Fr. Aidan Troy was born in Bray, Co Wicklow in 1945. When he was just 18 years old he made a vow that he would give up his life for God.
Even then, he sensed there was something not right in the Catholic Church and that things were in decline. However, Pope John xxiii, along with the Second Vatican Council (1962–65) seemed to be a window that was opening and “letting the Holy Spirit in."
Around that time, he heard priests from the Passionist order speaking and was impressed by their humanity. When one of them stated, “The worse your sins are, the better the confession for us," he knew it was the order he’d sign up for. People advised him to wait, but he felt if he put his vocation on the long finger, he would never do it.
After his decision to enter the Passionists, he entered the Enniskillen novitiate while still wondering, “Are you sure you’re not making a mistake?” Like many from the South, he’d never been to the North and it was his first time crossing the border. When he saw the customs post and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) with their huge guns, he wondered “What have I got myself into?”
Everything was new to him. At night, Enniskillen was that quiet, he could hear the cows mooing, a sound that was foreign to the young man in his late teens.
In 1971, when internment (imprisonment without trial as part of Operation Demetrius) was in its early days, he took up his first post in the Passionist community in Crossgar, Co Down. He helped as needed during his three years there as chaplain to support prisoners in Long Kesh, aka the Maze prison. He made a pact with God, “If I don’t settle within six months, I’ll leave."
Man plans and God laughs. Little did the young man know how much his destiny would become intertwined with the North.
He found to his surprise that his new “parishioners” were the loveliest people he ever met and believed that most of the inmates, interned without trial at that time, were innocent.
Every Sunday, he provided two hours of “spiritual interaction" which consisted of a mixture of saying Mass, hearing confessions, etc.
Looking back, he feels the pinnacle of his long career was in the Long Kesh confession box. He would invariably find himself sitting and chatting with the prisoners as they rolled their cigarettes and he would leave the Maze with rolling papers in his pockets. Every Sunday evening, he would unfurl the papers and ring numbers hastily inscribed on them. Most phones were tapped and speed was of the essence. He delivered succinct messages - “Jimmy says he loves you” - and quickly hung up as a relieved sob came down the phone line, as he prepared to ring the next girlfriend, wife, or parent. Those phone calls Troy agreed to make were a lifeline for many.
In 1994, Troy was elected to a six-year leadership assignment in the Passionist General House in Rome by his colleagues and he accepted their judgment that he could do this work. He loved Rome and he studied at the Angleicum University for a year after completing his assignment. He had no interest in climbing the Vatican career ladder but loved rambling the streets, “seeing the church on the ground” and speaking with people in his rudimentary Italian.
However, in 2001, after seven years in Rome, he received another call from his provincial superior. This time he was to be sent as Parish Priest to the Holy Cross parish in the Ardoyne area of north Belfast.
The Troubles hadn’t ended with a stroke of a pen with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA) peace agreement and Troy read about the Holy Cross dispute and protests, which had broken out on June 19, 2001, before being sent to take up his new post.
Just three years after the GFA agreement was signed, the Holy Cross Catholic primary school for girls, and Troy himself, would be at the center of international attention. Ardoyne had become segregated between Catholics and Protestants during the Troubles and a 40-foot-high wall (known as a "peace line") was built to separate the two communities. The girls' school was at the top of a housing estate in the middle of a Protestant area through which loyalists marched every July. Feeling short-changed under the GFA, the loyalist protesters didn’t want the school girls using the road.
He was only four weeks in his new job when he first accompanied 225 girls, aged between 5 and 11, on their traumatic walk to school. He only accepted his place at the head of the cortège when a parent explained to him, “You’ll be our insurance as you’ll be the live target. You being shot could avoid children being killed and as a priest, you won’t leave a family behind."
As he hadn’t expected to accompany them, he was dressed in his long flowing Passionist robes and thus attired, he took the school girls’ hands and stepped out.
A very tall man, and obviously a Catholic priest, he stood out like an ace of spades for the urine and hot tea balloon bombs and the insults aimed at him. The Holy Cross protests “saw images of Catholic schoolgirls running a gauntlet of abuse from loyalist protesters as they walked to school beamed across the world."
For three months, accompanied by a military and police escort, he would lead the school girls to the front door of their school, despite abuse and death threats.
Troy said, “The worst thing during those three months was the death threats."
However, with the help of people like David Trimble (the inaugural First Minister of Northern Ireland from 1998 to 2002), Norman Hamilton, the former moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Northern Ireland, and Stormont, Troy managed to get both sides to parlay.
He pointed out, “The simple fact was if people didn’t agree to sit down and talk, they would end up killing each other."
On November 23, 2001, Troy got the news, “The Holy Cross protests are to be suspended.” They had managed to negotiate without anyone losing face.
“Nobody was a victor and no one was a loser. The children were alright, and the protesters were alright. There was no other way."
That night at a GAA event, he was asked up on the stage. When questioned he was delighted to announce the good news. The people went wild with joy. It wasn’t a rebel song that blared from the loudspeakers after he spoke. It was Tina Turner’s hit “You’re Simply the Best.”
Troy remembers his travels from Bray to Dublin to Long Kesh to Rome to Holy Cross and to Paris where he spent 14 years as Parish Priest of Saint Joseph’s Church.
One of his fondest memories of Paris is the approximately 40 nationalities who made up his congregation, rich and poor, foreign nannies and ambassadors all sharing the same pews.
When John Kerry turned up for his mass one Sunday, he recalls Kerry saying, “I’m delighted to be here but I don’t want any special treatment." When Troy told him parish children had requested to have their photo taken with him, Kerry replied, “If they’re daft enough to want my photo that’s fine.”
25 years after the GFA, Troy realizes peace is fragile and can never be taken for granted. Reconciliation is slow and wounds are transmitted from one generation to the next. One would think segregated schools should be a thing of the past, but unfortunately in Northern Ireland where 93% of children currently attend segregated schools, that is not the case. Troy feels “walls in minds will have to be dismantled before Ardoyne’s massive stonewalls come down."
During the Troubles, 99 people lost their lives in that square mile of North Belfast called Ardoyne, which had more sectarian killings than in any other area. Author Brian McKee maintains, “To understand Ardoyne is to understand the Troubles and its bitter aftermath.”
In 2005, a few years after the Holy Cross dispute, Troy penned “Holy Cross: A Personal Experience."
Today, based again in Belfast, Troy goes to Holy Cross every week to help. He often meets the young girls whose hands he held as loyalist snipers targeted him. Many of those girls are now mothers to children the same age as they were themselves during the Holy Cross Dispute. Hopefully, their children will never have to experience the horrors they lived.
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