Thursday, 3 April 2014


Noelle Ryan

Noelle Ryan, a former nun, originally from Dublin, came to Belfast in 1972 after spending six years as a member of an enclosed order. Noelle Ryan, who helped hundreds of disadvantaged people to gain an education, has died aged 82.
However, while she was still a novice in the Dominican contemplative order, her mother superior suggested she would be more suited to working in outside communities.
It was a piece of advice that would lead to an improved quality of life for thousands of people.
After leaving the convent, she worked in communities in Liverpool, Dublin, Lourdes and Belfast.
Her "temporary stay" in St John's Parish in west Belfast's Ballymurphy area was to last for more than 40 years.
Working with west Belfast priest Fr Des Wilson, she helped develop a further education and training centre in a four-bedroomed house at 123 Springhill Avenue.
Springhill Community House, or simply 123, as it became known, initially targeted the disadvantaged and set them on the path to further education.
The project, set up in one of Northern Ireland's most deprived areas at the height of the Troubles, eventually became the largest educational outreach centre in west Belfast.
Noelle was particularly interested in those who had missed out on education in their early years or felt they had no value, and no contribution to make to society.
"I had been reading about the worker priest movement in France," she would later recall.
"As soon as I met Desmond (Fr Wilson) and saw the way the house operated, I felt that this was it in practice.
Father Des Wilson

"Without any fanfare, you relate to whatever the people want and what their needs are, as they make them known to you".
'School refusers'
Springhill students were soon sitting examinations with many achieving excellent results and going on to university.
The operation was becoming too big for the house and it was with some relief that organisers accepted the offer of extensive, but spartan accommodation at the Conway Mill complex on the Falls Road.
A particularly successful enterprise by Noelle Ryan and the other project directors was the launch of a "school refusers' project". This was aimed at the many young people who either refused to attend school or had been expelled.
Meanwhile, she had developed a keen interest in homeopathy, Bach Flower remedies and alternative medicine, often visiting troubled areas to share her remedies.
This was to lead to the establishment of basic homeopathy courses that developed into practitioners' courses in complementary alternative medicine.
Noelle Ryan died in the Northern Ireland Hospice on 29 March. She is survived by two brothers.
Her funeral took place at Roselawn Crematorium on Tuesday following Requiem Mass in Corpus Christi Church in Ballymurphy.
A memorial service will be held in John the Baptist Church, Blackrock, Dublin, on Saturday, April 5th 2014 followed by interment in Shanganagh cemetery.

Bishop Pat says:

I was privileged to know Noelle and Father Des since coming to Belfast in 1978 - 35 years ago. I always marvelled at how absolutely they shared their lives with their people. On one occasion I went to their home for a simple lunch. We ate our simple meal in the kitchen with our plates on our knees. After lunch I wanted to talk to Father Des so we went to the sitting room. We soon had to leave there because the room was needed for a class. We went to Des' small box room bedroom to continue our talk. Soon we had to leave there because the students needed the TV and video recorder for their studies. We finished our chat sitting out on a wall in the garden.

Noelle and Des gave themselves to the people with a generosity I can only regard as Christ like - a generosity that I would not be capable of myself. 

They had a small very basic "bolt hole" in Donegal but when they went there for a few days they brought people with them who needed a break from Belfast. 

Noelle and Des supported me as faithful friends over the past 28 years since I was removed from my parish by Bishop Daly. 

Noelle was particularly supportive of my book A SEXUAL LIFE - A SPIRITUAL LIFE as she was painfully aware that many young people in Belfast were taking their own lives as a result of feeling isolated in the context of their sexuality. 

At a recent general meeting of the Irish Association of Catholic Priests in a Dublin hotel when the attendees were complaining about the absence of the bishops Noelle stood up and proclaimed: "We have a bishop here with us - Bishop Pat Buckley" and then holding my book above her head she asked the people to read it.

Noelle lived courageously with an absolute authenticity. She didn't preach - but her life and example was a sermon in action. 

When she developed her cancer she accepted it with the same spirit of courage and wisdom with which she accepted everything in her life. She took no pain killers. Noelle was not one to want to dull the pain of life or indeed death.

Belfast has lost a great lady. Father Des has lost an irreplaceable companion in life and ministry. Her community has lost an advocate and a mother vigour who loved them with a mother's unconditional love. 

As a Christian I believe that Noelle went straight to Paradise where she heard the words of Christ say: "Come you faithful servant; take possession of the place reserved for you from all eternity".

I believe that Noelle will continue her work on earth from her place in Heaven.

We shall not see her like again.

+Pat Buckley


  1. Not all nuns are ijits as some popular thinking would lead one to believe. Here is a woman who obviously lived according to the will of God. As the fenians might say Ar deis De go raibh a h anam uasal (RIP) Sean

  2. Your tribute is beautiful and in so doing has let me learn of someone I would never have known about. And clearly should. May she rest in peace.

  3. A beautiful and holy woman deeply rooted in humanity. I firmly believe that Noelle will do even more above now.

    The whole of Ballymurphy came out and clapped our original community worker who lived and breathed like us. She gave all and will be rewarded. In stark contrast to the clergy in their finery and steak dinner lifestyles across the road. Noelle would NOT critiise anyone.

    RIP - A friend