Gallagher, (Robert David) Eric (1913–99), methodist minister and ecumenist, was born on 24 August 1913 in Ballybay, Co. Monaghan, the eldest of five children (two sons and three daughters) of Robert Gallagher, a methodist minister from Co. Fermanagh, and his wife Helen (née McIlroy) from Co. Tyrone. Robert Gallagher was president of the methodist conference (1946–7), and wrote four books on aspects of church history. At the time of Eric's birth, his father was in a congregation in Ballybay, but as methodist ministers are regularly placed in new stations, the family moved seven times before Eric was 20. After primary education in Lurgan and Portadown, he won a scholarship and went to board in Methodist College, Belfast. From an early age he hoped to become a minister, and entered TCD in 1932 to study classics. He did not do well in examinations, and missed getting a sizarship; he almost withdrew from college after an unsuccessful first year, but transferred to modern languages and English literature, and worked as an assistant in Lucan and Sandymount congregations in Dublin to finance his studies. Thereafter, he flourished, enjoyed college, and was accepted as a candidate for the ministry in his third year. He came within one mark of a first-class BA degree in 1936.
After two years in the methodist training college, Edgehill, in Belfast (while also studying as an external student for a BD degree from TCD), Gallagher was appointed in 1938 to serve his probation as a minister in Woodvale congregation, in the Shankill Road area of Belfast. He was notably successful there; after only a year, a new hall was built, and in 1940, despite the outbreak of war and difficulties of supplies, a new and larger church opened. Gallagher thought of serving as an army chaplain, but decided that he would be more useful in Belfast, where indeed the congregation and the young minister were severely tested during the war. The area suffered considerable bomb damage in German air raids in 1941; fourteen members of the Woodvale congregation were killed in one night. The new church, with nightly volunteer fire watchers, was relatively unscathed, and Gallagher also prevented damage during a night raid to the neighbouring Church of Ireland building; he broke in to ring the bells to bring help to extinguish an incendiary device on its roof.
After his ordination in June 1941, Gallagher was appointed to be resident chaplain in his old school, 'Methody', also teaching religion and other subjects, and after his marriage on 30 June 1945 to Barbara Spence of Magheralin, Co. Down, became senior resident master. The Gallaghers provided important support to many of the pupils, especially to the boarders; fifty-three years later, in 1998, Eric Gallagher was the guest of honour at a gala boarders' reunion. His abilities were increasingly recognised by his denomination, and he was appointed to serve from 1945 on the new youth committee, and on various education and school bodies; he was (inter alia) governor of Methodist College (1950–92) (chairman of the board (1977–80)), and of Wesley College, Dublin (1978–89). In later years, Gallagher was on the management committee of Gortnamonagh secondary school, a catholic secondary school on the Springfield Road. His work as governor of the Belfast Boys' Model School was recognised when a new technology building was named in his honour. Chairman of the junior ministers' convention, Gallagher was also secretary to conference (1958–67), and in this influential and prominent post helped develop many aspects of church policy.
In 1950 he was stationed in Cregagh, in east Belfast, just about the biggest methodist congregation in Ireland, with 1,100 families and several junior ministers. Even in this hugely demanding role, Gallagher took on extra challenges: new housing estates were being built at Glenburn, further out of the city, and Cregagh sponsored the establishment of a new congregation there; Gallagher helped find funds for two halls and eventually a new multi-purpose church building, opened in 1955.
The family moved again, in 1954, to the University Road congregation, with its professorial and student membership, and he was dean of residence for methodist students at QUB. In an even greater switch, in 1957 Gallagher was appointed superintendent of the Belfast Central Mission (BCM). As he went from writing intellectually rigorous sermons one week to participating in city-centre money collections and even street preaching the next, Gallagher's adaptability must have been tested by the move, but in his role in the city-centre community, with its strongly social ministry, he found his true métier, and he stayed in Grosvenor Road until his retirement in 1979. His preaching was popular; two services every Sunday were often overcrowded, and his youth work was held up as a model for the whole denomination. Gallagher's organisational abilities greatly improved the facilities and the services available to the local community; in Castle Rocklands, a large mansion in Carrickfergus donated to the BCM, he oversaw the development of residential care for older people and planned the reconstruction of the house, as well as pioneering the provision of assisted-living bungalow units alongside.
