They were old when I was young. Men born in the 1920s, into an Ireland partitioned on sectarian lines and intent on a divided history. It would have been the 1940s when they were students in Dublin, a poor city made poorer by the years of the Emergency. In times when it was conventional for senior figures to treat new arrivals with contempt, they would have set out on their ministry. Their remuneration would barely have covered their expenses, sometimes paid quarterly in arrears, not just shillings, but pennies would have been counted.
By the 1950s, they would have been appointed to parishes of their own. Perhaps it was the heyday of the church in Ireland. The dominance of McQuaid in Catholic Ireland brought a concomitant strength to the Church of Ireland; lines were drawn, ranks were closed, identities were clear.
The Sixties brought the beginning of change, not so much a wind, more the softest of breezes in homogenous communities mostly impervious to the revolutionary shifts witnessed across Europe and North America. This was not a place where one would see the cultural changes represented by Woodstock or the political radicalism represented by events in Paris. The emergence of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, asking for the sort of reform that might have been assumed as long established in any other democratic society, was hardly revolutionary, but reactions to it marked the beginning of a quarter of a century of violence.
In the Seventies, there were hard liners among them, but, mostly, they were from a tradition that espoused a middle way and they were aware of their identity as ‘Irish’, and they tried to hold the middle ground. In a time of demagoguery, to speak of dialogue and reconciliation brought abuse from militant elements within the protestant community. When ecumenical attitudes were added to political moderation, there were accusations of betrayal, of being traitors to the cause.
By the Eighties, they were in their sixties, their star had waned. The hard liners in the community had the upper hand, ecumenical hopes had faded, the presence in working class communities was declining, churches proclaiming theological and political militancy were in the ascendancy.
By the Nineties, they were retired. The familiar landscape of their early years had disappeared. Society had become polarised and the future would be determined by the strident voices.
Then in the 2000s, something strange happened. Perhaps it was the peace process, perhaps economic growth, perhaps the technological revolution, the strident might still have occupied political office, but their theological hold loosened. Tabernacles where demagogues once raged to packed pews now had empty seats, minorities once without a voice were now heard. There seemed a revolution of moderation.
Sat in a Belfast church, awaiting the memorial service of one who had stood in the middle ground, men of the 1920s, men whom I had thought long moved to another parish, appeared. They seemed hardly older than as I had remembered in the 1980s. There was something heartwarming in seeing each one of them; gentle men who had lived to see gentler times.