Rite&Reason: Young Irishman reflects on recent Armagh service

‘It made me think about my own sense of being Irish and my family history’

Children from local schools sing during a service to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Armagh, on October 21st. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

Children from local schools sing during a service to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Armagh, on October 21st. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

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In early September, when my dad asked if I wanted to join him, my mum and my younger sister Eliza to attend a special church service in Armagh on October 21st, my first reaction was this: “Cool! I have never been to Armagh and this will mean a day off school to meet some well-known people, possibly President Higgins, Taoiseach Micheál Martin and maybe Queen Elizabeth! ”

It didn’t turn out that way, but Boris Johnson did speak to Eliza as he left the cathedral.

There was a lot of controversy on television and social media as the day approached for the Service of Reflection and Hope to mark the centenary of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland, which was organised by the Catholic, Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist leaders.

However, this publicity actually encouraged me to think more about my own sense of being Irish and my family history.

For example, last July we went to Clonakilty, in west Cork, for our summer holiday. This was close to Béal na bláth, where Michael Collins was killed in 1922, but also to Pullerick, Crookstown, in the parish of Kilmurry, where my great-granddad, Patrick J Long, grew up. He was a volunteer with the old IRA.

In 1920 Patrick fought in the War of Independence against crown forces in what became known as the Lissarda Ambush. I visited the site which is now marked by a high stone cross. Patrick was awarded the Service Medal by the State which includes the Irish inscription “Comrac”, referring to active combat.

Patrick was fighting for a free and united Ireland.

Diverse background

Sadly, Patrick died in 1940 when he was 40, leaving behind three young children and his wife Joan who was expecting their fourth child. At that time my granddad Michael was only six. In the 1950s, after his Leaving Cert, Ireland’s poor economy forced him to emigrate to England to find work.

In Camden town he met my grandmother, Margaret from Youghal in east Cork. They married in 1959 and spent some time in Kenya where my aunt Helen was born and, on their return to London my dad was born. When he was two, in 1972, they came home to Ireland. Today I also have cousins growing up in England. So, like many Irish people, my family has a diverse background.

The speakers at the Armagh service were also a diverse group. Catholic Primate Archbishop Eamon Martin spoke about the pain of growing up in Derry divided from Donegal. Church of Ireland Primate Archbishop John McDowell spoke about his childhood in Belfast where he said there was friendship but little trust.

Students from different backgrounds expressed their hopes for the future. This made me think about what I would like to see happen in my lifetime.

Future fears

I can’t think about the future without being worried about issues like pandemics, climate change, wars and famine in different parts of the globe. I have read Greta Thunberg’s book No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference and I feel strongly that the world needs to reduce its production of greenhouse gases which are raising the temperature of the Earth.

We need to plan for a more sustainable way of living. For example, the greater use of renewable energy sources and cutting down fewer trees. We should be planting more trees!

But I am also excited about some aspects of the future, like how there might be more technology which could help the work of scientists in developing new medicines. Who knows, there may even be solar-powered flying cars!

I also hope that, in my life, there will no longer be conflict in this country or, in fact, in any country. I wish that people would treat each other the right way, with respect, without judging them, regardless of what religion they follow or if they appear different in any way.

There was a lot of media at the Armagh service. After the ceremony there was a good feeling as we stood outside the cathedral to chat in the autumn sunshine. One day, hopefully soon, there will be an end to the chaos which has marked our past so that we can finally be united in peace.

I hope that it won’t take another 100 years for students, church leaders and politicians to gather together to reflect and pray for Ireland’s shared future.

Tom Long (15) is a third-year student of St Peter’s College, Dunboyne, Co Meath

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