Anyone looking closely at the Reverend Bill Shaw, OBE, standing outside the building complex on Duncairn Avenue in Belfast, might well recognize that he’s a jock. Sturdy-legged, trim, and still fit in his sixties, he looks like a soccer midfielder. And in fact, if Shaw wore religious garb, it probably would be a Manchester United jersey. He’s a mad fan of what they call football in this part of the world—a passion shared by Protestants and Catholics alike.

Which makes it both a suitable and a useful passion for Shaw, who’s a Presbyterian minister in a Catholic neighborhood of a city synonymous with sectarian strife, and director of 174 Trust, a non-sectarian charitable organization. Established in 1983, the group sponsors a broad array of initiatives as part of its mission, proclaimed on its website, “to be a transforming presence in the community by following Christ’s example.” Via youth programs, support for those with disabilities, arts projects, and much more, the organization works to promote peace, justice, and reconciliation—all of which are sorely needed. The neighborhood where 174 Trust is located sits in the middle of what was known as Murder Mile, where more people died than anywhere else in the country. Nearly a quarter of all the murders of the Troubles happened right here.

For the past seven years I’ve been coming to Northern Ireland as coordinator of the John Carroll University Peacebuilding Program. The program explores Northern Ireland’s stunning transformation from a society that endured a bloody thirty-year civil conflict into one where peace is forged each day. After taking my course in Irish literature, our students engage in a two-week immersion in Northern Ireland and Ireland, encountering its culture, geography, and history, as well as the lives of political leaders, former paramilitaries, victims, police, community organizers, and others who survived the Troubles and now work for reconciliation. And thus Shaw, on a sunny day in late May, has agreed to show us around and update our group on new developments in the organization he joined in 1998.

“You’re very welcome to Belfast,” Shaw says. “I hope you don’t mind if we talk a bit out here. When the sun comes out, you have to enjoy it.” In late springtime, when the clouds relent and the weather hits sixty degrees, Belfast schoolboys take off their shirts and lie on the sidewalk, soaking it in. Shaw himself is a man whose life seems guided—in this cloud-capped city known for its varieties of gray and rain—by an inextinguishable light. He grew up in the Protestant Loyalist enclave known as Sandy Row, a bit south of where we are standing. “My school ended up on the wrong side of a Peace Wall,” he says, referring to the enormous corrugated steel barriers built to separate neighborhoods during the height of the fighting in the 1970s and ’80s. “But even before the Troubles, there was an invisible line on the road to my school. You didn’t go past that.”

He gestures with his hands, palms open and facing each other. “When there were holy days and they were off, they would come meet us and greet us—with stones,” he says, smiling. “And if we were off and they weren’t off, we’d do the same. During the sixties, for me that was a great attraction to the school. You hear all these stories from the bigger boys on the street: ‘you go to the big school, and you get to fight Fenians!’” Fenians, a term embraced by Irish nationalists in the nineteenth century, became to Protestants a slur name, as did “taig,” which means “farmer” in Irish. Even as recently as a few years ago, you’d occasionally see “KAT”—“Kill All Taigs”—tagged on the walls of the Shankill Road. Meanwhile, on the walls of the Falls Road, an Irish Republican enclave that runs parallel to the Shankill, you might find “KAH,” or “Kill All Huns.”

“It’s impossible to grow up in a sectarian society,” Shaw tells the students, “and not have sectarian feelings.”

During the height of the Troubles, the Presbyterian minister who preceded Shaw had to resort to writing sermons while prostrate on the floor in order to avoid getting shot.

Today this “wee city” feels open to everyone, but when Shaw was growing up, segregation—in education, work, sports, and of course, religion—was the rule. Then came the Troubles. In the late 1960s, a civil-rights movement dedicated to equal voting rights was perceived by the ruling Protestant Unionists as a threat to the social order, and police crackdowns ensued. Soon, riots flared up, and in neighborhoods where two communities rubbed up against each other, whole blocks of houses went up in flames. The British Army intervened, and the Provisional IRA rose up in response. Belfast descended into mayhem.

By the time Shaw was in college in the early 1970s, parts of Belfast had become a war zone, divided into two utterly separate worlds. “I was seventeen before I met a Catholic,” he tells us. Then, while working Saturdays at a department store, he befriended a coworker named Sean. The two teens had all the same interests—“soccer and girls”—and though they couldn’t visit each other’s neighborhoods, they’d go for a Saturday pint after work. Their relationship ignited something in Shaw, a desire to learn about the other side. “I made that discovery when I was seventeen, that this label that we’re applying to each other really doesn’t make any sense. Though I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it then.”

