It was interesting to see and hear the horror of the French people, and people throughout the world, at the news of the huge fire at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris yesterday. Only a small number of these is likely to be Catholic, so the sense of sadness and loss clearly went beyond any religious sentiment. At its root, I think, it was something approaching grief that a building which had been built so long ago, witnessed so many major events, should have been severely damaged.
I’ve checked to see how many churches were burnt down during the Troubles here but without success. Bloody events involving churches would include the 1970 defence of St Matthew’s church in the Short Strand, when the IRA recovered some prestige for its successful defence of the church in a gun-battle that went on for hours and in which three men were killed. Counterbalancing that was the attack on Protestant worshippers in a Pentecostal church in Darkley Co Armagh, where three of the worshippers were shot dead. I can think of three different Catholic churches within a short distance of each other that were burned by arsonists, some of them more than once.
GAA clubs were also a frequent target during the Troubles – St Enda’s GAC in Glengormley is said to have had thirteen arson attacks, and the 1969 burning of Bombay Street was an act of ethnic cleansing if ever there was one. And the Eleventh Night bonfires reveal a side of working-class loyalism that is beyond depressing.
The difference between the blaze at Notre Dame yesterday and the many conflagrations of the Troubles is that, as far as we know, Notre Dame was accidental. The arson attacks and killings at churches – and GACs and Orange halls – and every Eleventh night – reveal a primitive, blind hatred that should shame anyone associated with any of them.
It’s that stone-age mentality that we’ve struggled to leave behind, a struggle which Brexit certainly hasn’t helped, but which the Nancy Pelosi delegation visiting Ireland this week seeks to support.
You know your friends in your hour of need.