I could pick out several teachers at my grammar school, St Patrick’s Academy in Dungannon, who enlivened their subjects with wit and intelligence and who inspired me to pursue a career in writing, but the teacher who looms largest in my memory is the formidable black-frocked figure of Monsignor Denis Faul. As well as a religious education teacher and the school headmaster, Monsignor Faul was the co-author of a celebrated but elusive book, one that haunted me ever since I first managed to read it surreptitiously in his private study, one winter morning in my final year at St Patrick’s.
I had heard many stories about the book, its sinister drawings and first-hand accounts of a pivotal event in the Troubles, but it seemed to have been swept away from the school library, as well as all the public libraries and bookstores in the towns of County Tyrone. At that time, Northern Ireland was in the middle of the bitter thirty-year long political and sectarian conflict, known euphemistically as the Troubles, between Irish nationalists and British loyalists over the constitutional status of the region. Such an important book about a dark secret of the conflict should have been talked about and kept in circulation, I reasoned, but Monsignor Faul appeared eager to keep it concealed, maintaining an absolute silence about the book’s existence. But why pen a book about a secret injustice and then allow it to become part of the secret itself? The prospect of reading it tantalised me. However, for a long time, I had to settle for the more prosaic company of its author, an old-fashioned priest with a glowering frown and a cane hidden up his sleeve.
During my first few years at the school, Monsignor Faul was an unavoidable and authoritarian figure, a principal more interested in punishing violations of the school’s strict uniform code than relating directly to teenage boys. Every morning, at the entrance to the school, his tall straight-backed figure greeted the droves of pupils as though he were observing the line at the doors of a prison. One by one, we had to submit ourselves to his meticulous scrutiny, as he checked our uniforms, our shoes and socks, even the length of our hair, knowing that any deviation from the strictly imposed norm would be punished by the swish of his cane.
At first, it was hard to feel inspired by his presence and behaviour. However, I grew to learn that he was much more than the sadistic stereotype his cane-wielding figure suggested. He was passionate about education and sport. He encouraged his pupils to think and form their own opinions. In fact, his scholarly love of languages and his enthusiasm for Gaelic football should have filled his life to the brim, but he had another existence entirely, far removed from the narrow grey corridors of the school, one that drew him into the political spotlight of the Troubles, and placed his life in great danger.
In his evenings and at weekends, Monsignor Faul swapped the hair-shirt of educating six hundred country boys for the no less punitive duty of attending to prisoners and the victims of police and British Army brutality, campaigning for their rights through the media and courts, and asking awkward questions of the establishment. One of the first, along with Father Raymond Murray, to campaign for the release of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four on the grounds that they were innocent, he was unfairly described as the ‘Provo priest’ by sections of the British press. However, he was resolute in his stand against any form of violence, and became the sworn enemy of many in the IRA and Sinn Fein. I grew used to seeing his hearty red face and perplexed frown filling the TV screen during the evening news, muttering about injustice and the dangerous lessons taught by state violence. In all, he made over one thousand serious complaints to the police and army, and helped cases that would have the British government prosecuted in the European Court of Human Rights. He seemed to have a magnet inside him that attracted all his country’s broken, fragmentary tales of injustice, allowing him to operate without fear, and repeatedly ignore the might of the British military and Irish paramilitaries, even the authority of his conservative bishops and church leaders.
In 1983, when I started at St Patrick’s Academy, he was at the height of his influence, but also finished politically, as far as republicans were concerned. Two years previously, he had faced down the entire movement after he told the prisoners’ families that to take their sons off the IRA hunger-strike was not only possible, but the moral thing to do. Afterwards he devoted himself primarily to the victims of paramilitaries, helping terrified poor people deal with the threats of loyalists and republicans, and the hitherto ignored families of the disappeared. Throughout his life, he refused to submit to acquiescence or ignore evil. Time after time, he broke the silence with courage, and said what had to be said. I grew to admire his intimidating manner in political debates on TV and the radio, and the intellectual roughness with which he treated his enemies. ‘Don’t have high-faluting arguments with these people’, he once told a victim of paramilitary violence. ‘Just say what they’re doing is wrong.’ On another occasion, he revealed how his clerical collar had inspired his courage. ‘It would be very stupid to kill a clergyman, and I think that my celibacy, the fact that I don’t have a wife or children to be bullied, intimidated or threatened, puts me in a privileged position.’
