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Features

Bury the hatchet

Pádraig Ó Tuama

In peace-making, the hardest truths often only emerge late at night around the fire Pádraig Ó Tuama tells of bravery and tears along Northern Ireland's road to reconciliation - and gives thanks for the communion of tea, shared tragedies and a sacred space called Corrymeela.

Bury 2

I heard of a woman who was shunned out of her community in Belfast. She had an hour to pack a life and leave. She had two children. She didn't know where to go and a white van turned up from Corrymeela. The driver said, ' I'll take you somewhere safe.' And having no other option, she piled her bags, her children, what of her life she could take and her very own self into the van.

Not knowing who or what Corrymeela was, she also took a hatchet.

Corrymeela began as a place of peace in a place of deepening division. Ray Davey, its founder, had been an army chaplain during the second world war and was captured and held in Dresden where he witnessed the Allied Forces' bombing of that very same city. He could no longer think of sides. When he returned to Belfast he began the dream-making behind the Corrymeela Community, an open village, a place of safety where people of diverse identities, politics, religions and viewpoints could gather for learning, community and faith. There were some nights in the 1970s when they slept scores of people whose own homes had been made unsafe.

What happened to the hatchet? I'm sure she kept it. I met a man who said that when there was trouble on his street, he slept on the upstairs landing, in front of his children's bedroom doors. He slept with a hatchet. He slept, armed, for their safety.

 

FIRELIT TRANSFORMATIONS

The folks of Corrymeela have long believed that human encounter between people who believe and think different things can have a transformative effect. Transformative because it is more courageous to have an argument with a person in a room than never entering that room in the first place.

Transformative because when you can be in a place of beauty it might be that your mind can be open to new and creative possibilities, and because to lighten the shadow of our land, we must all speak of our own shadows. Transformative because when you have an ethic that challenges scapegoating, you may be able to open up a way of reflecting on your own shortcomings. Transformative because they believe in the power of the shared table and the poured cup of tea. Morning meetings start late in Corrymeela, because they know that there are some conversations that can only take place in the dark, by firelight.

Many of my poems were written following participation in encounter groups where adults met and spoke with each other, run by Corrymeela, or East Belfast Mission. One woman got up once, and left the room because a question had been too difficult. When she came back, another woman said, 'I cry in the bathroom too.' It was an acknowledgement, a solidarity, a sharing of the ground. It was also a containing kind of kindness. It helped her hold herself together.

People spoke of enjoying being chased by police in the riots, a blind woman spoke of walking up roads with permanent potholes, an art teacher spoke of the prisoner who used to paint the flowers from the still life class every day until they died, women spoke of being divided by a large green gate, and finding new stories when they practiced the language of fruitful disagreement.

 

NECESSARY LIES

People come from other places too, many from places of conflict. One time, a roomful of people were asked when they first became aware of conflict in their society. They told stories of five-year-old wisdom, sixyear- old horror, seven-year-old lessons. They told stories of learning to lie so that your daddy's police job wouldn't be known. They told stories of parents lying in order to keep a semblance of order. They told stories about guns under beds, about knowing why you don't go out at night, and stories about playing doctors and nurses for bomb victims. We had artists and poets there, responding to the stories. The art does not stop the story, or even heal the story, but it can create a marking, bear some witness, honour the truth-time of the story told.

The Corrymeela Community believes that the quality of the telling of a story will be related to the quality of the listening of the people. There is no shortcut to human encounter. Susan McEwen told me this. So, she makes sandwiches and space and tea and provides tissues for the talking spaces that she holds, and she holds them well. She curates encounters with a careful tone. She's the one who invited poets and artists to listen. And she tells us that we must listen well.

Etymology hints at some words in the hidden fabric of the word 'story'. We hear echoes of words that have been used to speak of the wise people and echoes of words that mean seeing. To tell a story means to see wisely. It is wise to speak of grief. It is wise to not rush hope. It is wise to not end a story before it is ended. It is wise to listen. It is wise to see. A blind woman took part in a long-term story project once and she told us of how she saw The Troubles. She used the word 'saw' and laughed at us. She had had a landlady who used to follow and watch for her safety when she, independent and confident, walked down roads that were known for hostility. She walked bravely and she heard and saw what was really going on.

