Archive of the Month
Outreach in the Midst of Conflict: The Revd John Redmond in 1920s Belfast
by Prof. Brian M. Walker
The Revd John Redmond was a well-known figure in the columns of the Church of Ireland Gazette in the 1920s. He was vicar of the parish of Ballymacarrett in East Belfast, 1920-29, with its church dedicated to St Patrick, and spiritual home to more members of the Church of Ireland than any other parish in the country. In 1960 he published a record of his time at St Patrick's which casts extra light on this decade. He played a key role in trying to bring peace to the streets of Belfast during riots of 1920, and he extended the work of the church among the working class of industrial Belfast.
Born in County Armagh in 1876, Redmond served as a chaplain in the war with the 36th Ulster Division. He ministered to the mortally wounded Capt. Willie Redmond M.P., brother of John Redmond, the Irish nationalist leader, in his last hours at Messines in 1917. He was not related to the Redmond brothers, who of course hailed from county Wexford, and originally his family name was in fact Redman.
After a short time as a curate at St Anne's cathedral, Belfast, he was instituted as vicar of St Patrick's in February 1920.
Members of the Church of Ireland made up almost one third of the population of Belfast in the 1920s. They included many of the poorest inhabitants in the city. An article in the Gazette, 21 April 1922, commented: "The Church of Ireland is, in Belfast, the church of the poor". Ballymacarrett parish, in the shadow of the shipyards, contained a very large number of working class members of the church, many of whom suffered social and economic deprivation.
Following the funeral of policeman Lt Col. G.B. Smyth in Banbridge after his murder in Cork sectarian riots broke out in Belfast on 21 July 1920. Redmond went onto the Newtownards Road in East Belfast to stop Protestant rioters. He protected premises of local Catholics and organised bands of unarmed volunteers to prevent rioting and looting. At St Patrick's church on Sunday 25 July he denounced the previous days of 'passion and lawlessness' warning of the dangers of retaliation which led to counter-retaliation and so the fires of evil keep spreading.
Riots broke out again in Belfast after the murder of District Inspector Oswald Swanzy in Lisburn on 21 August 1920. Redmond acted to discourage rioters and stepped in between loyalist and Sinn Féin mobs to prevent violence. His volunteers helped to curb rioting. The Gazette on 3 September observed how 'since the troubles began in Belfast Mr Redmond had been in the thick of the disturbances'. It reported his sermon in St Patrick's when he expressed his grief at all the acts of lawlessness in the area and declared 'how much it was in variance with the Spirit and religion of Christ, Who had absolutely set His face against the doctrine of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth'.
The Gazette also recorded Redmond's belief that strong drink had played an important part in the rioting. On 8 October the paper printed his views that alcohol was the cause of serious social and moral problems in his parish. Many spirit grocers' premises had been destroyed in the riots in Ballymacarrett and he opposed their reopening. He now took up a prominent public role in the temperance movement, calling for abolition of spirit grocers, Sunday closing and local option.
In 1923, however, his totoal opposition to alcohol led to an unfortunate incident, reported in the Gazette. One of his curates was the formidable Revd Major Frederick Chesnutt-Chesney who had commanded a company at the battle of Passchendaele and who had helped Redmond organise the parish volunteers in 1920. In a sermon at a morning service in St Patrick's on 11 March 1923 he stated that drink was a vice but not a sin. Redmond took great exception to this and immediately repudiated the idea.
When Redmond refused to apologise publicly for his action, Chesnutt-Chesney appealed to the Bishop, Dr Charles Grierson. When he declined to do anything, Chesnutt-Chesney took the bishop to an ecclesiastical court which met in Belfast on 1 October 1923, under Lord Justice Moore. The court backed the bishop. In its editorial comment, the Gazette expressed regret that the matter had not been resolved amicably between the tow men rather than going to court. The case caused divisions in the parish. The Revd Major Chesnutt-Chesney resigned and moved to a parish in South Hampstead, London.
On 13 May 1921 the Gazette reported that Redmond had ascertained from a private census that there were at least 15,000 nominal Church of Ireland people in the parish, but many did not attend church. To meet this challenge, Redmond engaged new clerical and lay staff, including female workers. By February 1922 he had the serbices of five assistant clergy each of whom looked after a district in the parish. Their work involved care for parishioners by visitations to their homes and creating Sunday Schools and branches of young people's organisations.
At a congregational social in March 1922 Redmond declared that, during the last 8 months, there had been an increase in the numbers at the parish Sunday Schools, from 850 children to 1760 and from 61 teachers to 115. He noted how the numbers of those at Sunday services at St Patrick's had increased considerably. However, he also reported that in school houses and other buildings they had an attendance of 1,200 people who 'on account of the condition of their clothes would not come to the parish church'.
To reach out to these members of his congregation, Redmond organised the erection of three new mission halls in the parish for different districts. Two other buildings were also used for this purpose. At the ceremony of dedication of the first mission hall in June 1922, Bishop Grierson said that he and Redmond had discussed the 'crying need' for these halls where 'men and women in the surrounding streets could come as they were, without any special clothing, and feel at home'. He commended Redmond for his efforts.