He pauses, caught in a memory, then points to a newly built recreational center. “At the height of the Troubles, on that site, behind a massive wall, was the main British army base—a helicopter base, just like in M*A*S*H. If there were senior diplomats coming from England, or military, they landed in there. When the British army would go on patrol, these massive gates would swing out, and out came armored vehicles with holes cut out of the top. A British soldier would stand with an automatic weapon.”

In his late twenties, Shaw had a religious awakening, and not long after committing to the Presbyterian ministry, he found himself joining 174 Trust, in what had been a Protestant neighborhood a century before but was now an entirely Catholic one. In March 1998 he went for a visit to the old Presbyterian Church, the center of the Trust, to check out where he would be working. That was a time when political leaders were wrangling over the details of a peace agreement. What Shaw saw in the neighborhood—known in Belfast as the New Lodge—opened his eyes.

“Here was I, a Sandy Row guy, standing there at the gate talking with some kids of the neighborhood—little kids, three-, four-years-old. The gates swung open and there’s this armored vehicle with a big soldier standing up. The kids stopped talking and picked up stones and threw them at the vehicle, and the soldier was laughing at them. I said guys, what’s the deal? They said, ‘You gotta stone the fuckin’ Brits!’ These were three- and four-year-olds. That was a revelation. If you were a working-class Protestant, those soldiers were your soldiers. But for these kids, this was like an alien force, these British soldiers. That was a very important lesson for me at the start of my time here.”

Mahji moi,” Shaw says, waving to a group of passing grannies holding their grandchildren’s hands, arriving for playtime at the Trust’s children’s center. “It means ‘good morning’ in Irish,” he says to us. “That’s your Irish lesson for you!”

To watch a tough guy from the Loyalist community speak Irish is to watch a bridge being built. The Irish language, displaced by English during British rule, made a resurgence in the Republic; in Northern Ireland—or “The North of Ireland,” depending on your point of view—it was adopted by Republicans as part of a cultural reclamation. IRA prisoners learned Irish in prison; Bobby Sands wrote Irish poems in his diary during his hunger strike, and his final entry, before he became too sick to continue, was in Irish. Wary Protestants view Irish-language initiatives as part of the Trojan Horse of Irish Republicanism, a general attempt to remove British presence, and a hobbyhorse of Sinn Féin in Stormont Assembly, the seat of shared governance in Northern Ireland. And so the Loyalists of the Democratic Unionist Party scoff when members of Sinn Féin begin their addresses in Irish: “Go raibh maith agat, Ceann Comhairle,” which means “Thank you, Speaker.” A DUP assembly member, Gregory Campbell, once derisively addressed the chamber, “Curry my yoghurt can coca coalyer”—and was banned from speaking for a day.

The belief in a divide between “us” and “them” lies at the heart of sectarianism. People from Shaw’s own community would ask him, when they learned that he was working in the New Lodge area, “Why are you working with them?!” And yet here he is, not only working with “them,” but speaking Irish to the local grannies. A basic challenge of the peace process is to find a way of joining divided communities in a single community, to which everyone belongs. Shaw’s work is about activating that sense of a larger belonging. It isn’t easy.

“One of my staff, her uncle was killed by British soldiers—morning, darling,” he says, breaking off to greet another passerby, then continues. “Our culture impacts us, even if we don’t acknowledge it. So does trauma, and conflict, and how we deal with the past.” How to remember the past and a conflict that affected all people—a conflict on either side of which there were both perpetrators and victims? No one has the monopoly on right and wrong, Shaw observes, or on pain and suffering either. “In our conflict, in any conflict, people suffer. As a society, we’ve got to wrestle with what happened. While we won’t agree with what happened, or why it happened, we’ve got to accept, on a very basic level, that I did wrong to you and you did wrong to me, and let’s go forward.”


Leaving sunny Duncairn Avenue, we head inside for a tour of the complex at 174 Trust. An average week sees around 1,700 people visiting for all sorts of activities. There’s an AA meeting; job skills and placement programs; a parent-toddler group; a preschool, with seven kids speaking English as a second language; after-school care; care and meetings for children and teens with developmental disabilities; a small boxing gym; a conflict-resolution group. There’s another NGO working with struggling families. “I don’t start projects,” Shaw says, as he shepherds us from room to room in the warren of connected buildings that make up 174. “I make space for them.” Some people come for a cup of coffee, or to make new friends.

