Fr. Colm Campbell
13 November 2006
2 hours, 33 minutes, 15 seconds
Ireland House Oral History Collection, Archives of Irish America, New York University
Fr. Colm Campbell, President of the Board and acting Executive Director of the New York Irish Center (Failte Care Corporation), is the former Director of the Irish Apostolate USA. Born in Belfast, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland in 1935, he worked there through the worst of the Troubles until his 1992 assignment as a chaplain to Irish immigrants in the United States.
The oldest child of J.J. and Josephine Campbell, Colm was raised in New Lodge, a working-class Catholic community on the northern edge of Belfast’s city center. He attended primary school at Holy Family on the Antrim Road and, for two years during World War II, at St. Nicholas in Ardglass, Co. Down. His secondary education was received at St. Malachy’s College on the Antrim Road, where his father had been a star pupil. From 1953 to 1956 Campbell studied math, Irish history, Greek and Latin at Queens University Belfast where he also attained a BA in scholastic philosophy; during this period he entered St. Malachy’s Seminary to begin his studies for priesthood. After four years at St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, in the Republic of Ireland, Campbell was ordained for the Diocese of Down and Connor in Northern Ireland on 19 June 1960.
Fr. Campbell’s first assignment was as chaplain to the Good Shepherd Convent at 511 Ormeau Road in Belfast. The convent provided shelter and social services (including adoption) for single mothers and their children. He set up his first youth club there during the winter of 1962–1963. In 1967, Fr. Campbell was transferred to Crumlin, just northwest of Belfast, where his duties included being chaplain to the Royal Air Force station in Aldergrove.
After five years, Fr. Campbell was sent as a curate to Andersonstown in west Belfast. He arrived at his new assignment in the midst of the Troubles, witnessing an unchecked level of violence fueled by both the British Army and the Irish Republican Army. A Catholic population explosion in the area – the result of new public housing estates like Ballymurphy and Turf Lodge – in conjunction with heightened political tensions, left young people particularly vulnerable by the early 1970s. Fr. Campbell worked to provide a safe alternative for socializing, successfully establishing ten youth clubs that were still in operation at the time of this interview. During this period, he also received an advanced diploma in community work from Birmingham University in England, studied marriage counseling, and wrote his thesis on managing volunteers.
In 1985, Fr. Campbell’s work in Andersonstown was noticed by Bishop Cahal Daly, who made him the Director of Youth Services for the Diocese of Down and Conner. In 1991, Fr. Campbell helped establish Youth Link(1), an inter-faith organization that provides “opportunities for young people and youth workers in all areas of Northern Ireland working with Church, para-Church and community based organizations.”
Thinking about a sabbatical and learning about the need for a chaplain in New York, Fr. Campbell transferred to the Diocese of Brooklyn in 1992 under the auspices of the Irish Episcopal Commission for Emigrants. There he served as chaplain to young Irish immigrants from a base at St. Teresa’s parish in Woodside, Queens. In 1999 Fr. Campbell was appointed National Director of the Irish Apostolate USA,(2) based in Washington D.C., and worked closely with the Coalition of Irish Immigration Centers,(3) a national umbrella organization coordinating services for Irish immigrants in the United States.
In July 2004, Fr. Campbell retired for health reasons but was persuaded, in March 2005, to help found the New York Irish Center(4) in Long Island City, Queens, New York. He also began studying theology at St. John’s University in Jamaica, New York and, at the time of this interview, was teaching theology there in addition to his work at the New York Irish Center.
Excerpt No. 1
Violence in AndersontownDisc 1, 59:49–65:58
Transcription of Excerpt No. 1
DC: You were in Andersonstown during the 1981 Hunger Strike as well, correct?
CC: Oh yeah, I had a lot of tough times in Andersonstown. Several people got shot that I had to anoint. The worst was, in a sense, not the ones that were shot dead – there was something final about that – but the ones who were shot in the knee and were writhing in agony. It was talked about as kneecapping, and that’s what it was reduced to, but actually they would put the gun at the back of the knee and they would fire it right through the joint, shattering the knee. And the agony those kids would have been in just was not ordinary.
