My Time on the Emerald Isle

It’s been a lovely stretch so far. Far more sunshine than I had anticipated. Now I sit on a boat bound for Scotland, saying farewell to Ireland. We just began floating, slowly making our way out of Belfast port. It feels like a nice moment to update folks on my journey so far. It’s not yet been two weeks, but it feels like a lot has happened. We’ll see how much I cover before we reach land.

I arrived tired to Dublin, not having rested much on the night flight from Toronto (via St. John’s). I found a hostel a couple hours before check-in time and crashed on a couch in the basement. Having told friends where I was, they awoke me three hours later and we headed out for lunch. We were coming for a retreat at Corrymeela, a reconciliation centre in the North of Ireland. They have been doing difficult and powerful reconciliation work since the mid-60s, even before the tensions broke out in ‘The Troubles’.

We learned a lot about the history of ‘The Troubles’ in museums and on walking tours, especially up in Belfast. But we began down in Dublin. After a hop-on, hop-off bus tour through the city, we (Maya, Sarah, Karen, and I) grabbed a pint of Guinness atop the brewery in the Gravity Bar. (Sarah helped finish mine.) We enjoyed a great view of the city from up there.

The next morning, Maya, Sarah and I arose early to see The Book of Kells at Trinity College (far more interesting and engaging than I figured), hopping a bus to Belfast just before noon. We then hurried through the Titanic museum before meeting up with our group at a hostel outside of the city centre. We got oriented and had time to get to know one another. After a simple dinner together, we watched a fascinating documentary by a popular local comedian; ‘My Dad, The Peace Deal and Me‘. We all quite enjoyed learning about some of Ireland’s struggles alongside characteristic wit and humour.

We visited a local museum the next day which had a section devoted to ‘The Troubles’, also grounding us in much of the historical underpinnings. It was intentionally set to the side of the museum with a warning to locals that it might stir up difficult memory and emotion. Even for those of us who were not Irish, it was very emotional. So much conflict and death, all so close to home. Coming from Canada, where the distinction between Catholic and Protestant is not all that pronounced, it felt shocking to me.

We had a walking tour through the city later that day, with Dead Centre Tours. It was both intense and sensitive, honouring both sides of the conflict in content and geography. Walking along the ‘peace walls’ and seeing the many political murals, the conflict felt very fresh. We walked through one gate around 3 PM only to see it close behind us, two cars screeching to a halt in the nuetral zone and having to turn around. Two confused tourists (on foot) were allowed to pass through. Our guide said that you would have to make a long detour around the gates at this time of the day. It has real impact on things like routes to hospitals, sometimes with life or death implications.

Making our way to Corrymeela’s Belfast office, we met with a theologian and mediator, beginning the formal portion of our program. It feels safe to say that our group was all on board from the beginning. The calibre of speakers and teachers we encountered was consistently top shelf. After lunch, we drove out into the country (some of us dozing off on the bus ride), arriving at Corrymeela later in the afternoon. The beauty and spaciousness of the property, sitting right on the coast, was very welcoming.

Our time at Corrymeela was impactful for each of us. We had an incredible facilitator, Paul Hutchinson, who led us through a lot of growth and difficult exploration. He used poetry, stories, movement, therapeutic exercises, games, questions, songs, deep listening and even random excerpts from Justin Trudeau’s ‘Common Ground’ to reach us. One among us dubbed him a ‘Jedi Master’ of therapy and mediation. He was astonishingly sensitive to our group dynamics, responding to the needs of our group in the moment, artfully shifting his program to suit us.