These were the reasons I dedicated Silence, my novel about the Troubles and their aftermath, to my memory of this brusque, inflexible teacher, the contrary priest who used his clerical collar like a shield and treated the constant police and army checkpoints as an impertinence, the civil rights campaigner who had the courage to face up to what was before him, the headmaster whose name hung over my early teenage years like an unspoken threat. I chose to be inspired by his presence, rather than mock or fear him as many of my fellow pupils did. I remember acutely his soft but scolding voice lecturing us every morning in the assembly hall without ever seeming to speak to us personally. Looking back, I don’t think he was that interested in any of us as individuals. Instead, he spoke to us as though he were speaking to something he could see inside us—the future of Northern Ireland. He spoke to us in the hope that we might shed the fear and loathing we had grown up with, like an old skin, that we might leave behind the bitterness and prejudices we had picked up along the way. We were the children of the Troubles, a frayed generation, our minds brooding on bullets, guns and bombs. Some of us had lost relatives and friends to paramilitary and security force shootings. The violence terrified us, but it also entertained and diverted us. Many of us were hooked on it.
So Monsignor Faul waited for us every morning, rain or shine, swinging his cane, harrying latecomers. His tall, priestly presence and his glowering scrutiny of our uniforms carried more than a hint of menace, but perhaps it was also an expression of love. Deep down, he wanted to repair the invisible tears inside us, to stitch us back together as if our hearts and minds could be mended like uniforms, so that one day we might step into the world as god-fearing, law-abiding young men, capable of rejecting violence. With our naïve, impressionable minds, we needed practical help and attention right away. We had to be drilled and drummed into rejecting the easy solutions of picking up a gun or throwing a petrol bomb, and to value instead the power of education and the written word. He had roamed through the mean corridors of prisons and police stations, and he knew what lay in store for us if we picked the wrong path. So much of the secret history and suffering of the Troubles was locked inside his head; I’m surprised he had room for anything else.
The enigma of his published book was revealed to me in my final year at St Patrick’s. By this time, his figure had diminished slightly, and he had grown less stern and more relaxed in our company. One morning he came into the sixth form room and asked my friends and I would we help him move a pile of books and files from his study to his new residence. We agreed instantly, excited by the prospect of perusing his belongings and gaining knowledge of his habits and tastes. At the very least, it promised a welcome distraction from our A-level revision.
Later that morning, I remember stepping into a large study in a tumbledown house, filled with dark furniture and a desk crowded with newspapers, books and towers of files. The contents of the desk had overflowed onto the floor and into cramped corners, with books scattered everywhere, some lying open and others with makeshift bookmarks. A worn icon of the Virgin Mary hung on an empty wall.
So this was his inner sanctum, I remember thinking; this was where he locked himself away with the secret history of the Troubles. The place smelled of dust and ageing newspaper. It felt like a sad memorial to a life’s work, but its untidiness and chaos also seemed like a metaphor for the Troubles, a political conflict that by that time had grown into a turbulent, disorderly mess, a labyrinth of political and moral uncertainties. The desk groaned under the layers of secret conspiracies, the stories documenting the intrigues and apparatus of state wrong-doings, the bloody blackness of tit-for-tat murders and the failure of politics and civil society to stop the violence—a twisting plot that he was also a part of in his lonely and quixotic way.
Under his instruction, we began clearing the desk. It had a sort of chronological order to its mess, newspapers and files arranged as they had arrived, one after the other, with the most recent material at the top. At one point, a book slid out from under my arm on its journey to a packing box. It was the same shape and size as the school magazine, but its cover was unfamiliar. The title jumped out at me—The Hooded Men—and my stomach gave a lurch. Here was the book that had been kept hidden from me.
