Back despite the bigots


We have, it seems, this Christmas achieved what the late Cardinal Tomas O Fiaich sought of the Irish people. We have created an Ireland fit for Rev David and June Armstrong to return to.

They are about to spend a first Christmas as residents in Ireland since their exile in 1985. And Christmas played a central role in their banishment by bigots.

As a Presbyterian minister working in the North, Rev Armstrong reached out to a fellow-Christian clergyman. For that he suffered the slings and arrows of an outraged congregation, his job became untenable, and he was forced to leave. Cardinal O Fiaich stepped in. He handed David Armstrong "a huge cheque" to cover the cost of his training for the Church of England ministry at Oxford.

It was, Dr O Fiaich said, what every Catholic in Ireland wanted and expected him to do. He did comment, however: "It wasn't often a Roman Catholic Irish cardinal supported a Church of England clergyman through college." Today, in post-Dominus Iesus Rome, it would probably be seen as "a Cardinal's sin".

David Armstrong went to Limavady, Co Derry in 1980 after a happy ministry in Carrickfergus, Co Antrim, where he had built bridges across the denominational divide before that practice was either popular or profitable. In Carrickfergus, just 10 per cent of the population was Catholic. But in Limavady, 42 per cent of the population was Catholic.

Rev Armstrong's troubles began in 1982. He had trebled the congregation and all seemed to be going well until the newly-built Catholic church in Limavady was blown up "by people disappointed it had been built in the first place".

It was rebuilt and Rev Armstrong attended the re-opening. Bishop Edward Daly of Derry came straight over to him and said: "It could cost you a lot to be here today". The bishop realised "the consequences could be quite alarming". They were. "Savage, severe," is how Rev Armstrong describes them. Soon he felt he was "the loneliest person in Co Derry".

He became the focus for attack by local Free Presbyterians. They had a church next to his and notices outside advertised themes for Sunday sermons, such as "Armstrong refuses to fight Goliath". They would interrupt their prayers inside to shout insults at him through open windows, if he passed by. Members of his own congregation told him he had "filled the bucket and now had kicked it by doing something daft".

At Christmas, 1983 the local priest, Father Kevin Mullan, "a very good colleague and extremely wonderful friend", came to Rev Armstrong's church on Christmas morning to convey Christmas greetings to the congregation. And to Rev Armstrong "as a colleague, he was at pains to emphasise that".

Rev Armstrong was so moved by the gesture he invited Father Mullan inside, to convey his greetings directly. The priest hesitated. "David, this is Co Derry. Things like that don't happen." But he was persuaded. "He wished the people God's blessing for Christmas and suggested that (through such exchanges) we could all set an example for Northern Ireland of what Christianity should be." The priest left to say Mass.

AS his congregation left the church some time later, Rev Armstrong realised the Mass would soon be over. He decided to go to the Catholic church to thank Father Mullan for his gesture that morning. Standing at the back there, he was seen by the priest who asked the people to sit down for a few minutes. He invited Rev Armstrong to address the congregation. He did so, wishing them a happy Christmas.

"The applause was such it seemed the roof would be blown off for the second time in a year. It was as if Celtic scored a goal at Parkhead," he recalls. "An old lady in her 90s came up to me afterwards and said it was the happiest Christmas of her life. She had never thought a Protestant minister would come to her church, she said."

After that, however, the abuse increased. "The Orange" stepped up a campaign. It was "hellish". The Belfast Newsletter "cut me to pieces. It had a headline `Papal Minister',". He secured "a complete vote of no-confidence from my elders [senior members of the congregation who run its affairs]".

David Jessel of the BBC did a Heart of the Matter programme about what was happening. It inspired support from all over the English-speaking world. Dr O Fiaich wrote "some beautiful words" to the Armstrongs. But in Limavady everything remained the same.

But Rev Armstrong was not for turning. In 1984 he invited Father Mullan to address his congregation again on Christmas morning. Mini-buses of Paisley supporters arrived that morning. "I never saw as many clerical collars in the church graveyard," Rev Armstrong says.

