Wholeschool Portal | Home 22 October 2018

sacristy, confessional and bedrooms while the main avenue, by this time,  was placed out-of-bounds to the military.

Despite this extraordinary  presence, retreats continued throughout the war and military chaplains  often provided the nuns with a daily celebrant for mass in the community chapel.  There were inevitably some minor adjustments in time to accommodate the “black-out” and the traditional Christmas Eve Midnight Mass had to be cancelled for the war’s duration for the same reason. For almost all of the month of May 1941 the sisters were taxied each night to a hotel, about six miles down the coast, for their own safety, following the Belfast Blitz and fears that Larne would be similarly targeted in return raids.

Just before the end of the war a party of twenty Belgian soldiers came for their own retreat called a “Day of Recollection” and said it was the happiest day they had had since joining the army and when the war was finally over the convent joined with people all over Europe in a special day of prayer in reparation for war crimes.

In the post-war years the popularity of retreats grew and a wider range of people began to be catered for in separate retreat groupings  - Woolworth’s Girls; Civil Servants; Telephone Girls;  Nurses;  Legion of Mary;  Chemists and, in the age that was in it, Doctor’s Wives.  It was in response to growing numbers that an extension was added to Drumalis in the late sixties.  Work began in the autumn of 1967 and the new retreat house was opened in the Spring of 1970.  The new building was designed by Neil Shawcross and Ray Carroll and consisted of fifty-five single bedrooms as well as a dining room, library, lounge, servery and a large chapel  with stained-glass windows by Neil Shawcross and stations of the cross by local craftsman John Haugh.  By the end of 1970 three thousand people a year were coming to make retreats in Drumalis.

In all of this there is a sense of the house coming more and more into relation with the rest of the world.  The nuns visited dressmakers in the ‘60s to have their first dresses made instead of habits and the elaborate rituals of daily prayer were simplified.  Most significantly a TV set arrived in 1962 which was not to see the coronation of a Pope and receive a plenary indulgence at the same time but was, for the first time, purely for enjoyment during the Christmas holidays. The same set allowed the nuns the following year to watch the funerals of Ireland’s twin icons - Pope John XXIII and Kennedy.

The mainstay of work in this period continued to be with women from the poorer parishes of West Belfast and when civil unrest broke out in Belfast in 1969 Drumalis became a place of increasing significance for many people affected.  Often in the early years of the Troubles refugees would simply arrive at the door having been burned out of their homes seeking a place of shelter for the night.  One child was brought to Drumalis having been found wandering the Ormeau Road in the middle of a riot - she was picked up by her father the following day.  The night nursery was used for refugee children in 1972 and in 1973 police requested “night protection” for two girls who were also put in its comforting surroundings for their own safety.   This was refuge work resonant with that of the early monks on the same site.

Inevitably retreats were affected and for the first time, at the height of The Troubles, some had simply to be cancelled completely, so dangerous was it for people to try to travel up from Belfast when rioting was at it height.  In the retreats that did happen, people left early to try to arrive home before riots began and as a direct result of the Troubles a major change occurred in retreat format.

Until the 1960s, retreats in Drumalis had been silent - except for prayer and scripture readings during meals.  It was in this period that all that changed, not, as might be thought, for any doctrinal reason but because of something much more visceral and basic - the need of people to speak out of pain.  The nuns working with the women at the time realised that they were bringing too much with them to keep silence - they had to be allowed to speak of their experiences, their terrible losses.  And so the walls of Drumalis heard a new kind of discourse and its accommodation of this was the seed for a new direction into reconciliation and cross-community work of the ’80s and ’90s.

A major change took place in Drumalis in January 1988 with the formation of a new retreat team whose mission was to lead the centre into a new millennium with a new vision and energy.  The team was headed by Sr Margaret Rose McSparran who arrived the following September.  This was an exciting time of change.  The first open day was held in 1989 with over a hundred visitors.  A submission was made to the Opshal report in 1992 with radical suggestions for strategies to reduce religious segregation in Northern Ireland. Retreats began to address issues of Women’s Spirituality and ecology.  In response to the IRA ceasefire of September 1994  an invitation was made to Ministers of the four main churches in Larne to come to a coffee morning in Drumalis - there was no agenda set - the idea was simply to improve relations.  This was the beginning of the inter-church group, the Tuesday Club, which continues to meet and which has been involved in all kinds of local anti-sectarian activity in Larne and in the setting up of the Larne Millennium Initiative -  an inter-church organisation promoting dialogue and co-operation and funded by the Community Relations Council.

Drumalis house

In all of the years of change a constant has been continued contact with members of the extended Smiley family.  The first return visit was of the widow of the heir to Drumalis who came in May 1932 and said how sorry the family had been to give the house up.  Grandsons of Sir Hugh and their children, neices and nephews have come more than once to a place which clearly occupies a very special place in their own history - even for those who never actually lived there.  David Smiley wrote after a visit in 1995,  “For all look upon Drumalis as the old family home, even if we have not lived here for generations....As the last living male of my generation and well into the evening of my life, I had always wanted to make the trip to Larne before I died and this last trip has been the acheivement of my ambition”.  This affectionate link continues with a new generation being brought back but it was established very early when, with the death in Scotland of the first Lady Smiley, Elizabeth Kerr, only  five months after the nuns moved into the house, her body was brought back to Larne for burial and a wreath of Drumalis roses was placed on her coffin by her old butler.