One Saturday evening in the early 1990s, I sat watching the BBC Northern Ireland news. There had been trouble in North Belfast, disturbances on the streets and the throwing of bricks and petrol bombs. The rioting was in daylight and the BBC news cameras, positioned behind a row of grey RUC Land Rovers, showed youth wearing balaclavas, or with handkerchiefs tied across their faces, showering the police positions with an array of missiles. The police were static, appearing uninclined to take on the mob of young men. To the right hand street was a lady walking down the pavement as if it were any ordinary Saturday afternoon. She had her raincoat on and had a shopping bag in each hand; while the mayhem continued around her, she continued quietly on her way.
I often wondered about that lady, even wondered why the reporter had not gone off to discover who she was. I would have done so; I would have wanted to know who she was, wanted to know her story. As it is, I can only speculate. Had she seen so many riots that another would not add to the sum of upset in her life? Did she regard this riot as being a mild affair compared to the bodies and limbs left by bullets and explosives? Was she just tired, wanting to be at home with a nice cup of tea at her fireside, and just focused on getting back to her wee house in her wee street in a city that had been a great wee place when she was young? Was there just a slight streak of madness in her, a slight eccentricity meaning she would be taking no notice of those wee boys from down the street who go out throwing stones?
Who knows? She has probably long since gone home to be with her wee man in that place where there is no struggle to live on the old age pension, where there is no worry about having to walk because the bus is off because the wee skitters have broken all the windies again.
The picture did teach me that madness, or eccentricity, or maverick behaviour, can make you invisible, can mean that you are left alone. Who would have noticed the woman? Perhaps the inspector in charge of the police had told his men to hold off until she was past; on the other side, the youths seemed oblivious to her presence. They would have done no harm to her; she was just a wee woman who was not the full shilling.
Through those years, there was never any sense that being a cleric brought any danger with it. There would have been plenty of occasions when visits had to be made in hostile environments; sometimes in estates or streets where the police rarely, if ever, ventured; sometimes in places where the majority were from the other side of the divide. Not once was there abuse, not once was the car touched. I used to think that the immunity came from the clerical collar; in retrospect, perhaps it was that the clerical collar put one into the camp of those who were slightly eccentric, those who were mavericks, those like the little lady who walked through the riot.
There is almost a sense that the church is an asylum (in varying senses of that word!), that belonging to it gives one protection from danger. It is a sense that persists in my subconscious. Visiting my sister in a Loyalist area of Belfast in my southern registered car, I found that I always parked outside the mission hall, partly because there was somewhere to park, partly, also, because I think anyone inclined towards hostility would assume I was some wee man up from the South to talk about how the Gospel was going in the Free State. Being seen as odd or eccentric or mad can make you invisible.