And when Father Mullan began to speak, these visiting clergy shouted from outside excerpts from the Book of Revelation and the Book of Daniel, as well as about the Pope being the Anti-Christ. Rev Armstrong pleaded with them, "we don't need this on Christmas morning".

After that, the abuse became "so alarming". Life "was such a complete misery". Rev Armstrong was refused service in shops or just left waiting. People would point fingers at him in the street, simulating guns, and pull "the trigger". He began to believe "every day was my last. Threats made it clear I was dead. There were nights when I might be in a country district and I thought I would never see home".

Then, in March 1985, his father died. This prompted some basic reflections. Rev Armstrong decided he had to leave Limavady. He had no job and nowhere to go. He had four young children.

He needed to get lost in a bigger organisation, in a bigger world. He was "utterly drained". He decided to train for the Church of England ministry.

When Rev Armstrong left Ireland, Dr O Fiaich said it was one of the saddest days of his life. He "never thought Northern Ireland could stoop so low though wanton bigotry" and appealed to the people of the island to live in such a way that they might create "an Ireland fit enough for David and June Armstrong to return".

He asked Rev Armstrong not to disclose the amount for which the "huge cheque" he gave him had been written "until he died".

Shortly before his death in 1990, Dr O Fiaich was in contact again to say he had secretly arranged something "very important" for the Armstrong family in Rome. "I think he wanted me to meet someone of extreme eminence," says Rev Armstrong. But Dr O Fiaich died 10 days later. David Armstrong was "broken-hearted". He was received "very warmly" at the cardinal's funeral in Armagh.

On the Armstrongs' arrival in England "a military gentleman" came visiting. He told June that, from army intelligence, "your husband is very, very lucky". The clergyman's survival was "a miracle", he added.

The retired Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Donald Coggan, helped restore Rev Armstrong's confidence by telling him he was not heretical. "Rather, he suggested, it was those in Northern Ireland who said I was a heretic, who were themselves heretical."

Another visitor was the former Northern Ireland prime minister, Sir Terence O'Neill. He said the same sort of people had driven him out of Northern Ireland. "The Orange had effectively put him out of a job, he said." He told Rev Armstrong that, reading the papers one day, his wife had predicted that `that clergyman will have to follow suit and leave the Emerald Isle'."

A man who was a student at Queen's in the mid-1980s helped in Rev Armstrong's return to Ireland. Now teaching history at the National University of Ireland, Cork, Dr Hiriam Morgan lives in Carrigaline, Co Cork. He is a friend of Prof Eamonn Duffy of the History Department at Cambridge, who is in turn a close friend of Rev Armstrong: Rev Armstrong was vicar at St Martin's, Cambridge, for more than 10 years, until this summer.

THERE had been a vacancy for a rector in the Church of Ireland parish of Carrigaline for some time. Dr Morgan suggested Rev Armstrong might apply. The reverend spoke to the Bishop of Cork, the Right Rev Paul Colton, inquiring whether an application from him would be eligible. He was assured it would be. He applied, was interviewed, and took up the appointment in September this year.

Since their arrival in Carrigaline, the Armstrongs have been "swept off our feet by goodwill". They are "thrilled to be back" and at the warmth of their reception.

Speaking in advance of a planned joint carol-service being organised with Archdeacon Michael O'Brien, parish priest of Carrigaline, Rev Armstrong says: "I will purr at being able to do back in Ireland what I believe ought to be done often."

He is already putting into effect in Ireland once more his conviction that first you "practise the faith, then you can work out the theory". And he looks forward to a visit from Father Kevin Mullan to Carrigaline next month. The priest is now based in Omagh. He conducted the open-air service in that town after the bombing.

Bishop Colton is happy Rev Armstrong is back. "I think in a sense Ireland owes him something. He was a forerunner of what people should be in terms of breaking down barriers," he says. He is also "a very powerful preacher, arising from the integrity of his position". And Bishop Colton has another reason to be happy about his Carrigaline appointment. "People are delighted with him. They keep coming up to me to say so. That doesn't often happen to a bishop. They usually want to gripe or complain."