Around 5.00 p.m. on Wednesday, 5th August, 1981 a
man parked a car in Market Street, just round the corner from the church
and calmly walked away. Some forty-five minutes later a bomb planted in
the car exploded, devastating the entire town centre.
My wife and I had just started our annual holiday in
Ballycastle and had spent the day visiting the peaceful Glens of Antrim
when an urgent call advised me of the tragedy and necessitated our
returning home immediately.
No words of warning could have prepared us for the
distressing scene which met our eyes. The explosion had virtually
demolished the shops backing onto the church. Those opposite had suffered
severe blast damage as had shops, offices and other business premises in
nearby Smithfield Square, Market Square and Bow Street.
The saddest sight of all was our old church. There
was glass and rubble everywhere, our seventeen precious stained glass
windows lay in twisted formations of glass and lead or, as with some, had
remained in place with gaping holes in them. What pieces remained were
carefully gathered together, window by window. We immediately realised
that no fragment, however small, should be thrown out. In the midst of the
rubble an idea was already taking shape, to find expression years later in
the Resurrection window. For now, however, it was a time for grief and
tears. Visitors from other churches came to sympathise and console,
standing in shocked disbelief when they entered our old sanctuary.
We do not believe that the bomb was intended for the
church as such, but it must have been patently obvious that the church
could not escape. How, we all wondered, could anyone so callously
desecrate a hallowed place of worship and attempt to destroy a precious
While the loss of the windows hurt us most the
church and halls had also suffered extensive structural damage. The
plaster under the gallery had fallen in great chunks in some places and
was cracked in others ready to fall down. The pulpit had been knocked
sideways and might be unsafe. The lovely polished tongue-and groove
woodwork of the ceiling had been ripped apart, some pieces being sucked
inwards, others blown outwards in the strange effects of bomb-blast. Pews,
Communion table, Baptismal font, organ and Choir stalls were scarred and
pitted by flying glass.
Existing small cracks in the walls, particularly
near the Barbour window, had been widened and many others had appeared.
Wherever one looked there was damage of one kind or another.
The Minister and Session of Railway Street Church
had kindly invited us on the Wednesday evening to join with them in
worship the following Sunday morning and to hold our joint evening
services, customarily held in First Lisburn during August, in their church
until ours was again tenable. This generous offer was gratefully accepted
by those elders present and a notice to that effect was published in the
Ulster Star in Friday's edition.
However there was much unease over this decision and
a special meeting of Session was duly called late on Friday evening, 7th
August, and the issue was thoroughly discussed. Some held the view that if
shop owners and other businessmen could bravely put up "Business as Usual"
notices and carry on behind their boarded-up windows in the tradition that
Ulster businessmen have followed during the long years of the "Troubles"
then the church also should have the courage to keep its doors open. Were
we going to give in to the I.R.A.? Were we going to let terrorists force
us to close down worship in First Lisburn for the first time in almost
three hundred years? - Not if it was humanly possible!
After much heart searching it was reluctantly
decided to follow the technical advice of architect and surveyor: the
building was considered to be unsafe. In the event we found ourselves not
only welcomed by the congregation of Railway Street and their Minister,
the Rev. Howard Cromie, but also comforted and consoled by them in our
shock and loss. It was for us an experience akin to bereavement and they
ministered to us even as we worshipped with them. We will never forget
this experience of deep fellowship in Christ.
Nevertheless the deep sense of hurt remained.
Members felt the attack on their church as a violation of something
personal and sacred. One elder, the late Mr. Jim Beatty, expressed his
feelings this way: "I have been in First Lisburn the same length of time
as I have been in the house in which I live. I never feel like selling my
house and moving down the road for if I did I would pass it every day, see
it and know that I wasn't living in it. This is exactly what I feel about
We did return "home" on Sunday, September 6th. The
church was packed to capacity and the worship was a real celebration but
there were mixed emotions - the joy of returning and the visual evidence
of the extent of our loss.
We did not disguise our hurt and anger in our
prayers. We wrestled mentally with The Lord's Prayer: "Forgive us our
trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." We also prayed,
"Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." We were
uplifted as we remembered the sovereignty of God.
Dr. Boyd shared the leadership of this service. His
presence helped us remember that the reality and continuity of the Church
lies not in its buildings but in its people and its security in its Lord.
We emerged considerably healed and fortified for the task which lay ahead.
