By now, we are all familiar with the rainbow as a symbol of hope during the Covid-19 crisis.
Today, I am reminded of a Good Friday story of hope from our past: the sighting of a triple rainbow at the end of a Falls-Shankill Good Friday walk, organised by the ecumenical Cornerstone Community in 1988.
The 1988 walk took place in the shadow of one of the most notorious periods of the Troubles, memorably recounted in the documentary 14 Days. Those 14 days included loyalist Michael Stone’s attack on the funeral of three IRA operatives shot dead by the SAS in Gibraltar; and the murder of two plainclothes British soldiers who (inadvertently, it seems) drove into the funeral of one of those killed by Stone.
This Good Friday walk has become an annual event, a regular pilgrimage of Christian unity between the Falls and Shankill – albeit one that will not proceed this year due to restrictions on movement and gathering.
Below, I share my account of the 1988 walk from my book, Unity Pilgrim: The Life of Fr Gerry Reynolds CSsR.
The tension generated by that 14-day period cast into doubt the viability of a large-scale public event that Cornerstone had been planning for some time: a Good Friday walk through a West Belfast peace wall, which included carrying a large cross from the Falls to Woodvale Park on the Shankill. They would need to pass through a pedestrian gate, which was always locked. Cornerstone leader, Methodist Rev Sam Burch, recalled:
I remember going into the police station [to request permission for the walk] and they said, ‘Well, how many do you expect?’ I said, ‘There might be 20 or there might be 200.’ He said, ‘Can you not be more specific?’ I said, ‘No, I can’t be more specific, I don’t know who will turn up.’ There’s a little door that they had welded in the peace wall which at that time was completely closed between the Shankill and Springfield Road. We said, ‘Could you open or get that wee door open for us?’ And they did.
It wasn’t simply a matter of convincing the police– the local community needed to be on board as well. On 23 March, just four days after the soldiers’ murders, Fr Gerry Reynolds recorded that members of Cornerstone met with residents: ‘[Joan Knowles] had made visits on the Shankill side of the wall with Sam during the day. People were frightened at the prospect of having the gate in the wall opened.’
On the afternoon of Good Friday, the walk set out from the Falls in the sunshine. It was reported that 1,500 people took part. Clonard Redemptorist Fr Adrian Egan recalled that Gerry threw him in at the deep end:
We were outside and ready to go and the next thing he handed me a megaphone and said, ‘You go up front and start leading hymns.’ I said, ‘What are we gonna sing?’ We were going up the Shankill and I couldn’t be singing ‘Hail Queen of Heaven.’ So he said, ‘You just think of something!’ So I’m up front with the megaphone singing ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘Walk in the Light,’ and anything that would could be sung by Protestants and Catholics.
Sam remembered parts of the walk as a logistical challenge: ‘It was nearly impossible, it took us hours to get through this wee door. One by one, you couldn’t get through anymore than one by one.’ The first person to carry the cross was John Lellis, a member of the Clonard Confraternity. One of the men that accompanied them told them that he had been among those who stoned a peace march on the Falls in the 1970s.
As the walkers made their way through the gate, word spread that a bomb had been planted along the route. Although it was a hoax, the walk was diverted along another road. What Sam described as ‘a tribe of ne’er-do-wells’ followed them. Gerry recorded two memories of this part of the walk: ‘the old Shankill woman lifting both her hands in blessing over the people as they passed: “God bless youse all.” And … the woman who comforted her daughter when she was frightened by those who abused the worshippers.’ The procession eventually reached Woodvale Park, where they held a prayer service under the cross. Sam recalled:
We carried that cross through the wee door and up the Shankill Road and into Woodvale Park and said our prayers. And it got as black as could be and a torrential rain came down, soaked us to the skin. And the sun came out and there was a triple rainbow. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a triple rainbow. Of course we said, ‘The Lord has answered us.’
Cornerstone had conceived of the walk as an example of Catholics and Protestants journeying together in penitence for sin. For many on that day, the triple rainbow was indeed a sign that God had heard their prayers. In the aftermath, Gerry and Sam wrote to the police and ‘asked them not to press charges against those whom they had to arrest on the Shankill and to let them know that the organizers of the Way of the Cross had asked that their offenses be overlooked’. He also featured the event in his ‘Communion’ column in the Irish News the next month (May 1988), with a story titled ‘The Rainbow’:
On Good Friday … people from both communities and many different traditions here gathered to carry a cross together from the Springfield Road, through the dividing wall at Cupar Way and into the Shankill. Here is part of a letter that arrived afterwards:
‘The sense of joy was tremendous with such a great crowd! Even when the rain came on in Woodvale Park, I still felt this was a victory. But when the sun came through the clouds as we finished praying, and that brilliant rainbow appeared, spanning the Shankill and the Falls, I felt that God Himself was really happy!’
I’m sure many of us that day were reminded of God’s promise to Noah: “I shall set my bow in the clouds and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the truth.”
The rainbow on the Good Friday walk could have seemed insignificant when compared to the 14 days of mayhem that had just passed. But for Gerry and those who were journeying with him, such were the signs of hope that helped them to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
 Interview with Sam Burch, March 2016.
 ‘West Belfast Peace Song,’ Communion, Irish News, October 1988.
 Clonard Community focus group, October 2018.
 Interview with Sam Burch, March 2016.
(Image from Clonard.com, featuring Fr Alec Reid (left) and Fr Gerry Reynolds (right)
Gladys is a Professor of Sociology at Queen’s University Belfast and a member of the Royal Irish Academy.
She is also a runner who has represented Ireland and Northern Ireland. She blogs on religion and politics at gladysganiel.com