Today my School awarded our James Haire Memorial Prizes for the best dissertation and best essays produced by students on our Master’s in Reconciliation Studies programme. Andrew McMahon, a priest based in Lurgan, wrote the best dissertation among the class of 2009, while Ruth Sastre Sanchez of Spain was recognised for producing the best essays over the course of the year.
There’s always stiff competition for the best dissertation, as our students routinely produce high quality, original research. McMahon’s dissertation, ‘A Force for Good’: The contribution of the South Down Ecumenical Study Group to Reconciliation, 1968-1978, provides a new perspective on how Ireland’s fledgling ecumenical movement got off the ground in the grassroots of South Down.
McMahon’s research is a detailed analysis of the history of the first ten years of the group, the oldest group of its kind still existent in Ireland. He draws on a range of primary sources such as newspaper accounts of the group’s activities, the minutes of the group, and interviews with participants in the group to provide a perspective on its development and significance.
McMahon demonstrates how the group made a valuable – if necessarily limited – contribution to reconciliation during that first decade of the Troubles. In his words,
It [contributed to reconciliation] … by giving concrete expression to the life of the ecumenical movement within South Down – creating and sustaining a vehicle whereby clergy, and to a lesser extent laity, could share in that movement and its aspirations. It brought together leaders of local parishes and congregations, across the traditional Catholic-Protestant divide, to share, study, reflect, socialise and pray. In doing this it enabled members to grow in their appreciation of what they shared in common, while helping enhance their understanding of what was different and distinctive within their own particular traditions.
This experience helped enlighten and educate clergy who were part of the on-going meetings so central to the Group’s activity throughout the decade. It is argued that this experience brought an ecumenical dimension to the ministry of these same clergy and helped them be reconciling influences within their own congregations and communities. The public acts of worship which the Group organised annually extended the ecumenical embrace to laity from the surrounding districts. These events provided the laity who took part – for the most part – their only ecumenical experiences throughout the period concerned. It helped them transcend barriers and cross boundaries which permeated life in Northern Ireland in the religious sphere.
Central to McMahon’s evaluation of the group’s contributions is its ability to nurture good relationships. He shows how the clergy involved experienced genuine friendship and fellowship across traditional divides, arguing that such relationships are vital if reconciliation is ever to occur in other areas of social and political life.
At the same time, McMahon observes that the group tended to shy away from the more sensitive political issues of the period, avoiding deeper explorations of links between religion and politics in Ireland. He says,
It seemed that, as in every human enterprise, certain taboos remained. This meant that the religious question, while deeply explored, was pursued to some extent in an isolated or de-contextualised kind of way, which limited the contribution its exploration could make to the multi-faceted challenge of reconciliation in this particular environment. A consequence of this was the perception, expressed in this work, that the Group became ‘intellectual’ in its approach to ecumenism, which was not as integrated or comprehensive as it might have been. (p. 61)
McMahon’s dissertation is a valuable contribution to the history of ecumenism in Ireland. Not only that, its lessons about the importance of relationships and the need for boldness in addressing sensitive political questions should not be lost on those involved with ecumenism today.
All dissertations by Reconciliation Studies students can be accessed in the library at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin at Belfast, 683 Antrim Road.
(Photo of Andrew McMahon & Gladys Ganiel)