… and she assured them: there would be plenty of time for rock-throwing. Just take a break.

A guy in a balaclava broke into her house, and since there was nothing to steal, she sternly told him to behave, made him tea, and fixed the wound he contracted smashing through the door. They talked all night, it was pissing down, and he had nowhere to go; she attended his wedding some years later.

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 repetition, such as “ecumenical” – “oooHHHrrrrgg, I am so SICK of that word!!”

Sunday came, and the nun are of course off to service. Would i walk her down to the church? How can i refuse. Of course I can’t. And once there, it would be silly to wait outside. Loitering outside places of worship in Belfast then was not a good idea. 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 (that would be utterly ridiculous, and from my perspective, kinda trampling on those who find any meaning in these rituals. Which i don’t. I find them patently absurd at best).

Of course, I was the only one skipping communion. I guess sister Anna didn’t know, as she couldn’t see… Its 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. Ehm. Sister Anna just giggled “as if that is going to happen”. She thought it was funny, being the nun dragging the atheist along to service.

She came to Belfast in 1971, with Mother Theresa – a year before i was born. She spoke five languages, and i think she originally came from english gentry. The accent, the music, the languages. 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 at all impressed; she snorted at the mention of Mother Theresa.

She got an MBE. I think she thought that was pretty funny. For services to the people of Northern Ireland. 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 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 exsistence is based on charity, you cannot say no to gifts, but you also want the charity to be as penny-stretching as possible. No fancy coffee for nuns.

She was kinda demanding, or at least good at getting people to do what she wanted. She got a guy to come get us, and drive us around, so that we could go walking along the river – during his working hours. She would latch onto my elbow, set a brisk speed, 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. With mice. Washing was a couple of liters of water heated on the stove, 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 gave me a rosary. I guess there wasn’t much demand for high church protestant rosaries in Belfast.

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

She was an expert in raising money for cross-community Lagan College. She tracked me for years. Once a year, there would be an envelope from Lagan, kindly asking… they found me when no one else did.

I have donated to Lagan College for 21 years. Not because of sentimentality or atheist atonement. But the Lagan College people must have been the bravest people I have ever met. Ever.

And because sister Anna told good stories.

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