The other thing that happened – I’ll tell you this story which I think proves it. When I went there, after about a week there was a Mrs. Crawford and she was out with her three year old baby in her arms, going to the neighbor’s house, and coming back she got caught in the crossfire and she was shot dead. The child was untouched. And there were eight children – that baby was the youngest of the eight – and I can remember it lying on the couch, screaming, as the coffin was being carried out.
Now, there was daughter of about fifteen when this happened and, God love her, she was left to be mother when this all happened. Now, there was a grandmother who was not really able but then she got called up, and she became almost world famous as the grandmother looking after this, and she was invited here and invited there to talk about Troubles, and she was invited for holidays to Holland and out to America. The poor daughter was left trying to cope – and the father – the father was the most easy-going you could imagine.
So it happened that one of them was about seventeen or eighteen at this time and he was getting into all kinds of – he was stealing and drugs and – well, not drugs, there weren’t any drugs then – but drinking a lot and he was, you know, getting into robberies and, you know, he was certainly in bad company. So the IRA [Irish Republican Army] shot him in the leg and shattered his shin bone. And it was quite near the youth club and I remember saying, “How am I going to face his father?” Because the wife was shot dead; the brother and his two partners who had a furniture store, the Protestants tied them to, you know, the gas cylinder, the big sitting gas cylinders, they tied them to those and tied a bomb to them as well, and there was no trace of them left; and now this on top of it.
So I went down in dread and I knocked on the door and the main door was open, the key was in it, then I knocked on the living room door and started to come in and the father was sitting there with two to three pints of Guinness, and I said, “Pat, I got news for you.” He says, “Is it about the wee fella, Father?” “Yes, yeah.” “Ah well, Father, you know, he was going a bit wild; maybe this will help him settle down.”
That to me said it all – what violence was doing to these good people – that a father, who’d been through all that, could think that this was the best thing for my child. In a sense it was, maybe, in the whole violent culture of the time. I mean, I wonder how well some of those children are going to adapt to living in peace?
MC: Were you ever personally afraid?
CC: Oh yeah. I had to get out for three months at one stage. One of the more extreme groups, the INLA [Irish National Liberation Army] threatened me. I was invited by RUC [Royal Ulster Constabulary] Community Relations, would I come and talk about policing in Catholic areas. And I told them all the things I’ve been telling you, but the INLA got to hear about it and decided that I was a spy.
And one evening I was taking a course for youth leaders and the head of the army at the camp beside the church – a major, I forgot his name, a major, Major Reynolds maybe – anyway, he came up in a car to the convent where the course was and asked for me and said, “I’m going to take you home, I’m going to take you away, I think you’d be better staying with us tonight.” And I said, “Why?” He said, “Get into the car and I’ll tell you.” And he was sitting with a machine gun on his knee and he said, “As you were coming in here tonight” – I’d been out saying Mass in the parish – he said, “A car pulled out and started to follow you and we were suspicious and we were following.” He says, “We pulled the car in and there were two women in it and one of them had a gun.” And he said, “We’re pretty sure they were following you.” So at that stage I got out for three months, but eventually it came down and I came back.
MC: And you had no reason not to believe him?
CC: No, but again, it was all of these games that were going on, you wouldn’t know who to believe. The truth was whatever anybody wanted [it] to be – everyone was being used.
Excerpt No. 2
Work in AmericaDisc 2, 05:20–8:27
Transcription of Excerpt No. 2
MC: So, you basically emigrated too?
CC: I basically did, yeah, very much so. And I came out to a job and I got asked, “Well, what do you do?” Well, you know, you be there, and if you go out to the bars you meet a lot of them. It was very frustrating because for the first six months I basically did nothing beyond getting business cards printed. And I went right into bars but decided I wasn’t going to drink with them. I would drink O’Doul’s [non-alcoholic beer] or just not drink at all. Because I had seen it at home – priests with young people think, you know, we’re one of the boys, and they would dress up in jeans and they would play guitars and the kids didn’t – they laughed at them more than with them – and it was great and they would encourage them to drink and they were pals but they were never the sort of person they were ever going to go to because they were one of them, you know? So I always felt it was important to have a very close relationship but just be that different kind of relationship than a buddy, you know? So I decided that I wouldn’t directly drink, but I gave out the cards and I said, “I’m not here – I’m not going to chase after you, it’s not a business of you’re going to Mass or not – I’m not here to do that. I’m not here to ask you to go to confession or whatever. There’s my card; if you need me, there is the phone number.” And gradually it just built up until it snowballed. And I don’t know why or how, but I ended up not being able to cope with it all and ended up getting a little office because there wasn’t room in the parish for it. And one of the things I got was that the parish gave me use of the hall for a mother and toddler room.