Poverty and unemployment were deep concerns for Redmond and his staff. In the depression of 1921 help from various funds was channelled by them to assist deserving cases. Conditions were worst during the coal strike and general strike of 1926. In the parish orders for groceries were given out weekly to over 300 families, while at the soup kitchens in St Patrick's School 3000 meals were distributed weekly. To provide firewood for his parishioners Redmond bought the wooden cargo ship the 'Argenta' which had been used as an internment prison. A number of his out-of-work parishioners then stripped the ship of all its wood which they used for their fires.
In late 1928 the Gazette published an article about the problems for the church in Belfast. This led to a letter from Redmond on 23 November1928 pointing to the challenges facing St Patrick's. The Gazette now printed a number of letters on this subject. On 22 February 1929 the paper carried a statement from Redmond with an appeal, plus a full page listing the parish activities. It was accompanied by a letter from Bishop Grierson in support of his appeal.
In his statement Redmond described how since 1920 strong efforts had been made to reach the thousands in the parish who did not attend church. They had established many Sunday schools and young people's organisations. He claimed that on the rolls of the Sunday schools and youth bodies there were about 3400 names (with some overlap). He appealed for financial support of £1000 to cover parish debts including some £600 for the building of one of the mission halls. He also expressed a wish that other members of the church might 'adopt' one of the mission districts.
A full page in the Gazette listed details about the parish. It recorded 'number of parishoners about 18,000'. Staff consisted of Redmond, two curates, three Church Army members and two female workers, plus 179 Sunday School teachers and 157 members of choirs. On a Sunday evening there were six services, one in St Patrick's and 5 mission halls. There were 10 young men's bible classes, 20 Sunday Schools, 23 scout, boys' brigade and guide companies, as well the Mothers' Union and the Girls' Friendly Society. Confirmation classes were held in all districts.
The appeal won an immediate response. On 19 April 1929 a letter from Redmond in the Gazette gave the names of the many contributors, clerical and lay, headed by the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Gregg, from all over Ireland, who had sent £245 to help pay off the parochial debt. Other donations followed. On 15 May 1929 a meeting presided over by the Bishop of Meath, Dr Orr, was held in Gregg Hall, Dublin, to discuss Ballymacarrett parish and its needs. The outcome was the appointment of a committee to establish the Southern Church Mission to Ballymacarrett, similar in some ways to the Trinity College Mission which operated in St Mary's in North Belfast.
The Bishop of Down and Redmond now recommended that one of the districts in St Patrick's be taken over by the Southern Church Mission. Funds were raised from southern sources by the committee to build a new church. On 8 April 1933 St Martin's Church, off Lower Newtownards Road, was consecrated by Bishop Grierson, but the appointment o the incumbant lay with the Bishop of Meath, an arrangement unique in the Church of Ireland. The first head of the mission was the Dublin born Cuthbert Peacocke, later Bishop of Derry and Raphoe.
By 1933, however, the Revd John Redmond was no longer vicar of St Patrick's. In May 1929 he took ill and was off work for several months. In a farewell letter to his parishioners in December he explained that his doctor said that he suffered from 'over fatigue of brain and body as the result of over-work and strain'. The stress, strain and anxiety of the last ten years had led to the breakdown of his health. In spite of rest, he did not recover fully and in late November he announced his surprise resignation. He was succeeded in St Patrick's by Dublin born Cyril Elliott, another former World War One chaplain, and later Bishop of Connor.
On the news of Redmond's resignation, the Belfast Newsletter, on 25 November 1929, described him as 'one of the best known ministers in the Church of Ireland' and recorded how he had done 'a vast amount of organising work in his parish of 17,000 Church people'. On 13 December the Gazette devoted a lengthy editorial to discussing Redmond's efforts and the forthcoming Ballymacarrett Southern Mission. In late December he took up a new position, being appointed curate-in-charge of a small rural parish of some 130 families at Kilbride, County Antrim, where he would continue to serve until his retirment in 1951. He died in 1967.
The current rector of Ballymacarrett, the Revd John Cunningham comments:
In subsequent years, although many parishioners moved out to the suburbs of Belfast and Bangor etc, today a faithful core remains. Two new worshipping communities, food-bank and youth teams work from the three church buildings, caring for the wider community, and carrying on the legacy of love so clearly laid down by the Revd John Redmond
The Church of Ireland Gazette has been an invaluable source of information for the story of the Revd John Redmond and Ballymacarrett during this period. The fact that it has been digitised by the RCB Library is important because this enables the reader to easily find material. For researchers and the interested public the Gazette provides a unique primary record of church and social history and may be interrogated in full of this link.
Brian M. Walker is Professor Emeritus of Irish Studies, Queen's University Belfast. He is a member of the Church of Ireland Centenaries Committee.