In 2017, the cost of feeding a child at school for a whole year is still a snip at just £13.90. Mary's Meals is now providing school meals to well over a million children, in communities held in subjection to poverty and hunger. As well as fundraising efforts however, I've also written about failures of diplomacy in the developed world, inhibiting efforts to deal collaboratively with crises such as the famine now menacing East Africa and Yemen.
At 10am on Tuesday 21st May, having taken a bus back into Belfast city centre, I attended another funeral Mass in St Patrick’s Church, then went to the library for a nice coffee, and spent an hour on the souped up Teletext that is the world wide web. After this I checked back into the youth hostel, meeting a fellow from Enniskillen who referred to the Republic as the Free State for some reason. When a young Scot arrived in our dormitory, this Ulsterman took the opportunity to inform him that if his countrymen voted ‘Yes’ to independence, Northern Irish unionists would cause serious unrest in Scotland. According to him, First Minister Salmond had been flown to Belfast in late 2012 and warned about this, not only by NI First Minister Peter Robinson, but also by Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness. After doing a bit of laundry, my next assignment was to get Part I of a course of vaccinations, for DPT (Diptheria, Polio, Tetanus) and Typhoid, from which thankfully I didn’t feel much in the way of side-effects. In the evening I went out to shop for groceries, taking me past the very distinguished-looking main building of Queen’s University Belfast, where Viscount Lord Alanbrooke was chancellor from 1949 until his death in 1963. While preparing supper in the hostel kitchen, a Chinese student asked me about the cross around my neck, so I got into a conversation about Christianity, that came to the subject of ‘same-sex’ marriage. I made the point that Christians need to be absolutely crystal clear in their opposition. In Northern Ireland of course, not only Christians of all denominations but even non-Christians reject it overwhelmingly, just as they reject ‘different species’ marriage; but this follows logically from the fact that homosexuals have also not been given permission to adopt trophy children in the province. Afterwards there was more time on a computer in the hostel, though the internet connection was a bit plodding, which put me in a rather unedifying strop.
Next morning, Wednesday 22nd May, the feast of St Rita of Cascia, after keeping my appointment at the Dunluce Health Centre to get the course of inoculation jabs completed, I spent some time online, part of which was occupied with making comments below the line of articles in the British press, vis-a-vis the situation in Syria. It’s easy to get drawn into arguments on these forums, but in fact to some extent it is actually also very important to do so, because those who dissent from the mainstream media view are all too easily bullied or shouted down. This ‘shouting down’ is what happened in 2011, enabling western powers effectively to put their air forces at the service of Islamist extremists in Libya. And of course, events in the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003, when upwards of a million people took to the streets to voice their opposition to government policy, showed that majority feeling against foreign intervention is not in itself sufficient. Those protestors were ignored by fraudulent and manipulative politicians, who were able to notch up the votes that mattered in Parliament. Similarly furtive manoeuvring helped force ‘same-sex marriage’ onto the Statute Book; but at the end of August, the government did at least fail to win the argument over military action in Syria. Online discussions definitely played a part in this. If one put contributors into broad categories of ‘hawks’ and ‘doves’, the doves tended to garner better approval ratings by a factor of about 10 to 1 on average. In other words, day in and day out, those posters who sought to underscore the media’s attempts to whip popular opinion into an anti-Assad frenzy, were getting their arguments ripped to shreds by those of us, representing the majority British view, who were hacked off with stupid, bloody and costly military adventures. Journalists not only read but also frequently contribute to these discussions, and some idea at least of their general drift does not forever escape the notice of elected representatives, whose livelihoods after all are dependent on a degree of understanding of the views of ordinary people.
After the jabs I identified a potential sleeping place in a cubby-hole at the back of a derelict house, and then visited St Brigid’s RC Church near the Malone Road, where I was glad to see that Mass would be at 7pm. Besides picking up another super batch of Child 31 DVDs from the Post Office, I visited St Malachy’s Church, whose extraordinary vaulted ceiling has best been described by Sir Charles Brett;
St Malachy's Church, Belfast
“It is as though a wedding cake has been turned inside out, so creamy, lacy and frothy is the plasterwork.”
The afternoon was spent partly on a computer, engaged in more cyber debate re. Syria, and partly in a pub with coffee, writing postcards. One of these, with a picture of St Paul’s Church, Branxton (where King James IV’s body was laid after the Battle of Flodden), I sent to Windsor Castle, for the attention of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, recommending that the Westminster government exempt Scotland from the so-called ‘Bedroom Tax’. A year later this exemption was granted, though whether the postcard had anything to do with it is impossible to say.
7pm Mass at St Brigid’s was concelebrated by a visiting priest from Calabria, southern Italy, where I’d been to my school-friend’s wedding on the way home from Mexico in 2011. Once the post-service Rosary was finished, I wanted to say a word to him about my favourable impressions of his homeland, but before this, a middle-aged couple asked me about my journey, and with amazing kindness gave me £20; I gave them a copy of ‘Child 31’ in return. After my exchange of a few words with the priest they were still around, and asked if I had a place to stay. Since I only had the cubby-hole near the health centre to go back to, I cheerfully got into their car to be taken to a very smart flat, not far away, though we also stopped briefly to stock up on provisions.
It was an unforgettable evening, in which my hosts ‘Abraham’ and ‘Sarah’ granted me an insight, as it were, into Belfast’s damaged but beautiful soul. A brilliant semi-professional musician, Abraham played and sang marvellous old favourites on his Steinway piano. Not least memorable was his rendition of Lennon and McCartney’s ‘Let it Be’, though he needed a bit of help with the words, which I could only partially give him, though I knew the bit that went…
“…Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, ‘Let it be…’”
Over a great supper he recounted some of the unthinkable things that had befallen him. I won’t specify organisations or dates, but he somehow survived an assassination attempt by paramilitaries from one side of the sectarian divide (he showed me the scars), and was robbed by members of a terrorist grouping on the other, who stole into his bedroom while he was asleep, woke him up and – after going to the trouble of showing him that it was loaded – held a gun to his head and demanded money. We also talked about Art, a great passion of theirs, which sometimes took them to exhibitions in New York and London (even to see modern stuff, of the kind where typically there’s more merit in the way the price-tag is written than in the work itself, but anyway). I had an Icon of Our Lord which I’d bought at Craig Lodge to give them, and one of the miniature prayer books from St Patrick’s Cathedral in Armagh.
 Cf Mary’s fiat, ‘Let it be done unto me according to thy word’ (Luke 1:38).