MC: Which parish is this?
CC: St. Teresa’s in Woodside. And that was one of the biggest – there were over three hundred mothers and toddlers using that facility. The biggest work I did was baptisms and preparing families for baptisms and I find that very important. I tried to spend three or four hours with each family. I would often – you decide to go out for a meal with them or, you know, something, to take away the interrogation type of atmosphere that could [otherwise] end up. They were very useful because we would talk about, “Are you going to stay here? Are you going to go home? Have you thought about rearing children here? Have you thought of rearing them back home?” All very important issues to them and, to me, they were all very much connected to baptism. And I would relate it all to that, you know? You are going to be bringing this child up as a child of God as well as your own child. What sort of place? What are your aims? What are your hopes? What are your fears? And it was a very interesting experience.
Excerpt No. 3
Religion and the New IrishDisc 2, 09:36–11:40
Transcription of Excerpt No. 3
CC: But the other thing was, I never got such appreciation for what I did as I got here, it was embarrassing.
MC: More than anything in Ireland?
CC: More than anything, anywhere. I think it was the fact that they were young and they came here and suddenly they were away from authority of every kind. They had just left college, their parents, you know, the whole church situation over there and the whole attitude of the church, and suddenly they were free and they were having a ball. But then, after a while it dawned that with this freedom are responsibilities. You know, so people would ask me to bless the house, and I said, “Well, maybe we could say Mass in the house.” That’d be great, and they would invite all their friends, and I can remember some beautiful experiences where they’d use the speakerphone [to Ireland] and maybe the mother – I can remember one mother and I was literally in tears and so was everybody – she prayed for Mary and all the children here and the one she hadn’t seen yet, her hopes for them, and that they would grow up and oh, it was just overbearing, you know? And it was a beautiful Mass experience. So then I started a special Mass where it was much more of a dialogue kind of thing rather than me up there and them down there and things like that. Preparation for marriage became a huge thing then because all the paper work had to be done and sent back to Ireland and again, you know, we got to talking about realities and whether they wanted faith as part of it or not. And I think they began to see it differently, not something that was shoved down their throats, as a way they must live, but as a choice, and one of many choices, and which was the better one. And I helped them think it through. Then, of course, there were the funerals and there were the accidents and there were the people in hospitals.
Excerpt No. 4
On the job of a chaplainDisc 2, 34:25–36:15
Transcription of Excerpt No. 4
CC: I mean, Ireland changed radically between ’65 and ’85. I think due to television, urbanization and the European Union, it was just a totally different country. So they – the ones who came out in the ’80’s and the ’90’s – they scandalized some of the older “creathurs” who came from “Holy Ireland”. They didn’t expect all this kind of bad language, and living together, and not going to Mass.
MC: Except you’re from that “Holy Ireland”, if you want to put it [that way] – they’re your generation – but you’re not scandalized.
CC: I don’t know. I always felt people must be free and given the choice. And I knew from experience, when dealing with difficult cases in Andersonstown, that you are certainly not going to get anywhere telling people what the heck to do. First of all, that’s treating them like children and you have no right to do that, they’re adults. And secondly, they have the right to make up their own mind. You can give them guidance, you can give them, “Have you thought of this, have you thought of that,” but you have no right. And I don’t think Jesus ever rejected anybody because he thought they were a sinner. In fact, I heard him saying the opposite. I mean, you know, if you look at Matthew 25 it has nothing to do with whether you’re committing a sin or not – it’s not mentioned. I mean, the job of the chaplain as I saw it was simply to help them walk their journey. Walk beside them and not push them from behind or pull them from the front. I certainly wouldn’t be scandalized by it.
- Diego Carvajal (DC)
- Marion R. Casey (MC)
- Fr. Colm Campbell, 13 November 2006. Photo by Marion R. Casey.