The week was somewhat of a beautiful blur of being largely in session with Paul (or ‘guest’ speakers and facilitators), punctuated with tea and biscuit breaks, good meals, good company and walks along the shore. We got out to the pub on two nights. We had a group trip to Derry (or Londonderry) one day. We saw where Bloody Sunday had taken place, guided on a walking tour by a man who had been there in the thick of it all. 13 Catholics dead at the hands of the supposedly ‘neutral’ British Army. Our guide, Michael, shared how busy he still was as a mediator, the conflict alive in Derry. He also shared that as a Catholic, he was not neutral, though unequivocally committed to peace and reconciliation. Spray paint on walls told us the IRA was still active, even if not actively or outwardly violent. Even more sharply than the divide in Belfast, neighbourhoods in Derry showed the strong contrast between their loyalties; some areas with strong green and orange colouration, posters and murals praising IRA freedom fighters; other areas waving the Union Jack and more ‘stately’ loyalist murals. Curbsides were red and blue in these parts of town. Here in Derry (what the Catholics call it, refusing to mention ‘London’ – or even defacing signs that include the British capital), there are dividing walls and gates also. They close at appointed hours and nobody can pass until the next day. Residents largely report a sense of peace and security associated with these divisions. Most fear their removal.

Back at Corrymeela, we dug into our inner work, encouraged to be considerate, curious and confidential, also keeping an eye on any inclination toward comparison, competition or controlling urges. Paul drew on so many helpful quotes I could hardly keep up, yet his delivery was always calm and accessible. “Don’t speak of judgement until you know infinite love” comes to mind as particularly meaningful. We were also shown a way to avoid all conflict – never engage in relationship, not even with yourself. As that does not sound the least bit attractive (or viable), Paul asked us a powerful question about our interpersonal intentions, something that has been replaying regularly in my mind since hearing it, something which we can draw upon when in conflict, however intense or subtle; Do you want to be right or in relationship? I absolutely love this one.

Overall, we were encouraged to encounter ourselves in greater depth, in greater complexity, acknowledging and embracing our multiplicity and contradictions. Rumi’s poem, The Guesthouse, was referenced as such an invitation. Have a read. Seamus Heaney mentions a “glimpsed alternative”, a place of encounter, where we can see things we are carrying around that may not be true, or no longer serving us. We were also urged not to miss the epic by looking for it.

I hosted a couple of morning meditations in the Croí (‘heart’ in Irish), which is Corrymeela’s place of worship and contemplation, folded into a hill behind two rough walls of rock. (There is a picture below.) I also joined in several morning and evening prayer times hosted by the community, enjoying some very potent sessions of silence and song. One night in particular, after some Taize devotional chanting, I experienced an especially powerful energetic connection. Its implications remain unclear, but it felt good.

One of the week’s major themes was singing across borders, reaching the sensitive places in our lives, places we may not even be welcome, and speaking our truth or singing our song despite the difficulty or conflict. This theme grew out of the story of Paul Robeson, a musician who was blacklisted as a Communist in the 50s, thus unable to leave the States (yet also unwelcome). He found a place up at the Canadian border and put on a concert, himself on the American side, his audience in Canada. He found a way to sing across borders, encouraging us to find ways to do the same.

After the group left, I headed off to spend a few quiet days walking along the coast. I wanted to see Giant’s Causeway and the surrounding area. It was gorgeous. The weather could not have been better for these days of walking. My feet were sore, but my heart was often filled to the brim. Feeling the ‘end of summer camp’ blues to some extent, this quiet time with nature – often staggering and powerful – was just what I needed. Traveling without a camera (yet inexplicably with a laptop), I was unable to capture any images of the beauty, so for your benefit I found a few photos of the area online.

I headed back to Belfast yesterday morning and had a quiet day walking around in the soft rain, more what I expected Ireland to be like. I hung out with friendly folk in the hostel, which was back by the Corrymeela city office. I recognized the area as I walked into it, having come this time on foot from the bus station.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

It’s hard to imagine a year has passed since I last posted. A year to the day. A lot has come and gone. I got home from India shortly after my last post, preparing for my first year back at school in over a decade. I still managed to get out to Nova Scotia with family for a week, and down to Nebraska for some more family visits (and the total solar eclipse), but I was mostly in and around Toronto, gearing up for school. It was a wonderful whirlwind of a year. I was challenged and supported, inspired and exhausted, and often at peace, also connecting with some really great folks throughout.

I’m grateful to be taking some quiet time to wander about this summer, unwinding and listening deeply for inner guidance. I have my tent with me (though I have yet to use it) and will find further opportunities to be absorbed in nature and silence. We’re about to dock here, so I’d better sign off and wish you all well. More news to come at some point! 🙂

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