This busy traffic in community is a far cry from what this place used to be. During the height of the Troubles, the Presbyterian minister who preceded Shaw had to resort to writing sermons while prostrate on the floor in order to avoid getting shot. By 1994, just as the Troubles were winding down, the church finally closed. Shaw accepted the job and was set to start in May 1998. After years of negotiating, the Belfast Agreement, more commonly known as the Good Friday Accords, was signed on April 10, 1998. The chair of the board, a Baptist minister, asked Shaw to meet the staff and conduct a prayer meeting.

The board expected that Shaw would begin evangelizing as part of his mission in the New Lodge. Then, at the prayer meeting, a small woman arrived and was introduced to him by the minister as Sister Carmel, a nun of the Poor Clares. “I had never prayed with a Catholic, let alone a religious,” Shaw recalls. “In the faith tradition that I was brought up with, it was a stretch of the imagination even to accept this woman as a Christian. So I thought I was going to bring God to this godless enclave, and a nun comes in. My first thought was, I’ll go to the prayer meeting, and then tell the board that this job is not for me. I don’t even remember what I prayed. I don’t even remember what I thought Sister Carmel was going to say. I don’t think she mentioned the Virgin.”

He rubs his forehead, as if trying to conjure the fullness of the astonishment he’d felt back then. “When she prayed, I thought, this woman is a Christian! What are you worried about? That was it. I took the job.” Not infrequently, in the weeks and months that followed, the prayer meeting would consist of just Shaw and Sister Carmel, praying together. “That quickly disabused me of the notion that I was bringing God to the neighborhood. God was already here. That was part of my education.”

I keep coming back to Northern Ireland because it is a living laboratory of conflict transformation, where the likes of Bill Shaw provide hope for a future in which the Troubles will seem a turbulent dream, a distant part of history. I come back because the dominant narrative here is that peace won—not war, not power, not division.
Rev. Bill Shaw (Courtesy of 174 Trust)

When Shaw began in 1998, the original church building had been turned into a used furniture store. Two decades and several million pounds later, it’s now a cultural center that regularly exhibits artwork, with two artists-in-residence, a café, a conference space, and live music events. There’s a kiln and a printmaking machine. One of the artists is a fashion designer, and the other hand-makes his own instruments. A whole panoply of stringed instruments hangs within reach, ready for playing.

Our program coordinator, Raymond Lennon, a native of Belfast and music director at the legendary Clonard Monastery, remarks that this is what church should really be about. “Not once a week, but every day, reaching out to people in their need,” he says. He and Shaw show us around the cultural center. The bones of the church are still visible, and Shaw says it was important that little touches from the original church, including plaques to past ministers that date from its founding, remain visible to honor that legacy. Local Catholic women from the community have researched the history of the Presbyterian congregation, producing a timeline that emblazons one wall.

We climb the stairs to the former choir loft. Shaw gestures to the rose window, with its mullions and tracery. When they moved in, he had the window put into storage, and now, twenty years later, it has been cleaned up and reinstalled. “Isn’t it just gorgeous?” he comments. He proceeds to tell a story I’ve heard him tell before, about a woman—a fortyish Catholic woman, smartly dressed—who came to one of the first shows put on in the new space. Approaching Shaw at intermission, she described having once been a “wee girl” in the neighborhood. “She told me, ‘We used to look at that window from the outside, and we used to wonder.’” The woman had moved away, but her cousin still lived in the New Lodge and had brought her by, proposing that the two meet up at the old church and then go into town. Shaw recounts what the woman told her cousin after arriving. “She told her, ‘We’re not going into town. We’re staying here tonight!’ She said she never dreamed, in all her life, that she’d be inside, looking out through that window.”

Shaw stops, an almost jubilant look on his face. “That really encapsulates everything I wanted to do: people that were outside coming in, and feeling comfortable.”

Shaw’s work in North Belfast is all about creating shared space in a society where that is still rare. When the center undertook an art project on the theme of travel, with students from Protestant and Catholic schools fashioning suitcases, he challenged the students to make a new friend from another school. “That’s what this space is about,” he says. “When we’re in this space, the labels that we carry, like the suitcases, don’t matter. The fact that I’m a Protestant and you’re a Catholic, or you’re a Muslim or an atheist. Those things do not matter. We make peace in this world when we recognize ourselves in each other. It doesn’t matter how much hatred our groups have for each other. When we meet at that level, and we recognize something of each other in each other, then we’re changed.”

A student asks if he felt comfortable in the New Lodge as a Protestant. Shaw pauses. “The day I drove up the road for the interview, I’d never driven up that road, my entire life,” he says. “Some people think that I’ve ‘gone native,’ that I’ve changed my colors. But the misunderstanding is more from people on the outside.”

