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The Redemption of Shane Paul O'Doherty

He was a teenage terrorist. He tried to kill a bishop. After 14 years in prison, he got married. Now the Catholic Church wants him to become a priest. Is no man beyond salvation?

From terrorist to priest: The Catholic Church believes no man is beyond salvation. Even Shane Paul O'Doherty.
From terrorist to priest: The Catholic Church believes no man is beyond salvation. Even Shane Paul O'Doherty. (Photo Courtesy of Shane Paul O'Doherty)

"LET'S GO FOR A WALK," SHANE PAUL O'DOHERTY SAYS. The Long Corridor at St. Patrick's College, Ireland's last remaining seminary, is a vision out of Harry Potter's school, Hogwarts, dark and slightly foreboding. The oak walls are lined with solemn portraits of clerics who have educated more than 11,000 Roman Catholic priests since 1795. Inside College Chapel, heels click on the marble mosaic floor, under the gaze of a procession of saints and angels painted on the ceiling. Outside, the three Gothic buildings that form St. Mary's Square overlook a lush garden and a pond with rocks positioned as steppingstones, designed to symbolize man's spiritual journey toward God.

In the sleepy college town of Maynooth, 15 miles outside Dublin, we walk through a stone archway into an idyllic Gothic quadrangle called St. Joseph's Square, gravel paths snaking through grassy swaths dappled with bright red flowers. The only sound is bird song. At 50, O'Doherty still boasts a boyish appearance, thin and fit, bone-china skin, his brown hair closely cropped.

Between 1993 and 2002, seven seminaries closed in Ireland, leaving only St. Patrick's. Though it reeks of history, it also seems a lonely place. In the 1960s, as many as 600 seminarians studied at St. Patrick's; today, 60 do, a drop that's been attributed both to a more materialistic Ireland and to the country's own ongoing clergy sex abuse scandals, which mirror those in Boston and other American dioceses.

The last time we had gone for a long walk together, a decade earlier, I was covering the conflict in Northern Ireland for the Globe, and he was a married man six years removed from prison. Before his arrest, he'd become the most wanted man in Britain, a hero for the Irish Republican Army whose letter-bomb campaign had maimed a dozen people and terrorized all of London. We had walked the streets of Derry, his hometown. At that time, we paused at the rooming house for British soldiers where he had planted his first bomb in 1970, when he was 15. We passed the spot in the Bogside where Barney McGuigan's brains spilled out onto the pavement on Bloody Sunday in 1972, when British paratroopers shot and killed 14 civil rights demonstrators. We walked by the apartment in Crawford Square that O'Doherty used as a bomb factory, the one that blew up, killing Ethel Lynch, his 22-year-old assistant.

He was given his middle name because he was born on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, who was a zealous killer of Christians before his own conversion on the road to Damascus. But O'Doherty's story is not about a miraculous religious conversion as much as a gradual spiritual evolution. He had a tug of war with God, and God won. His odyssey, from teenage revolutionary to middle-age seminarian, is a story of redemption.

"Hell," he says, shrugging. "If I can be saved, anyone can."

IN 1965, WHEN HE WAS 10 YEARS OLD, HE tore a sheet of paper from a notebook he used to copy lessons at school and wrote down a pledge: "When I grow up, I, Shane Paul O'Doherty, want to fight and, if necessary, die for Ireland's freedom." Even at his tender age, he knew his words were treasonous, and so he hid them under the floorboards of the attic of his family's home and forgot about them until 10 years later, when he was sitting in an interrogation room, under arrest, and a detective shoved the yellowed paper under his nose. He blushed, more embarrassed by his childish idealism than terrified at the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison.

O'Doherty was born in Derry in 1955 during a winter so cold his mother called him the Snow Baby. Unlike most of Northern Ireland, Derry had a Catholic majority, and an established Catholic middle class, one of the reasons the Catholic civil rights movement bloomed there in the late 1960s. O'Doherty was part of that middle class, one of eight children in a family that wasn't especially political. His father was a teacher and principal at a school run by the Christian Brothers, a Catholic order. His mother hailed from a prominent business family. Two of his uncles fought the British in Ireland's war of independence in the 1920s. But O'Doherty's father never spoke of any of this and quietly aspired to unity with the Irish Republic while opposing violence as a means of achieving it. Despite holding the majority in Derry, Catholics were excluded from power through gerrymandering and other discriminatory practices of the Protestant unionist government that was loyal to Britain.

Most of O'Doherty's neighbors were Protestant, and he never heard a sectarian word in his home. But as a child, he would sit alone in his family's well-stocked library, reading about Irish history. "There was something about the tragedy of British rule in Ireland against the wishes of the Irish people," he says.

