Last week I posted an excerpt from a new book, Rest and be Thankful: Autobiography of a Belfast Missionary – Daniel Cummings C.Ss.R, which was published this year and launched at Clonard Monastery in July.
The book chronicles the varied and fascinating childhood and religious career of Fr Cummings (1907-1977). It includes descriptions of his childhood in a troubled Belfast, his ministry at Clonard Monastery, the Philippines, and his work as army chaplain in continental Europe during World War II.
That excerpt included Cummings’ account of an ‘ecumenical’ encounter with Ian Paisley. Before I write a general review of the book, I also wanted to share one further excerpt, in which Cummings describes the ‘troubles’ of his childhood in the 1920s.
Cummings’ accounts of his childhood growing up in Belfast are some of the most compelling parts of the book. His early childhood was spent in a majority Protestant area off the Ormeau Road, before the troubles forced his family to move to the Falls Road area. In this excerpt, what stands out for me are the kindnesses of some of his Protestant friends and neighbours in the midst of fear and bigotry, the strength and ingenuity of his Mother, and – sadly – how such circumstances repeated themselves a generation later in the Troubles of the 1960s and beyond.
Fr Daniel Cummings on Childhood in a Troubled 1920s Belfast – from New Book ‘Rest and be Thankful’ (excerpt from pages 100-102)
One afternoon, Mr Sloan, our Protestant neighbour came to our house and spoke quietly to Mother. “Mrs Cummings, where are your children?” “They’re up in Botanic Gardens,” Mother replied.
“Very well. I will send my boy, Arthur, up to the Gardens to bring them down. There is going to be trouble tonight in this district. Keep the children indoors. We will try to see that nothing will happen to you.
Mother thanked him.
Young Artie Sloan came up to us in the Gardens and told us we were to come home at once. We saw by his manner there was something wrong. We returned home at once … After our evening meal the four girls (aged eight to fifteen years) were sent to the home of Miss Cosgrove, their music teacher. She, a Protestant, had kindly agreed to give the girls shelter for the night. She lived quite near us. My two older brothers were sent to Catholic friends living in the Falls Road District. I, a boy of thirteen years, was left alone with Mother in our home.
Mother now showed her courage. She did not panic. She knew exactly what she was going to do. First of all, she sent me upstairs to the front attic. There from the dormer window, I was to watch the whole length of Agincourt Avenue, from our house down to where it joined the Ormeau Road.
… For some time I kept vigil at the attic window and saw nothing to alarm us. Then I noticed more people were gathered at the end of our avenue and on the Ormeau Road. And now it happened!
A mob turned into the avenue from the Ormeau Road. I watched it surging along, like a black tide, coming nearer and nearer to our home. It came up the avenue two hundred yards to a spirit grocer’s shop owned by the Catholic family of McSorley. There the mob halted. The shop windows were soon smashed and the place looted. I ran downstairs to tell Mother. To my astonishment she listened to me quite calmly. She bade me go back to the attic window and keep watching: if the mob came past McSorley’s shop, I was to come down at once and tell her.
“If they come up the Avenue to wreck our house, what are we going to do?” I asked her.
“I have everything ready! There are your coat and cap and some things you will take with you! I am ready! The small suitcase is packed with what I need. My hat and coat are on that chair. In that tin by the couch I have plenty of paraffin – I will burn the house! If I have to leave it, they will not get it! It will all go up in flames. You and I will go out by the back and make our way up the alley.” Thank Heaven, however, the crowd did not come past McSorley’s shop – probably it contained all the drink they were seeking. So that night we were left in peace.
… Then one day, in the midst of all the tension a man came from the Falls Road area and offered us a house there, which a Protestant family was willing to exchange for ours. Mother gladly accepted the offer.
… Somewhere and somehow my eldest brother secured a lorry the next day. On it we piled our bits of furniture. When it was ready to move off, we noticed that some of the articles were in danger of slipping off. I was helped up to the top of the pyramid, and it was my business to see that nothing fell off en route to our new home. As the lorry lurched forward, I held on tightly to the leg of a table.
… The driver of our furniture lorry drove past Sandy Row, a bigoted and aggressive Protestant area. In Victoria Street a dense crowd had assembled: our lorry was forced to stop. Down a side street leading to Sandy Row, I saw some Catholic homes in flames. The mob was enjoying the blazing spectacle. Some Protestant boys spotted me perched on top of the lorry and pointed to me, shouting: “There is Cummings! There is Cummings!” I knew of course what was on their mind. Like the ogre in the fairy tale they had ‘smelt the blood’ of a Roman Catholic and wanted more. They were not interested in me any longer as Dan Cummings, the chum they knew – oh no! At that moment they saw me as another Roman Catholic who needed to be dealt with now.
Fortunately, the delay in the street was not a lengthy one, and after a couple of minutes the lorry was able to move on. Soon we began to edge our way slowly through the crowd, through a carpet of faces showing anger and impatience at our brief interruption of their fiery sport.
Looking back on my childhood, spent in that Protestant district of Belfast over sixty years ago, I recall happy days and sad days. Our games were happy: the games which we played, Protestant and Catholic children together, in the streets or in the Botanic Gardens. When for some reason or other my gang had no games to play, trouble for me was always liable to start. That would be the way, particularly if a Protestant bully or bounder from another area was in the gang. He would soon fasten on to me: my own close friends never bullied or badgered me.