13 years on Fr Aidan Troy recalls the Holy Cross protests, writes Dan Buckley
It is 13 years since Fr Aidan Troy led a group of Catholic schoolgirls through hateful loyalist protests in the Ardoyne area of Belfast, but the image of hysterical children and their frightened parents running the gauntlet of jeers, bricks, and pipe bombs never leaves him.
“I can still visualise it all and still see the faces of the children in front of me,” he says.
“We were in the middle of the road and I remember thinking that these children have to be got off the road and the only way to do that was to keep going to get to the only sanctuary, the school itself.”
Fr Troy, a Passionist, had just been posted from Rome to Belfast and was made parish priest of Ardoyne. He thus became head of the board of governors at Holy Cross Primary School, a Catholic establishment in the middle of a Protestant area.
In June 2001, loyalists began picketing the school, claiming that Catholics were regularly attacking their homes. Every weekday, hundreds of protesters tried to stop children and their parents from walking to the school through their area.
For three months, he walked, hand in hand, with the Holy Cross children and parents to school, through the vicious and violent loyalist protests that made international headlines.
At first, it was just sectarian abuse, taunts, and jeers that were being hurled, but things took a turn for the worse when the school opened again after the summer holidays.
On September 3, hundreds of loyalist protesters lined the route to the school, throwing stones, bricks, fireworks, blast bombs, and urine-filled balloons at the children and their parents.
“Nothing prepared us for this,” Fr Troy recalled yesterday, telling John Murray on RTÉ radio of the terror felt by the children and their parents when a pipe bomb went off near the school.
“When the bomb went off, I could not imagine what was going to happen. Throwing rocks was bad enough but this was another level entirely. If the bomb had gone off further up the road, I don’t know what we would have done.”
Though now living in the centre of Paris, the people of Ardoyne are rarely far from his thoughts.
“I was trembling that day,” Fr Troy told Murray. “But I had to be strong for the mothers and fathers and those beautiful children. Had I died that day — which was a real possibility — I would have been mourned by my family and friends but I would not be leaving a wife and children. My fear was real but it didn’t matter.”
On trips back to Belfast, he occasionally meets some of those children. “Some of them are 21 or 22 now and I love meeting them. They will stop me in the street and say, ‘you walked me to school’. It is only recently that I realise the enormity of what I came through.”
During the height of the protests, Fr Troy received a series of death threats, something the police in the North took very seriously. “I was watching The Late Late Show one night when a friend I have in the police said he was coming to see me. That was not particularly unusual but when the knock came on the door there were five policemen there. They told me that they had received intelligence that I was to be killed that weekend.”
The police offered to escort Fr Troy to the border, out of harm’s way, but he refused, also declining the use of an apartment in Belfast owned by the Irish government.
“The police were very concerned and said I was being foolish, but I went to bed that night and slept reasonably well. When I woke up on Monday morning, still alive, I felt great.”
Although reluctant to move from Belfast six years ago, he has settled into life in Paris and considers it a blessing to minister to such a variety of ethnic groups there. “I asked to stay in Belfast and if I had been given a few more years there, I would have taken [it], but I signed up for obedience so I went and I have been richly rewarded.”
This is his sixth year in Paris. “It could not be more different to what I left. I still miss Belfast but I have learned more about the Church here than anything at university. It has been a tremendous learning experience.”
He suggests that the separation in France of secular and religious education, which allows children from a variety of religions to learn together, is something that should be explored in Ireland.
“I am not saying the French model is the answer to everything, but it struck me that education is an unexplored area and is something we should address.”
The greatest lesson he has learned, though, was through his experience in Belfast, walking with the children to school.
“It made me a much humbler person,” he says. “If I had a little stress after, that was a tiny price to pay. I cannot thank God enough for the opportunity he gave me in Belfast to see what the love of a child by a parent really is. I stand in awe of that.”
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