He was spellbound reading about the Easter Rising of 1916, when a quixotic band of patriots staged a rebellion they knew was doomed, determined to ignite a wider revolution. As a 10-year-old living in British-controlled Northern Ireland, Shane O'Doherty offered himself up to martyrdom, which was something of an empty pledge, not because of his age but because, at the time, there was no rebellion to join. The IRA, widely regarded as a small bunch of dreamers, was dormant.

But that all changed when the Protestant government's response to the demands of the Catholic civil rights movement was to beat protesters off the streets. In 1968 and 1969, around the time O'Doherty was turning 14, Derry convulsed with protest and attacks on demonstrators by loyalist mobs and the predominantly Protestant police force. By the time British troops were deployed, O'Doherty had thrown Molotov cocktails at police, and the IRA had become active again. A new group, the Provisional IRA, or the Provos, had sprung up, determined to bring the fight to the British, and 15-year-old Shane O'Doherty began an almost farcical search for them, knocking on doors, so he could join. He eventually found two men who inducted him into the secret organization.

"I was no longer an insignificant teenager, "he says now. "I became heroic overnight. I felt almost drunk with power."

At 16, he threw nail bombs at British soldiers and almost hoped he'd be shot dead, fantasizing that his sacrifice would inspire a mural or, better yet, a song, ensuring his immortality. He jumped out of alleys, firing a revolver at soldiers armed with automatic rifles. In 1971, he loosed a rocket at a British Army observation tower. It missed but hit another army post by dumb luck. Soldiers then opened fire on a passing car, wounding a woman and two children. O'Doherty went home and prayed that the woman and children would survive. They did, but his having almost caused their deaths had shaken him. He stopped reporting for duty.

Any chance he would stay away from the IRA for good evaporated five days after his 17th birthday, however, when British paratroopers opened fire on Catholic demonstrators on January 30, 1972 - what became known as Bloody Sunday. He saw unarmed men and teens gunned down. In the chaos, he bumped into a priest he knew, and the two went to the local morgue, where O'Doherty saw police and soldiers laugh and joke about the shootings. He accompanied the priest to the homes of the dead and the injured, and his fury smoldered. He reported back to the IRA and was flattered when his commander eventually asked him to go to London to launch a letter-bomb campaign.

"I had come to the conclusion that all these British soldiers from working-class backgrounds that we were shooting and blowing up in Northern Ireland were deemed expendable by the British government," he says. "The idea was to have those in high places in British military and political circles face the consequences of occupying Ireland."

ONCE IN LONDON, HE POSED AS A STUDENT and bought a copy of Who's Who, to draw up a target list. One of his bombs injured Reginald Maudling, the British Cabinet member in charge of security on Bloody Sunday. He sent a bomb to Bishop Gerard Tickle, the Roman Catholic chaplain to the British Army, after reading a newspaper story quoting Tickle as saying British soldiers did nothing wrong on Bloody Sunday. (He later called the story a "press misrepresentation.") The bomb, stuffed into a hollowed-out Bible, failed to detonate. He sent a letter bomb to 10 Downing Street, the prime minister's residence, and it sat unnoticed in a wastebasket for 24 hours. It didn't explode, but O'Doherty's ability to pierce security at the heart of the government made him, as the mystery letter bomber, the most wanted man in Britain.

Other bombs sent by him exploded at the London Stock Exchange, the Bank of England, and a government building. The injured included secretaries and security guards, and, as a result, O'Doherty's doubts returned. He went back to Derry to fight on the home front and knelt in a confessional at St. Eugene's Cathedral, where he had been a choirboy a few years and a whole lifetime before. He told the priest he was in the IRA and wanted to talk about the morality of violence in a liberation struggle. But the priest was in no mood to debate.

"Murder and violence are always wrong," the cleric told him.

O'Doherty left that church a more tormented 19-year-old than when he entered but continued fighting.

In 1975, the IRA called a cease-fire, with the promise from authorities that IRA operatives would not be arrested as a political compromise was hashed out. But that promise turned out to be empty, and, in May 1975, police descended on the house of O'Doherty's mother. Sarah O'Doherty, who had no idea her son was in the IRA, was making him lunch; she looked on in bewilderment as he was bundled into a car, shirtless, and whisked away.

The IRA shot a police officer in retaliation for O'Doherty's arrest. The dead cop was the son of the chief officer at the Belfast prison where O'Doherty was being held, and the guards beat the 20-year-old mercilessly the next day. Guards ripped sheets into long strips and placed them in his cell, advising him to hang himself, because it would be better than what they had planned for him. One guard sat outside his cell and turned the light on and off, so O'Doherty couldn't sleep. Years later, the warden who had presided over his torture was murdered by the IRA, and O'Doherty could not muster sympathy for him.

