I remember when even listening to a Church of Ireland service on the radio was a sin for Catholics

A warm welcome from the Church of Ireland has helped me relish religious diversity in Britain

Declan McSweeney first encountered difference in Tullamore, Co Offaly, and is learning more as he travels around Britain

Declan McSweeney first encountered difference in Tullamore, Co Offaly, and is learning more as he travels around Britain

 

Declan McSweeney returned to England over a decade ago after he was made redundant. He worked in journalism in Ireland and London when he was younger and now works in the retail sector, which has involved travel all over England and Scotland

I have recently found myself reflecting on how early experiences of friendships across the divide of Christian denominations in Tullamore, Co Offaly, prepared me for life in Britain, with its greater religious diversity.

The principal minority in my younger days in Tullamore was, of course, the Church of Ireland community, with much smaller numbers of Methodists and Presbyterians, as well as the Jehovah’s Witness community.

I am old enough to remember the days when even listening to a Church of Ireland service on the radio was considered a sin for Catholics like myself, but from around the 1970s there was a sense that things were changing, and it was no longer taboo to enter churches of another denomination.

Every Christmas I found myself going every to the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols in St Catherine’s, the local Church of Ireland church, and the warmth of welcome there is something I always remember. As a student at Coláiste Choilm, Tullamore, I recall mixed messages when it came to interaction with other denominations.

One Christian Brother pointed out the window at St Catherine’s and said, “There is the established church,” even though the Church of Ireland had ceased to be so in 1869! He also claimed the British queen was its head, which of course is false.

I feel these experiences helped to prepare me for many aspects of life in Britain, living alongside and working with many Anglicans and people of other Christian denominations, but also with Muslims and Jews, Hindus and Sikhs

Some lay teachers took a more inclusive approach. I recall, in particular, the late John Cahill, a history teacher, giving us an exercise to write out the names of 10 Protestant denominations, so that we would not just think of “Catholic and Protestant”, given that many Catholics have no idea of the difference between the Church of Ireland and the Presbyterian Church, let alone the Plymouth Brethren or the Elim Pentecostals. I also recall another teacher, Murty Davoren, asking one of my Church of Ireland classmates to tell the class about the sermon given by the rector the previous Sunday.

I was also very conscious that my parents had good friends in other denominations and so gained an awareness that the stereotypes some Catholics have are far from reality. I refer to stereotypes of the Church of Ireland, in particular, which was associated with landed gentry and had associations in the past with ill-treatment of Catholics.

I soon came to realise that such ideas conceal the wide variety of social backgrounds and political ideologies among the members of the Church of Ireland. They also reflect a historical ignorance of the fact that some Protestants were equally persecuted by Catholics in countries where they had power, such as the Huguenots in France, Palatines in Germany, Waldensians in Italy. It is good to see that Pope Francis has acknowledged this.

I recall, a short while before my father died, watching with him as RTÉ showed part of a Church of Ireland synod, at which Ivan Yates was applauded by bishops when he criticised sections of the unionist population in Northern Ireland for the treatment of Catholics, and I vividly recall how impressed my father was with this.

During more than 18 years working with the now-closed Offaly Express, I found myself interacting closely with members of the Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist communities, who were involved in a wide range of community groups.

I recall the helpfulness of successive rectors: the late Canon AT Waterstone and his successors, Canons Alistair Grimason and Gerald Field, and was particularly grateful to the latter for his support for my family.

I came to realise that I had my own mistaken stereotypes, for example, of the Jewish community

I do feel these experiences helped to prepare me for many aspects of life in Britain, living alongside and working with many Anglicans and people of other Christian denominations, but also with Muslims and Jews, Hindus and Sikhs. I came to realise that I had my own mistaken stereotypes, for example, of the Jewish community.

Witnessing Jews working in a wide range of jobs and living in social housing in areas such as Stamford Hill in London, or the Lower Broughton area of Salford, was an eye-opener for me, having been largely unaware of the existence of so much poverty within the Jewish community, including the fact that some of its members had to rely on the community’s food banks to get through Pesach. (Passover is one of the most important religious festivals in the Jewish calendar, when Jews commemorate the liberation of the Children of Israel, who were led out of Egypt by Moses.) Jews have celebrated Passover since about 1300 BC.

I also came to see the existence of ethnic variations within the various faith groups, meeting white Sikhs and black Jews, for example.

What was particularly new in Britain, though, was encountering an evangelical Christianity that was largely unknown to me in Ireland, through making friends with people involved in groups with a strong emphasis on preaching the Gospel, and also on social action.

On the other side of the Christian spectrum was the phenomenon of High Church Anglicanism, something I had never encountered in Ireland. Seeing Anglican churches where the Rosary is recited, and meeting Anglican nuns and Third Order Franciscans, brought home to me how complex Christian divisions can be.

I have been impressed by how deep the co-operation is in many parts of England between the various Christian bodies and, increasingly, with other faith groups also. We hear a great deal about religious conflict, but I can’t fail to be impressed, for example, by the extent to which British Jews are making an effort to welcome Afghan refugees and to show solidarity with the Uighurs in China, or the way Jews and Muslims have worked together to combat hatred of either group.

I like to think that those early memories of St Catherine’s and the welcome from Church of Ireland neighbours was in some way a preparation for engaging with a diverse range of communities.

If you live overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email abroad@irishtimes.com with a little information about you and what you do

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