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Prayer of a bystander

Updated: Sep 13, 2023

It’s 39 years ago today (March 10th) since my younger brother died. 39 years since my mother’s prayer that he would at least live until the daffodils came was answered. Chubby -cheeked, cheery, adored by many… and then gone, having bravely fought an illness for months that struck him just before he turned 6.

He was nursed first in the Royal Hospital for Children in Belfast, and then at home those months before he died. It was in late 1982-early 1983, in the north of Ireland, so ‘The Troubles’ were playing away in the background. Looking back on that time, I don’t remember much about them. They were largely ignored, by me, as a 9 year old, at least.

The only time where those two ‘stories’ overlapped was years later, in 1996, when the IRA went into the same hospital, the ‘Royal’ -as it was known - at the bottom of the Falls Road. Nigel Dodd – then a DUP councilor- was visiting his seriously ill child in ICU. The IRA claimed afterwards they hadn’t come to target Dodds, but rather the policemen guarding him. I remember being appalled and sickened. Feeling real outrage on behalf of ‘the other' community. Our experience of my brother’s sickness was that everyone upped their game. Protestant neighbours crossed the invisible but firm line that divided us to come and offer awkward but heartfelt sympathy. Another Protestant, one of my Dad's colleagues, came and sat with him in that same hospital night after night after work. And the friendship cemented there lasted a lifetime. That it was into that same hospital that the IRA ran in looking for someone to kill, seemed even to me in my somewhat detached mode to be grossly wrong.

Born in the early 70’s, I had grown up knowing how to seal The Troubles out. To keep going with the daily challenges of life, without attending too much to them. There was always of course a fear that someone I knew would get hurt or killed. I learned from very early on to note in the reporting of a shooting or a bombing whether those killed or injured were Catholics or Protestants. So divided was life in the town I grew up in, I could safely say if it was a Protestant there was very little chance we knew them. In Donegal where we spent holidays, we knew and were even friendly with some Protestants, but I didn’t know any at home. If the victims were Catholics that was a different story. I might know them. It might impact directly on my world. I was lucky that it rarely did. And so my life continued, the good, and bad and the tragically sad, like when my brother was ill and died, against the backdrop of ‘The Troubles’ , that some argue would be better called a war.

Now there’s another war that comes and threatens what I know. And there’s less debate about whether it should be called a war. And it’s not just gunmen heading into hospitals, it’s rockets. It’s unfathomable. I see people react, and I feel that self-protective tuning out kick in. I know how to survive as a bystander. How to feel guiltily grateful for not being directly involved. To prepare for a long haul of some kind of quiet avoidance, or parallel existing, watching out of the corner of my eye and waiting for it to be over. For life to go back to normal. Preparing myself for a big intake of breath that may take years to let go. And I want to check that.

I want to be open, God

And that includes not just to this conflict, but to the others

I want to check my instinct to ‘other’

As I hear news

And see images

Of war

As I see how it impacts on people so deeply, so brutally

Let me resist the urge to hunker and to ignore

To tune out

Because to tune in is too tough

Allow me to steady myself for the changes that this may bring

To trust that whatever comes You will still be there

Within others and within me

Let me tune in to that too

And find ways to do my bit

To help that goodness,

Your Goodness, grow.

As part of that attempt not to just ‘tune-out’, along with others in Still Point, we hope to offer a space to reflect and attempt to connect with the God we want to believe in most at a time like this. 3 times during Lent, Sunday 20th April & Sunday 3rd April @ 8pm, followed by a Good Friday , 15 Apr @ 8pm too. More details here

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