In September, O'Doherty was flown to London and charged with the letter bombings. As he prepared for his trial, he read the reports that chronicled in clinical and shocking detail the extent of the injuries he had inflicted on 12 people. A secretary was blinded by glass in her eyes. A security guard had his hand blown off and an eye blown out. Another man lost the tips of his fingers.

Even as O'Doherty second-guessed himself, he remained defiant. He refused to recognize the authority of the court that tried him in London. The feeling was somewhat mutual, as the elderly judge frequently nodded off. But the judge woke up long enough to give O'Doherty 30 life sentences.

If St. Paul's transformation was on the road to Damascus, O'Doherty's was in solitary confinement in Wormwood Scrubs, a London prison. His conversion was in the monastic tradition of Ireland. For more than a year, he was isolated in a cell, where he read books on the theory of a just war.

"I was trying to justify the violence I had used," he says.

Where guards saw only a stubborn man who refused to wear prison clothing and who insisted he was a political prisoner, the Rev. Gerald Ennis, the Catholic chaplain, saw a pilgrim.

"Your little brother is an extraordinary young man given very special gifts, and I believe those gifts are going to be used for the greater glory of God," Ennis wrote in a prescient letter to one of O'Doherty's brothers in 1977. "I have never worried particularly about his being in the [solitary] block, because he was always a person who was searching for the truth. Once the discovery was made, his prison cell became a monastic cell where he was alone with God and his own thoughts."

O'Doherty emerged from solitary still defiant toward a prison regime he saw as needlessly cruel, but he was changed. At great personal risk, he left the security of the IRA, associating with English prisoners at a time when the Irish in England were held collectively responsible for ongoing IRA violence.

Back in his cell, he began reading the Bible more intently. The Gospel of St. Matthew nagged at him, especially one passage:

So, if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

"I had rejected the Church's doctrine of a just war," O'Doherty says. "I had come to believe that only pacifism was truly moral, truly Christlike. But, as I was trying to make myself a better person, to distance myself from the violence I had committed, I couldn't really move forward until I had addressed my victims."

O'Doherty then did what no other IRA member ever had: apologize to his victims. He never heard back from them, though one, the security guard who had lost an eye and a hand, told British newspapers he opposed the prospect of O'Doherty being released from prison. O'Doherty said he didn't expect or need to be forgiven. The point was his being able to apologize and admit he was wrong.

In September 1985, after demanding repatriation for a decade, O'Doherty got into a taxi with two guards for the drive to Birmingham's airport and a short flight to Belfast. One of the guards handed him a religious paperback. Inside was an inscription from the guard saying that he and his wife had been praying for O'Doherty for months. After 10 years of abuse, physical and psychological, in British jails, O'Doherty left the country with tears in his eyes, moved by an Englishman's kindness.

Upon his release in 1989, O'Doherty enrolled at Trinity College in Dublin, pursuing a degree in English and writing his autobiography. A few years later, he met a pretty blonde from Chicago named Michelle Sweeney, who was getting a doctorate in medieval history. They married, settling into a small house in Dublin. He got a job as a computer software trainer. As he prospered in Ireland's booming high-tech economy, he tried to soothe a troubled conscience. He edited a magazine sold by the homeless. He volunteered to help Bosnian Muslim refugees. He taught computer skills to children from itinerant families.

Sweeney accepted an offer to teach in the United States, but O'Doherty could not get a visa to live there because of his criminal record. In the late 1990s, even as other former IRA members who never expressed remorse for their violent deeds flitted in and out of the United States promoting the peace process, O'Doherty was repeatedly denied permission to enter.

Their separation caused the marriage to collapse. Sweeney sent him an e-mail, saying she wanted a divorce. O'Doherty wanted an annulment. He wrote a 50-page letter to the board that oversees annulments in the Archdiocese of Chicago. He got his wish.

In the spring of 2001, O'Doherty was sitting at his desk in Stockholm, where he had begun working for Ericsson, the mobile-phone maker. He was a former terrorist, former prisoner, former husband. He had a good salary, and he was miserable. He decided to go back to Dublin. In just a generation, Ireland had gone from being one of Europe's poorest countries to one of its richest. But the sudden, widespread pursuit of materialism disturbed O'Doherty.

The priesthood intrigued him; it had even as a kid. But if his record precluded his getting into the United States, how could he possibly get into a seminary?

On a religious retreat, a priest sidled up to him and asked him if he had ever been on a retreat before.

"Yes," O'Doherty said.

"How long was it?" the priest asked.

"Fourteen and a half years," O'Doherty replied.