 

SACRAMENTAL STORIES

Once, in a room, a person spoke about having taken a life. Another spoke about a war. Another spoke about legitimate targets. Others said that some things are regrettable. Others said that they live every day with the truth of their doing. Language is so loaded and in the middle of it all, one man used his words to name the names of people he'd bereaved. Parent. Sister. Friend. Partner. Children.

Another time when I was travelling, I met Ali Abu Awaad from the Parents' Circle, a forum for bereaved Israeli and Palestinian family members. It was Good Friday and I had hoped to pray but couldn't find the concentration. Ali, chain smoking, spoke in his third language with dignity. He told stories of humanity and generosity. After that, I didn't feel the need to pray, as Ali had done it for me. I felt the need to tell him this, to tell him that his telling had sacramentalised this holy hallowed hollow day. But when I tried to tell him this, looking out over the hills of Beit Sahour, I just cried and couldn't stop. He put his hand on my shoulder and whispered, 'I'm not a very good Muslim,' and I laughed and said, 'I'm not a very good Catholic.' We stood and looked over the beloved hills.

One woman said that she wasn't sure if meeting people from the other side was going to be kind. She'd lost three members of her family, she said, and she wondered if the folks she'd be meeting would be embarrassed to meet someone like her, the pitiable victim of a national cause. Another man said that when he was sentenced to inhuman jail time, he wondered what had happened to the humanity of the judge.

 

GOOD ME

The Irish word for forgiveness is maithiúnas. It comes from the word maith, meaning good. The word is the same, or similar, in Cymraeg, Gaelg and Gàidhlig - other languages spoken across the islands of Britain and Ireland. To forgive someone is 'to good' them. To forgive someone is to treat them with the goodness with which they did not treat you. Curiously, this syntax arranges power as the possession of the troubled one. It is they who can good, and if the one whose hands caused the trouble asks for forgiveness, they say 'maith dom', 'good me'. Forgiveness is not a person, place or thing. Forgiveness, like priesthood, if it is to be anything, must be a verb.

Mind you, it isn't the only way to pack up your troubles. Forgiveness can be a burdening thing too and there are many good ways to honour bereavement. For some, forgiving is too much like forgetting, no matter what we say. I wouldn't argue with them. So they pour pure energy into justice, story finding, body finding and survival. Maybe that hatchet doesn't need to be buried. Maybe it can be used − to fell a tree, to clear a path, to build a house, to shine, to be proud of.

 

The Pedagogy of Conflict

I

When I was a child,
I learnt to lie.
When I was a child
my parents said that sometimes,
lives are protected
by an undetected
light lie of
deception.

When I was a child,
I learnt to lie
now, I am more than twenty five
and I'm alive
because I've lied
and I am lying still
sometimes
it's the only way of living.

II

When I was a child
I learnt that I could stay alive
by obeying certain
rules:

Let your anger cool before you
blossom bruises on your brother's shoulder;

Always know your manners at the table;

Always keep the rules and never question;

Never mention certain things to certain people;

Never doubt the reasons behind
legitimate aggression;

If you compromise or humanise
you must still even out the score;

And never open up the door.
Never open up the door.
Never, never, never
open up the blasted door.

When I was a child,
I learnt that I could stay alive
by obeying certain rules.
Never open up the door

III

When I was a child,
I learnt to count to five
one, two, three, four, five.
but these days, I've been counting lives, so I count
one life
one life
one life
one life
one life
because each time is the first time
that that life has been taken.

Legitimate target
has sixteen letters
and one
long
abominable
space
between
two
dehumanising
words.

 

Bury the Hatchet and the Pedagogy of Conflict are extracts from Sorry for Your Troubles by Pádraig Ó Tuama (Canterbury Press, 2013).

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