His experiences in his various stations laid the foundations for a socially aware and religiously radical ministry; as a student in Edgehill, he had participated in a survey of social conditions in the largely catholic Ardoyne district of north Belfast, where he had been appalled by the endemic deprivation, and in war-torn Belfast he had seen that it was crucially important to respond to human need as a human being and not as a member of a particular denomination. In the aftermath of the Belfast blitz of April–May 1941, protestant ministers of several denominations met, ignoring theological differences, to share out visiting and support throughout the bombed areas. In QUB in the early 1950s Gallagher met the other chaplains once a week for lunch to discuss mutual interests, and increasingly participated in events and meetings to explore inter-church and inter-community relationships. Early in his career he was appointed convenor of his denomination's inter-church relations committee, and in 1958 he was joint secretary of a committee that was the forerunner of the Irish Council of Churches (ICC). He was chairman of that body (1967–9), and vice-president of the British Council of Churches. His thinking on ecumenism and the gospel message rapidly took him beyond acknowledging the desirability of understanding and cooperation within protestantism, which for many people at the time would have been sufficiently challenging; Gallagher was also willing to meet and to reach out to like-minded catholics. A small group of clergy and laity organised by Fr Robert Murphy met regularly in west Belfast, and, partly through that association, Gallagher created a rapport with a number of catholic priests, which was to become important as the civil unrest of the late 1960s began to spiral out of control. Fr Michael Hurley, SJ, co-founder of the Irish School of Ecumenics, believed that no one in church circles did more than Eric Gallagher to promote peace and reconciliation.
Gallagher became one of the leading exponents of ecumenism in Northern Ireland, and one of the best-known clergymen of the time. His BCM sermons and speeches at conference and elsewhere were often reported verbatim in local newspapers, and he regularly wrote letters to the press and took part in radio and television services and discussions. As violence increased in 1967–8, Gallagher was president of the methodist conference, and used his position to seek opportunities for inter-church communication. His address to conference in 1967 was published as a pamphlet, Where Irish methodism stands regarding church union, the World Council of Churches and Roman catholicism. All of these topics were particularly contentious; because of his views on them, Gallagher was at the top of the black list of 'apostate' protestant ministers compiled by Ian Paisley (qv). However, he was asked by trade union leaders in the Harland and Wolff shipyard to speak and to pray for peace at the mass meeting of 8,000 workers on 15 August 1968; this was credited at the time with helping to lessen the danger of sectarian outrages in Queen's Island.
In 1968, while Gallagher was methodist president, leaders of all four main churches in Ireland for the very first time issued a New Year's Day joint call for prayers for peace, and also in that year the three protestant churches made a formal declaration that they were actively seeking to bring about ultimate unity. Sectarianism, violence and intolerance were in the ascendant however, and in 1969 Gallagher called for an inquiry into the loyalist attack on a civil rights march at Burntollet Bridge. This led to the establishment of an 'ad hoc committee', in which Gallagher (as convenor) and Fr Denis Faul (qv) were among two Roman catholics and four protestants who met to discuss events and advise their respective churches. Despite such efforts, and despite Gallagher's unplanned and passionate appeal on Ulster Television on 21 April 1969, rioting and street violence spread. The Belfast Central Mission became a safe place for scores of refugees who had been forced from their homes; in June 1970, volunteers and staff were caring for 130 people. In time, the BCM itself was to suffer major damage in no less than thirty-four bomb blasts; Gallagher as superintendent had all the resultant reconstruction and compensation claims to deal with.
