Christmas '97: Churchgoers angry at Irish-only midnight mass

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The Independent Online
Irish people have been the victims of racism for many years in Britain and elsewhere. Now they find themselves in the unfamiliar situation of being accused of ethnic exclusivity over plans to broadcast a Christmas service from Kilburn, a predominantly Irish area of north-west London. Alan Murdoch in Dublin analyses the controversy.

Plans by the Irish television network to broadcast midnight mass tonight from a church in Kilburn for the capital's Irish community have led to complaints from churchgoers of other nationalities that they are being excluded on grounds of race.

Radio Telefis Eireann (RTE), the Irish state broadcasting company, which is to broadcast the mass live from the Sacred Heart Church in Quex Road, Kilburn, said that the event was organised specifically to help bring together Irish emigrants and their families back home.

South African-born Veronica Conroy, who has attended the church's midnight mass annually for 30 years, and who had her son baptised there, complained that she was told by the parish priest that she could not have a ticket this year because it was for Irish-only.

She claimed that the church was insistent until it learnt she was married to a man from Cork, at which point the priest changed his mind.

"I was very upset, but I was even more upset that I could have had a ticket because my husband is Irish, but not in my own right. Yet my husband doesn't even go to church," she said.

"It was bizarre. A Greek neighbour was told she could have as many [tickets] as she wanted because her aunt was Irish. It's ridiculous."

Ironically, Mrs Conroy's husband was himself once a priest.

"The parish priest doesn't know that though. My father was a deacon too. The whole thing is totally out of order," she said.

The Sacred Heart Church said it hoped to accommodate all worshippers by holding five other Christmas masses alongside the Irish one.

But Mrs Conroy said that was not a substitute. "If it's at 7pm it's not midnight mass, is it?"

The parish priest, Father Dennis Cormican, said the problem was simply huge demand and having to give priority for tickets.

"If you had 10,000 tickets you'd get rid of them all. Many non-Irish people feel it's an honour that this church has been chosen.

"The Mass is going out live on RTE. The expectation naturally is that Irish people in London are given the opportunity to come," he said.

The church has been a gathering point for Irish emigrants since the Fifties, when it featured in classic images by the late Waterford-born photographer Paddy Fahey.

At one stage in the Fifties Kilburn had 14,000 Catholic churchgoers, the vast majority Irish.

"In the years since the Second World War in Camden Town it was common to see the sign up in landlords' windows 'No Irish. No Blacks'.

"Since then the community has grown immensely in stature. You can go across all the professions and they're there ," Fr Cormican said.