Co-written by Father Raymond Murray, the book recounts the true story of twelve Catholic men, who were taken in the early 1970s by the British Army to a secret location and subjected to an interrogation from which they never fully recovered. Although the men were never charged with any offences, they were hooded and thrown to the ground from helicopters, and then subjected to what the Army referred to as ‘the five techniques’. They were beaten, deprived of sleep, food and water, subjected to white noise, and forced to stand in a stress position for long periods. If it had not been for the courage of Monsignor Faul and Father Murray, the men’s stories would never have been lost to history.
Monsignor Faul had slipped out of his study and the coast was clear. I began reading the book in a way unlike any book I had read before, leafing backwards and forwards, trying to figure out as quickly as possible the true dimensions of the men’s suffering. Had they been killed? No, they must have survived, for these were first-hand accounts recorded in meticulous detail. The pages passed in a nightmarish blur. I was fascinated and repelled by the drawings that depicted their ordeal. I began to understand why the book had not been widely disseminated. The priests had written it to set the record straight for future generations, not mine.
The gloomy memory of those drawings haunted me for years—the sketches of broken men on their knees like goaded animals, their hands outstretched, their mouths convulsed as though they were sleepwalking in spasms of agony through hell. I felt a spurt of anger, reading the accounts of cruelty, but at some point Monsignor Faul’s footsteps interrupted my reading, and I surreptitiously dropped the book into one of the boxes. I remember his eyes falling on the half-empty desk and a look of unease flashing across his face. Immediately, he began hunting through the boxes, eventually retrieving some travel books about Spain. At the time, he was learning Spanish, and he began talking to us with pleasure about the sun-splashed plazas of Catalonia and his love for the Spanish language and its people. He encouraged us to travel and see the world, and to mix with other cultures. Irish society was too stale and inward looking, he explained. It needed new blood and fresh insights. With a benevolent smile, he left us to clear the study. The dossiers of suffering, the rigorous historical accounts of injustice and betrayal, we crammed into boxes and folded them shut. The towers of paper dwindled, leaving behind an empty desk ring-marked by countless cups of tea. Monsignor Faul’s study no longer resembled a labyrinth for the unpalatable truth.
When we had finished, my friends and I walked out into the winter sunshine. It was 1989 and we were heavily into the Smiths, the Cure and the Stone Roses. A new decade was about to begin. The Berlin Wall had just come down, and Nelson Mandela would soon be freed. Whatever Northern Ireland had been during our childhoods, it was slowly disappearing. The paramilitaries terrorising families with Semtex and Armalites, and the garrison towns like Dungannon with their fortified police stations and army bases. It was all ending. Those violent men who murdered and bombed, and the shadowy figures who orchestrated cover-ups and betrayals, their day was almost over.
I didn’t return to The Hooded Men until more than twenty years later, when I was researching Silence. Prudently, I had avoided venturing into that labyrinth. I had an education and a career to forge, and I needed to be shielded from the painful truth. I assume this was why Monsignor Faul ensured that none of his pupils might read a copy of his incendiary book. Perhaps he reasoned that enough secrets had been revealed to us already. The early 1990s was a delicate time in Northern Ireland’s history. Republican and loyalist paramilitaries and the British government were trying to construct the edifice of democracy on the bombsite of their violent past. How much truth-telling could that democracy bear?
The history of the Troubles is a long one, full of suspended secrets and lies, and many of its stories have yet to be told or have been lost along the way. Sometimes the most powerful stories are those that are hidden for years, and only re-discovered when society has moved on and is better equipped to deal with the painful truth. Monsignor Faul sadly passed away ten years ago this June, but the case of the hooded men has been resurrected by leading human rights lawyers, including Amal Clooney. Their cases have huge international significance since the US and other governments around the world relied on a 1978 ruling from The European Court of Human Rights that although what the British did to the hooded men in Northern Ireland was ‘inhuman and degrading’ it stopped short of torture. The men’s lawyers say they have a wealth of newly declassified evidence, with more to come.
It will be the latest chapter in an extraordinary story concerning a quest for justice that started almost half a century ago when a courageous and dogged priest first strode onto Northern Ireland’s contentious political stage.
Anthony J. Quinn is the author of the new novel SILENCE published by Open Road.