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Belfast Revisited - 1972, 1973, 1974 - 2007

By The Rev. Nigel Mumford

In 1971 I joined the Royal Marine Commandos with the naïve thought that the “Troubles*” in Northern Ireland would be over by the time I finished the 7 months of basic training. After a few more weeks of urban gorilla training, and on my 18th birthday, I was on the streets of Belfast as Operation Motorman began.

All in all, I spent the total of a year in Belfast stretched over 1972 – 1974, witnessing man’s inhumanity to man, and the horrors seen as a “peace keeper” (or “walking target” as we called ourselves). The time was spent wondering what it would feel like to be shot, blown up, maimed or killed. So many “incidents” have been locked away in my memory for years; things never discussed. The “mind tape” played on. “Hey, you were a Marine - what do you expect? That was part of your job!” I told myself (and God) that I would never go back to such a place, adding a deep inner vow that of all the places in the world, that would be the lastplace I would ever want to go. In 1972 alone, 500 died in the “Troubles.” It was a nasty year!

A few days before leaving for the first tour of duty (March 10th 1972), I was waiting for a train to take me home to say goodbye to my family. I honestly thought I would die in the next four months. It was raining that day, but decided to go for a walk anyway. Arriving at the YMCA where a youth revival meeting was going on, a kid, a couple of years younger, said to me, “Do you want to meet Jesus?” I replied, “I thought they killed him 2,000 years ago!” The kid then led me in a prayer that brought me to the Lord. I do not know who he was, but, thank you, kid. You changed my life.

On the streets in the center of Belfast in all the turmoil, I wondered where Jesus was in all of this. I wasn’t discipled and came to a conclusion that if this is Jesus, and that Catholics and Protestants are fighting about Jesus, I wasn’t sure if I could buy into this God “thing." We knew that the Lord was powerful, but we had a job to do, and didn’t talk about God.

Alone on guard duty I had a lot of time to think about the Lord. Our tours of duty were spent on foot patrol, vehicle patrol, guard duty, eating and sleeping.

Three years later, then a drill instructor, I heard that four whom I trained (“my lads”) lost their lives in a bombing. After hearing the news, my mind caved in. I could not speak for a week and had a bad stutter that lasted 6 months. This was not a good thing for a drill instructor! Although I wasn’t there, I surely blamed myself for their deaths. Hospitalized 6 months without being told what was wrong with me, I suffered a heavy dose of Shell shock, as it was called then; Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as it is called now. I was a mess and totally unable to function. Any external stimuli would make my mind implode. It was as if a bomb had gone off in my head, not exploding, but imploding. I remember that time as a very “dark night” of the soul; catching a glimpse of hell. Some chaps died, some were terribly wounded, and some were quietly wounded in the soul. Today, as our troops return from Iraq we see much of this type of emotional injury.

On my journey to becoming a priest in the American Episcopal Church, and an Anglican in the Albany Diocese, I discovered that our companion diocese is The Church of Irelands’ County Down and Dromore; the diocese where the city of Belfast is part! This was, indeed, a shock. Its bishop, The Rt. Rev. Harold Miller, kindly asked me to revisit Belfast, but I resisted for three years, saying, “I will pray about that, Bishop.” I hoped to buy time whereby the invitation would eventually be forgotten. It didn’t work. I found myself recently on a plane to Belfast with Bishop Bill. Thirty years had passed since my last visit, and I wasworried that I would fall apart returning to these places. Apart from nearly losing my breakfast I think I was O.K. A local tipped his hat to me in a warm gesture, “Welcome back.”

The next thing I knew I was preaching at the synod (diocesan convention). Rev. Brother David Jardine kindly took me around and was helpful in this part of my healing journey. I ministered to so many after 9/11, but now, it was my turn. Have you recycled me, God? The next few days’ events might possibly answer that question.

While in Belfast, I was to meet my best friend who served in the British Army and retired as a Lt. Colonel. We intended to visit the places where things happened to him also. Sadly, he died of lung cancer that very day! Perhaps he was another casualty of war? God bless you, old buddy. Lt. Col William Quayle would add, “Please don’t smoke.”

After several local geographical visits and processing the memories of long past, I found myself leading a retreat in a Rosstrevor Roman Catholic monastery praying with my bishop for two ordinands. One of the ordinands lost a cousin in the “Troubles” and her body is yet to be found.

The monks gave me a large black book called “Lost Lives,” a chronological list of those who died in the “Troubles.” The last entry contained the name of an eight year old that died in May of 2006. The book also contained many familiar names from the Royal Marines; one whom I joined up with. I knew he died but didn’t know the circumstances surrounding his death. Listed only was the cause of death - a single bullet in the head. That same bullet hit another chap who completely lost his lower jaw by that impact! Also in the book was the name of my former drill instructor. He had become a helicopter pilot, but was blown up outside of a pub, and died. Sitting in my monastery cell, reading about my friends, tears fell freely. I sobbed…the healing compassion of our Lord filled my heart.

I revisited certain street intersections where the bombings, shootings and riots took place. I even visited the site where my dear friend, Tim, was shot whilst watching him and awaiting his command to cross a street. I visited areas where I was spat at, had milk bottles thrown at my face, had a bucket of human excrement poured over my head, and where I was blown up and shot at.

One small external scar is still visible above my left eye, after being blinded by my own blood during a nasty riot on a Sunday afternoon long ago in Belfast. Although that wound healed, an unseen scar remained in my heart and soul. If I couldn’t understand it, how could others ever comprehend the emotional pain from this kind of experience? Years of dreams, exaggerated startled responses, PTSD and the stigma of a nebulous disease, all contributed to great tension in my life.

My spiritual director suggested that a person raped need not revisit the site of the assault. We know the power of Christ with inner healing, but I also knew that I had to physically go back and pray over these places of dreadful trauma. I thank Bishop Harold and Bishop Bill for getting me back to those places. It can now be said that I have a new love for the Irish, and explained my new-found love recently at a U.S.A. conference before 500 people. I was hugged almost to death! Many who attended came forth to extend their apologies because their parents taught them to hate the British! With Christ all things are possible. He heals the memories of the past.

Bishop Miller has since asked me to return to lead healing missions. Upon reflection, I feel strongly led to return to Belfast to pray for healing, forgiveness and reconciliation.

As I have been praying with returning veterans from Iraq, I pray that healing takes place quickly for them and that memories will not fester as they have for me and many veterans of war. Say to them, “Welcome home” and “Thank you.” They will need to be loved back to emotional health. Go on, be kind to a vet.

* "The Troubles" started in 1969 and the last British military presence left Northern Ireland at midnight, Thursday, August 2nd, 2007 - 38 years later.


I can do all things through Jesus Christ who strengthens me, yet it was good of you to share in my problems. (Philippians 4:13-14)

The Reverend Nigel Mumford is Director of The Oratory of Christ the Healer, CTK SLC and a regular contributor to The Albany Episcopalian

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