Several years ago, 174 Trust suffered an arson attack. It could have destroyed the church, but a neighbor saw it and reported it to the fire services. Shaw felt traumatized by the episode; but he reminds himself, when arson or thefts have happened, that “the people responsible for it are the people we’re here for.” The challenge is daunting, but it is a challenge he embraces. “If I wanted a quiet life, I’d have opted for a Presbyterian ministry in a quiet parish,” he says. “But that’s not what I’m called to do.”


The clarity and consistency of Bill Shaw’s mission come from his faith, but he doesn’t need to proselytize in order to live the Gospel. Every day at his organization, the work of peacebuilding nourishes community, creating a space where all can gather. Meanwhile, outside this place, many people still struggle with the legacy of the Troubles. In 2011, a study showed PTSD rates in Northern Ireland were higher than just about anywhere in the world. Suicide now has claimed more people than the Troubles did. Government in Northern Ireland lurches from crisis to crisis, with two polarized parties perpetually failing to accommodate each other. Violent organizations still lurk in the shadows; dissident IRA groups dream of murdering more police, while Loyalist paramilitaries have morphed into gangsters with a hand in the drug trade. Every summer, when the Orange marches strike up to commemorate the Unionist holidays, trouble stirs and sometimes breaks out into riots. Much of it is driven by young people trying to find an identity, having missed the cruel clarity of the Troubles.

That’s where Shaw’s work began at 174. The first thing he did when he arrived was meet those lads throwing stones, figure out what was motivating them, and work to turn them in a new direction. One day, he caught some local Catholic boys trying to break into the building, and with them he began a cross-community youth football group. He soon matched them with a group of kids from the Shankill, Protestant kids who had never crossed the invisible line from their neighborhood to the New Lodge. One of them had never been to a corner store a mere two-minute walk from his house.

At first, the boys from the two neighborhoods didn’t talk with each other. Shaw mixed the teams up for football and then they’d go swimming together, then to Kentucky Fried Chicken. For weeks, the two groups would sit separately at KFC. But gradually they began sharing music and talking about football teams. Over time, friendships developed. “The year before last, there was a photograph on Facebook,” Shaw says. “It was one of the Shankill guys and one of the New Lodge guys at a formal at one of the Protestant schools. The photo didn’t say, ‘This is Dan from the New Lodge and Stevie from the Shankill.’ What they were saying to their peer group was, ‘This guy is my friend.’”       

What Shaw practices is the slow, sustained work of encounter, building relationships that over time can break down decades of discord. I keep coming back to Northern Ireland because it is a living laboratory of conflict transformation, where the likes of Bill Shaw provide hope for a future in which the Troubles will seem a turbulent dream, a distant part of history. I come back because the dominant narrative here is that peace won—not war, not power, not division. I come back to be part of the pilgrimage from all over the world, to study how people who once would have killed each other on the street because of their ethnicity or religion now live together in relative harmony.

I realize that—in part because of the predominance of the peace narrative—many victims whose lives were broken and have never recovered are still crying out for justice; for all the good of the Good Friday Accords, there has not yet been, as there was in South Africa with its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an adequate accounting of the full history of the Troubles. Still, when I hear Shaw, I have hope, and for more than Northern Ireland. What I have learned in Belfast is something we need everywhere: on the troll-heavy internet; in our own society, where divisions seem to grow with every election; in the streets of Cleveland where I live, and where too many die at the hands of law enforcement, from gangs and despair; and in my own heart. I’ve learned that peacebuilding is a daily labor involving justice and mercy, conflict and negotiation, difference and dignity. That real peace is not a static state, but a vital and resilient dynamism that can withstand everyday conflict and occasional acts of violence.

Violence will continue to haunt human relationships. But the question is: How can complex and diverse communities recover from such ruptures, rather than retreat into tribal isolation? “If we’re ever going to have a society,” Shaw says, turning to look at each of us, as if inviting us to carry this little seed, “if we’re going to have a world that’s safe, for you, for your kids, for grandkids, we’ve got to recognize that we are the same. That we are each other.”

He smiles, and he is still the spry kid chucking rocks at the local Feinians, and the teen who befriended Sean over a pint, and the young adult who wanted to serve God by being a minister, even if that meant living in a rundown Catholic neighborhood in North Belfast. “As a Christian, my primary calling in this broken world is to be a peacemaker,” he says. “That’s not just because I’m an ordained minister. That’s all of our callings.”

Philip Metres is a professor of English at John Carroll University, where he also directs the Peace, Justice and Human Rights Program and the JCU Young Writers Workshop. His most recent book of poetry is Fugitive/Refuge (Copper Canyon Press).

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Published in the October 19, 2018 issue: View Contents
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