The National Catholic Review
Ray Hearn

It was all very different a year ago. Holy Cross Roman Catholic Girls primary school in north Belfast made headlines in all the newspapers and on television and radio stations throughout the world. Day after day, crying small childrensome as young as four years of ageaccompanied by their parents, had to walk through a narrow passage guarded by British soldiers, while around them a large crowd of Protestant protestors hurled abuse, sometimes throwing bottles and other missiles. This atmosphere of violence left many children obviously very frightened, and everyone watched.

Today, as the school staff and children return after their summer holiday break, the scene is slightly different. Although the soldiers, police and the protestors have gone, the tension remains. All are aware that a rerun is always possible.

Just recently a pipe bomb left near the school was defused, and a nearby Dominican college was set afire by arsonists after what was believed to be a sectarian attack. The damage was extensive.

The children are now bussed to school every day, through a line of flags, but there are always flags in the north of Ireland, said Anne Tanney, head teacher at the school and one of the main witnesses to the daily horrors endured by both her pupils and staff.

The violence lasted nearly six months and came to an end in January this year. I do believe it really is at an end, Mrs. Tanney added, but the repercussions will be with us for a long timeand certainly the children will never ever forget it.

Born and educated in Belfast, Mrs. Tanney has been at Holy Cross school since it opened in 1969. This soft-spoken but resolute woman believes that although the world at large has now moved on to other concerns, a great deal of taut feeling continues in the surrounding area.

Although we have always had some problems, because we are a Catholic school in a mainly Protestant area, she said, we are trying to attain some kind of cross-community links, and we really do want good relations with our Protestant neighbors.

The Catholic children, whose ages range from 4 years to 11 years, have worked with children from Protestant homes, as have the teachers. They have also cooperated with the local Church of Ireland minister. They have made a conscious effort to offer the hand of friendship to the other side of this conflict.

But Mrs. Tanney freely admits it is going to take a very long time for things to be restored to anything like what they were before those violent events. We need a long peaceful period for things to settle down. At present we cannot make as much progress here as we would like. People have been hurtvery hurt. There was a time when Protestants around the school would bid us all good morning and be fairly friendly. My pupils could skip to and from school as in any other part of the world. Many felt that it was quite safe to come completely on their own.

Then it all suddenly changed.

Protestant groups sealed off the roads to the school, claiming intimidation. The police in riot gear and the soldiers armed with weapons came. Almost every day parents with small children had to walk a narrow corridor to school. On the other side they faced a barrage of hate. Often stones, bottles and fireworks were thrown, then petrol bombs. During this period three men were injured by a shotgun blastone of them was hit in the head.

But why this school, and why at that time?

There seems to be a general feeling among the Protestant community that they are somehow losing out. This perception is everywhere, Mrs. Tanney observes, adding that children should never be held responsible for what is happening in the community. She contends that if the trouble had not occurred here, then some other Catholic school would have been in the firing line.

Despite all this, somehow school life went on, and Mrs. Tanney and her staff were ready to deal with the extra burdens of extremely frightened pupils.

They decided to look at the children individually and deal with their needs. They asked if a child was having any particular problems or showing signs of stress. Discussions took place with parents, and if necessary a child was referred to their counseling service. Out of over 300 pupils at Holy Cross school, about 120 needed this kind of help.

Thirty still need to talk to counselors, and some of these cases have only recently been identified, Mrs. Tanney reported. Will they get over it? I don’t really know. It is hard to foresee the long-term consequences of this. Some pupils did leave my school.

To date, the number of pupils enrolling here since the unrest has fallen by one-third. The teachers, who tended to be forgotten at the time, also had to face the same kind of pressures.

Holy Cross is a fairly small school, with a staff of 12. Mrs. Tanney explained that there was one rule at the time: during the day, they did not listen to or watch the news, as we knew this would upset us. We had to try to focus on the children and, despite everything, attempt to keep everything as normal as possible for their sake.

One of the worst times was just after Christmas last year, when the Red Hand Defenders (a Protestant paramilitary group) threatened to kill Catholic teachers in north Belfast. A warning had been phoned to a local television station to say there would be a sniper in the area, and anyone walking the road would be considered a legitimate target.

It is easy to imagine how they felt after all that had happened. Mrs. Tanney mentioned, however, that none of her staff stayed away from school. They turned up every day to do their jobs, and all of them are still with us. We have all given a great deal of support to one another.

Despite everything, attempts are going to be made now to try to build bridges with local Protestants. That is high on Mrs. Tanney’s agenda. When asked if it could ever be as bad again, she said, I don’t think so. Everyone involved realized that they were in a no-win situation, and that this could not be allowed to happen again. I hope that people will realize that the only way forward for all of us is to live together and work together; nobody should be living in fear.

The Rev. Aidan Troy, chairman of the governors of Holy Cross school, described the attempts to work with the Protestants of Northern Ireland.

In an effort to get talks started, the school has contacted politicians, including David Trimble, the first minister of Northern Ireland. They have met with residents and people connected with the school, including the board of governors. According to Mrs. Tanney, the politicians sense urgency; otherwise the situation may deteriorate further. But I do honestly believe that we will not go back to the violence of those terrible days we had to endure.

She is quick to point out, though, the good side to those days. There was tremendous loyalty from the parents; very few took their children away from the school. A lot of the mothers had attended the school and felt very strongly about everything. I had total admiration for such sticking power, given what they had to face. Recalling the last time children walked normally down to Holy Cross school, on June 18 last year, she feared, it will probably take years before anyone will see such a sight again.

During those months when the school could be forgiven for feeling totally isolated, messages of hope arrived from around the world. One of the most important things that sustained us during those days were the prayers we received from nearly everywhere, said the head teacher. Children contacted us telling us that they were praying for us and thinking about us every day. I think that prayer really kept us going. We received thousands of letters and over 20,000 Christmas cards. We talk to the children about peace and reconciliation, and we pray for everybody.

Everyone at Holy Cross would undoubtedly agree that it would be wonderful if, among those praying for the school in the future, there are some of the local Protestant residents.

Ray Hearn is a journalist who works in London.