IN THE BASEMENT KITCHEN OF DUBLIN'S Pro-Cathedral, on the city's gritty North-side, Gemma and Triona King, spinster sisters in their 50s, are making sandwiches and explaining how they became two of the approximately two dozen consecrated virgins in Ireland. Their virginity is a gift to God, a symbolic gesture of their giving themselves to serve Jesus Christ. They have worked with Dublin's disadvantaged for years. They also offer intercessions, or prayers, for those who want to become priests. They realized something was up when O'Doherty, who had been volunteering around the cathedral and visiting inmates with the prison chaplain, asked them to pray for him.

"We encouraged Shane," Gemma King says, sipping tea as O'Doherty and another seminarian stand in another part of the kitchen, making plans to visit a homeless shelter. "Shane has sinned, like all of us. But he knows the power of repentance, of forgiveness, of redemption, of God's love, not as abstract concepts but as real life. What better qualities could you have for a priest?"

Walking the grounds at the seminary, O'Doherty acknowledges he could do good works as a layperson. But becoming a priest, with five to seven years of intense study and soul-searching, was to him the logical, spiritual conclusion of his odyssey, something he calls "my journey through the largely unknown, praying for the three gifts I have never had: humility, patience, and gentleness."

However long it takes him to be ordained, at 50, he is still 10 years younger than the average priest in Dublin.

Gone are the days of long, flowing black cassocks. In jeans and sweaters, the seminarians blend in with the 5,000 other students who, since 1997, have shared the bucolic campus that is National University of Ireland, Maynooth.

O'Doherty was elected class representative by his 27 classmates, the largest seminary class in Ireland in more than 20 years.

"What's the difference between a terrorist and a liturgist?" a priest asked the seminarians at one of their first classes last fall.

No one raised a hand.

"You can negotiate with a terrorist," the priest said, answering his own question, as all eyes drifted to O'Doherty.

"They want me to argue," he says later, almost as if he can't believe his luck. "I can start an argument in an empty house."

His classmates had told me an illuminating story. In one class, they engaged in role-playing. The instructors hung three signs around their necks and asked the seminarians to stand behind the person who most needed the support of a priest. Most stood in back of the person labeled as religious. A few stood in back of the person labeled a prostitute. Only O'Doherty stood behind the person labeled a homosexual.

Asked about it, O'Doherty shrugs.

"Hey, I was in prison. I was married.

I have a gay brother. Who am I to judge anyone?"

Having been married didn't exclude him from becoming a priest, because the marriage was annulled. Neither did his past membership in the IRA. But there was the small matter of having tried to kill Bishop Tickle.

THOMAS GROOME, AN IRISH-BORN THEOlogian at Boston College, explains that canon law forbids anyone who has killed or tried to kill an ordained cleric in the Catholic Church from becoming a priest. Such a sacrilege requires dispensation at the highest levels of the Church. "Technically, only the pope can forgive this," says Groome, a former priest.

Tickle died of natural causes in 1994 and could not vouch for O'Doherty, but Bishop Edward Daly could. Daly is one of the most venerated priests in Ireland, a fierce critic of violence. A photograph showing him waving a white handkerchief as he and a group of men tried to get first aid for one of the casualties of Bloody Sunday is one of that day's indelible images. Daly, who was especially kind to O'Doherty's mother, had corresponded with O'Doherty and visited him in prison and believed his conversion to pacifism was genuine and Gospel-inspired. Daly assured the Vatican in general and Pope John Paul II in particular that O'Doherty had the potential to become a good priest. With Daly behind him and with the sponsorship of Diarmuid Martin, the archbishop of Dublin, O'Doherty was accepted at St. Patrick's College.

The Rev. Kevin Doran, who recruits candidates for the priesthood for the Dublin Archdiocese, says O'Doherty was accepted last year with the understanding that neither he nor anyone in the Church would publicly discuss his story during his study for the priesthood. Doran, in an e-mail, says: "There is, undoubtedly a `story' in Shane's journey to seminary. The diocese has taken the view, however, that this is not the time to focus on that story."

Groome says some will see O'Doherty's candidacy for the priesthood as a sign of just how desperate the Catholic Church is for priests. But Groome believes a defining characteristic of Catholicism is at play.

"At its best, Catholicism has great magnanimity," Groome says. "We believe in last-minute conversions. We like the story of the good thief who repented on the cross. O'Doherty's life story is about redemption, but it redeems all of us. The great saint, the great soldier, and the great lover are all similar. They are gamblers, full of idealism, looking for a noble cause."

When, God willing, he is ordained, Shane Paul O'Doherty says, he knows where his ministry lies.

The prisons.

Kevin Cullen, the Globe's former Dublin bureau chief, has covered Ireland for the Globe for 20 years. E-mail him at

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