In the autumn of 1971 Gallagher went secretly to meet republican paramilitaries (introduced by his friend Fr Desmond Wilson), and was asked to pass on to government a message from the republican leadership seeking a British withdrawal. Another secret meeting, arranged by the Revd William Arlow (qv) at a particularly sombre time in the history of Ulster, was both more notable and eventually more effective. In great secrecy, IRA and Sinn Féin leaders met protestant church leaders in Feakle, Co. Clare, on 9 December 1974. A raid by Dublin special branch missed the IRA leaders but subjected the clergy to searches and interrogation. As a result of the aborted talks, the IRA leadership declared a Christmas ceasefire; although violence eventually resumed, and reached the same levels again for years after Feakle, it is possible that the talks caused a little movement in the log-jam.
The Feakle talks were attended with great personal risks – the churchmen feared kidnapping or worse. Afterwards, those involved suffered a great deal of criticism, even opprobrium, once word got out; unusually, authorities in the methodist church formally disavowed their former president's initiative. Gallagher received death threats from loyalists and a call from a congregational member whose son had been killed by the IRA; she was outraged that he had met terrorists, but he told her that he did so to try to prevent more young men being killed. Gallagher was personally overjoyed to experience the reassurance that his congregation overwhelmingly supported him, and the Christmas collection on Belfast streets for the work of the BCM broke records that year. (Gerry Fitt (qv), a long-time friend, made an annual trip downtown expressly to hand Gallagher a five-pound donation).
Gallagher and Bishop Cahal Daly (1917–2009), later the Roman catholic primate of all Ireland, headed a working party which sat 1973–6, and were joint signatories of its published report, Violence in Ireland. Relationships such as this between catholic and protestant churchmen had been fostered by initiatives taken by Gallagher, particularly during his chairmanship of the ICC (1967–9). There were also important talks at Ballymascanlon House Hotel in Co. Louth, first held on 26 September 1973, and regularly thereafter, which involved the Roman catholic hierarchy and senior protestant churchmen from the ICC, including Gallagher, who presented a typically challenging paper at the first session. Ballymascanlon marked the first occasion when the catholic church officially participated at the highest level in the ecumenical movement in Ireland. The Ballymascanlon talks were later formalised as the Irish Inter-Church Meeting.
Retirement (which officially dated from 1979) was a concept that Gallagher seems not to have understood, and he remained an important figure in Irish methodism and ecumenism. He edited the influential monthly Methodist Newsletter (1979–95) and, like his father, served as president of the Irish branch of the Wesley Historical Society. His own experience of religious rapprochement is documented in Christians in Ulster 1968–1980 (1982), a useful historical source, which he wrote jointly with Stanley Worrall, the former headmaster of Methodist College. He also wrote Ecumenism in Ireland: experiments and achievements, 1968–80 (1980) and At points of need: The story of the Belfast Central Mission (1989). He served on the Press Council (UK) (1978–81), was invited to meet Pope John Paul II on his visit to Ireland in 1979, was a member of the religious advisors panel of Ulster Television in 1980, a founder member of Anglo–Irish Encounter in 1983, and led a three-day inter-denominational pilgrimage to Iona in 1984. His final contribution to peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland occurred when he was 80 and served as one of seven distinguished commissioners (1992–3) who worked with the Norwegian human rights scholar Torkel Opsahl to take submissions from over 3,000 Northern Ireland people on their views on the future of the province. Much earlier, on 13 November 1971, in a speech in Scotland to the Royal Institute of International Affairs (better known as Chatham House), Gallagher had outlined suggestions for a possible solution to the question of Ulster's governance, which prefigured the power-sharing settlement of the 1990s.
QUB awarded Eric Gallagher an honorary DD in 1971; in 1972, in recognition of his services to education and ecumenism, he was made OBE, and in 1987 was advanced to CBE. A Festschrift, Esteem: liber amicorum: essays in honour of Revd Dr R. D. E. Gallagher, appeared in 1994, edited by T. W. Mulryne and W. J. McAllister. Shortly afterwards, Gallagher became seriously ill and had to undergo regular kidney dialysis; he died in hospital in Lisburn on 30 December 1999, survived by his two daughters and one son. His wife, who had developed Alzheimer's disease, died in 1995. The chapel in the rebuilt Belfast Central Mission is named in honour of Eric Gallagher and his wife.