The beacon of west Belfast, a shelter in both Troubles and Blitz, shines again

Clonard Church, where Fr Alec Reid hosted Hume and Adams, has been restored

Clonard Church, where Fr Alec Reid hosted Hume and Adams, has been restored

AFTER 100 years, Clonard Church, in the heart of west Belfast, has had a big makeover. The Redemptorist church – where the peace process had its roots, where women and children from the Shankill and Falls roads sought sanctuary in its crypt during the Belfast Blitz, and where every year thousands flock to the annual Clonard Novena – is now transformed, all fresh and gleaming after a badly needed refurbishment.

On the outside the granite and sandstone are clean and sharp, the stones pointed, the downpipes freshly painted. Inside, looking from the back of the church up the central aisle to the altar and all around, there is a sense of bright renewal, the roof restored, the mosaics shining.

It took six years to get the church back into shape. “We weren’t too far away from being closed. The roof was leaking, the rain was coming in, the brickwork was crumbling,” says Fr Michael Murtagh, a native of Newtowncashel in Co Longford.


Since he came to Belfast as rector in 2008, much of his time has been dedicated to seeing the restoration completed. The church was closed for the past year as the final parts of the work were carried out.

A century ago the original plan was to have a bigger church, but the local bishop, under pressure from some rather jealous Belfast priests who had concerns about the creation of a Redemptorist “cathedral” or “basilica”, decided its size must be restricted.

There were other problems too. The McNaughton Brothers of Randalstown, Co Antrim were contracted to build the church at a cost of £20,600, but they had difficulty getting supplies of granite blocks and pillars, while stone from Mountcharles in Co Donegal proved hard to cut. Costs spiralled, and in the end the construction company went bust.

Eventually the building was completed at a final cost of £32,000. For the formal opening in October 1911, there were entrance charges of five shillings and a half-crown – two shillings and six pennies (almost £20 and £10 in today’s money). This caused resentment, as it excluded many local people. There were many empty seats.

Fast forward 100 years and a wonderful restoration of the church has been completed at a cost of £3 million (€3.6 million) – almost 100 times the original cost of building the church. When the church was formally declared open at a special Mass celebrated by the Bishop of Down and Connor, Dr Noel Treanor, on Sunday, March 25th, there was no admission charge and the church was overflowing. Local people contributed hugely by supporting fundraising efforts, such as buying 25,000 new tiles for the church at a cost of £5 per tile.

Clonard has been part of the community through hard times and good times. It has seen two World Wars in which many people from the city fought and died. In 1941, during the German bombing of Belfast, women and children from the Protestant Shankill and the Catholic Falls used its crypt as a shelter.

It also witnessed the troubles of the 1920s and the longer conflict stretching from 1969. In July 1920, a Redemptorist member, Br Michael Morgan, aged 28, was shot dead by a British soldier when looking out from an upper-storey window of the monastery adjoining the church. The church is also just beside Bombay Street, in which Catholics were burned out of their homes in August 1969. Many of the church’s parishioners ended up interned, or in the IRA, or killed or badly injured in the fighting.

Clonard also played a significant part in the peace process. It was there that local priest Fr Alec Reid hosted the Hume-Adams talks which, though at first faltering, carried through successfully to the first IRA ceasefire of 1994 and to the process that led to the 1998 Belfast Agreement.

There’s a great quote from the chronicle kept by the community of priests. Under the date of January 11th, 1988, is written: “John Hume, the leader of the SDLP, and Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Féin, are having secret talks in Clonard. Fr A Reid seems to have brought them together.” The “seems” is typical of Fr Reid, because such were his clandestine ways that his colleagues under the same roof were in the dark. Journalists at the time found him equally unforthcoming.

Fr Murtagh is delighted that the 14 or so active priests at Clonard are able to hold Easter services in the church and that the famous Clonard Novena in June will be back in the building. During the novena, 10 Masses are celebrated each day over nine days, and some 12,000-15,000 people attend each day.

“It’s nice to be back,” he says. He feels the work just completed is about more than physical renewal.

“When you think of what we washed off the walls here, the 100 years of candle grease, the candles of pain, the tragedy that came here, the grinding poverty when this place was born – and of how people survived all that; when you think of that sense of a common bond of solidarity and of people struggling together; when you think of the people, their resilience and how they have come through so much, that’s what gives me hope.”

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times