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A Peaceful Heart

By: Kathleen Fueston
            When you first meet Frances McAneny, you would never guess the ordeal she has been through by speaking to her.  She is warm and friendly. She is a woman of influence by her example and the way she chooses to live her life.  Frances was born and raised in Northern Ireland in the town of Strabane, just 14 miles south of Derry.  Her father was Protestant and her mother was Catholic, but this was never a conflict in her family.  She described her early years by saying “we went about our normal life in an abnormal situation.”  She and her family were not caught up in the Troubles that were going on, but they were aware of them on a daily basis. She remembers driving with her family when gun shots were fired outside the car.  Her father would pull over and they would get out of the car and lay on the ground until the shooting stopped.  Then they would get back in and take off on their previous conversation. 

As a young adult, Frances worked in Belfast for a time.  She worked in a civil servant job which was often a target for combatants. She went through several bomb scares and remembered one time when her office had to be evacuated and they literally had to jump over one of many bombs as they ran out of the building. 

This photo was taken on a wall in Belfast.
When Frances was 32, she was working in her home town of Strabane. She was engaged and just 3 weeks away from getting married to her fiancé Seamus.  One day she was walking into work with a friend who was a volunteer police officer.  Frances met up with him on the sidewalk and about 50 yards before going into their office, sub machine gun shots rang out.  Frances felt a burning feeling in her shoulder and then inside her body. Before she knew it she was in an ambulance on her way to the hospital.  The medics told her she had been shot and that they needed to call her parents.  Frances said that would not be a good idea because her mom would not handle it well, but the call was made.  She was soon in surgery and she does not remember anything else until about 12 days later when she finally awoke.  She was told she had been in surgery over 6 hours and had been given 20 liters of blood.  Surgeons had worked to fix her arm where the bullet had entered her body. They had to repair her lung that had been torn open by the bullet and several ribs that were broken and fragmented.  But even more difficult than that, they had to figure out how to take out the bullet that was lodged between her heart and her main artery. The doctors determined it was too risky to take it out and so to this day she lives with that bullet inside her chest. Just after the surgery the consultant told her family that they had left her comfortable to die.

At one point in hospital, she asked about the details of what had happened the day of the shooting and was told she was the only one shot in that incident and the perpetrator was not caught.  Her analysis is that the bullet was probably meant for her friend, the police officer, but she was hit instead.  In the years since the tragedy there have been speculations as to who pulled the trigger that changed Frances’ life, but no one has been caught or come forward. 

            Frances was in hospital for 7 weeks. There was a patient in hospital by her that required a security guard and that helped Frances feel a bit safer, but the trauma of the incident settled in quickly.  She feared that whoever perpetrated the crime would show up at some point to finish out what they started.  The fear and worry was engulfing at times.  When Frances was released from the hospital her wound had not healed yet. It took from September to December for it to heal, but she had no use of her left arm and panic and dread were constant companions.  They told her they could do nothing more for her and sent her home to get on with her life. They were surprised she had lived this long. 

When one spends time with Frances, you quickly feel from her a quiet peace.
Quote by W. B. Yeats. Photo taken at St. Columb's Cathedral.
Frances’ mother had to take care of her every need for some time. There were days that staying in bed with the blinds closed seemed like the best solution, but in time she knew that was not the solution.  Frances remembered one day when the doorbell rang as her mom was dressing her and she went to get the door.  Frances made up her mind she must start working to get use of her arm back. She flung the lifeless arm over on a rail and pushed herself up to work on getting dressed.   It was hard and painful work to strengthen her arm, but she was determined to be well again, physically and emotionally.  She knew that for some reason God chose to save her life and so she needed to get on with it. In Frances’ words, “We have to go places and go there by the grace of God.”  At that time she was not clear what God’s purpose was for her, but she knew it would be revealed if she moved forward with her life.

          Seamus and Frances had to postpone their marriage for over a year.  What was to be a rather large affair in the town cathedral was changed to a low profile event of 15 in a small parish close by.  Some years passed, but challenges continued.  The doctors told her having children could kill her, but their desire to have a child was greater than the risks or worry. A son was born to them in 1975 and they named him Cairan.

Frances outside the WAVE, the first center she attended
to work on overcoming her traumatic experience.
          Frances looked for resources to help her overcome her fears and to come to peace with what had happened to her.  She went to various programs and had some improvement, but many programs seemed to be biased to one side or the other.  “I kept getting placed in the victim box and I decided I didn’t want to be placed back into that box anymore.  I choose to move from victim to survivor.”  It was in 2000 when she met Maureen Hetherington at The Junction participated in the programs called Towards Understanding and Healing where she was able to tell her story that the true healing began. 

          Frances continues to have physical challenges from her experience and has had multiple surgeries through the years, but she rallies with each one to continue her life and her work.  “I consider everyday a blessing.”

Frances enjoys helping others by facilitating
Bead Sessions where participants select bead
that represent important events and people. those
beads are placed a bracelet which helps people
tell their personal story to others.
          Now Frances has been heavily involved in the work at the Junction. Her favorite project is facilitation work with individuals and groups, helping with storytelling for victims and survivors of the Troubles. She is a part of all that goes on at the Junction, but she likes to be in the background, where she can be quiet and listen. She is often found on the end of the phone and has been known to take calls in the middle of the night to help someone through a dark and anxious time.

          When asked what she would do if someone was charged with the shooting that nearly took her life she said, “I’ve already forgiven them. They have had to live with this knowledge of what they did all of these years.  They have had the harder road, so I forgave them a long time ago.  It does me no good to hold on to such negative feelings. Many people who have been victimized by the Troubles want to be known as such.  I would rather be known as a survivor.”

Frances is a passionate advocate of peace building and she leads others by her own example. She is a mentor to many and she is a quiet woman of influence. When one speaks of her work at The Junction, Frances says “I must keep doing what I’m doing, hoping that what I’m doing will make a difference. It is baby steps and they get us where we need to go. Be gentle with everybody because it sometimes rubs off on people.  Maybe I’m simplistic but I believe we can live in peace.”

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