On September 1st (only 26 days after the bomb) the
Committee met to receive a full report on the extent of the damage to the
building from Mr. Edward Bell, A. R. I. B. A., one of our elders, whom
Session and Committee had appointed as architect for the restoration
project immediately after the bombing.
As well as the problems already noted others had by
now been diagnosed. The back gable wall of the church had moved about one
inch at the top, the roofs of both church and halls required re-slating,
the boiler was cracked and out of use and, most urgent of all, the plaster
in the organ loft was threatening to crash into the organ's fourteen
hundred pipes, some of them no larger than a drinking straw.
The Property Committee, under the energetic
leadership of its Convenor, Mrs. Norah Boyle, already in action during
August, now got down to the long and difficult task which lay ahead.
The organ pipes were removed and strewn around the
church whilst the loft was repaired. We had one manual back in operation
just in time for a Radio 4 broadcast on October 11th, a service which,
related to the relatively near bombing, brought much response from all
over Britain. The second manual was just ready for the recording of B.B.C.
T.V.'s "Songs of Praise" programme early in November.
Over a period of months workmen repaired and
redecorated the church with great care and skill. The shops were also
repaired by the tenants in close consultation with the committee.
Tenders were sought and a contract placed for the
restoration of the windows. On the financial side long and patient
negotiations were undertaken with loss adjusters and the Northern Ireland
The Congregational Committee, though anticipating a
shortfall in compensation, never actually launched an appeal fund but
members spontaneously organised fund raising activities: a coffee party
and sale in a private house, a "Sharing Skills" scheme and an Olde Tyme
Music Hall evening. The Young People's Association ran an auction and
school children from Forthill Girls' School joined in a "Save our
Heritage" sponsored walk in Wallace Park with many of the congregation,
some running, others of more mature age taking a leisurely stroll-truly a
congregational social day as well as a fund-raiser. There were individual
contributions and generous donations from other churches of all
The total cost of the restoration of church and
windows has been almost �100,000. The total compensation approximately
�90,000. The amount raised or donated approximately �10,000.
The committee members have given generously of their
expertise in finance, quantity surveying, the law, business
administration, building, electrical and heating engineering and so on. We
were fortunate to have such expertise available to us.
While quite obviously this vast scheme has focussed
on property and finance the motivation for carrying it through to a
successful conclusion has been love of the Church and its Lord. All has
been done, in the words of the act of Re-dedication performed by the then
Moderator of the General Assembly, the Very Rev. Professor John Thompson,
on Sunday 3rd May, 1987, "TO THE GLORY OF GOD."
These years have affirmed the promise we recalled in
the words of Isaiah that summoned us to worship on Sunday, 6th September
1981 (our homecoming) "`For the mountains may depart and the hills be
removed but my steadfast love shall not depart from you and my Covenant of
Peace shall not be removed,' says the Lord who has compassion on you."
R. J. Gordon Gray
Minister, First Lisburn Presbyterian Church
An Elder's View
Arriving on the scene early, as I thought, I had
already been preceded by a small army of workers from the congregation
who, without prior organising, had heard of the damage and raced to the
church, many complete with
buckets, brooms, mops and other cleaning materials.
Some just stood in a state of shocked disbelief at the sight before them;
some wept; others reacted to the shock in a burst of physical activity,
first to clear the rubble away and search for any stained glass pieces,
yes, even those pieces embedded in the pews and other woodwork. Totally
impervious to the danger of further falling plaster, woodwork or masonry
they worked on, clearing, cleaning, dusting, polishing, determined that as
far as they were concerned the church they loved would be ready for
worship on the following Sunday. It was not to be. The question regarding
structural damage decreed it should be otherwise.
on our eventual return in September we were further
reminded of our greatest loss: the glow of subdued colour through our
windows, which we had taken for granted for so long had gone. The window
apertures were filled, some with wood, some with white muffed glass which
gave a brighter, harsher light. It took much getting used to. Little did
we know then that we were to have to live with this for a further six
I could not possibly have witnessed the scenes that
I did and the reaction to them by the congregation without having my faith
in God and my love for First Lisburn deepened. My task as Property
Committee Convenor has ended. My hope and prayer is that what we as a
committee and a congregation have left behind us, particularly the
Resurrection window, will be an inspiration to all those who, in the years
ahead when the bombing is but a distant memory, will continue to uphold
and extend Fiist Lisburn both as a church and as a physical expression of
faith in God and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Festival of Flowers