In May I attended a David Wilcox
show. I've been a big fan since 1990, but hadn't seen him for a while. But when I heard he was playing at a pub two blocks from my house it seemed churlish not to show up. B. and I had a great time and I got to stand on stage holding my phone where he could see the lyrics for one of his older songs. He mentioned that he would be co-leading a retreat in Northern Ireland in August and in the rush of excitement after the show, I checked it out. It was surprisingly cheap for what was offered and the dates happened to perfectly fit into the time that Alice was already scheduled to be in Seattle. Participation is not guaranteed--there's an application process so that they can assemble a group they think will work well together. I emailed the main facilitator, Gareth Higgins
, and learned that yes, there was still room, so after remarkably little conversation, I submitted an application for Jason and myself. And suddenly we were going to Northern Ireland. You can see all of our photos on Flickr
, if you're interested.
We flew over on Monday, via Newark. Unsurprisingly, there are no direct flights from Boston to Belfast, still. We were able to check in early to the Europa Belfast
, gorgeous and conveniently adjoining the central bus station where we were to meet our group the next day. We napped, then dragged ourselves out for a walk that included a quick hour's tour of the Ulster Museum
before it closed for the day.
It was a lovely evening and we strolled for quite a while in the Botanic Gardens, which has one of the most beautiful rose gardens I've ever encountered, as well as a lovely glasshouse.
Back at the hotel I managed to stay awake by showering and then we headed out to Mourne Seafood, where we had a delightful meal in a casual atmosphere--their pickled fish was a particular highlight.
We fell into bed and slept for ten hours, which gave us just time to pack up and grab our favorite pizza (pepperoni & rocket) at Pizza Express before it was time to meet our bus.
Waiting outside the Caffe Nero was Ruthanne, recognizable by her pile of luggage and American je ne sais quoi
. Inside the shop we found other fellow travellers, exchanging the password "Are you waiting for Gareth?" At last our driver, Niall, arrived and took us around the corner to a 25-passenger "people carrier" that was to take us down the coast to Kilkeel in County Down. Our accommodations for the first half of the retreat were in Hanna's Close, a group of cottages a mile or so outside of town.
Built in the 17th century, they were restored in 1997, so they have electricity and indoor plumbing and fairly modern kitchens. But they also have stone floors and plastered stone walls and fireplaces and a cozy, rustic feel. We were assigned housemates based mostly on how the rooms were configured; our house (Johnny's Cottage) included ourselves, a woman from Colorado, a mom from Richmond, VA and her daughter from Portland, who is also a theatre director, so we had lots to talk about.
Each morning we made our own breakfasts from supplies provided. On two of the mornings one of the other leaders, Karen Moore, led a contemplative session for anyone who wanted to join her. Jason was a little concerned that something I'd said might make people think he was just along for the ride and I encouraged him to attend the first of these alone in order to counteract that idea. On the other morning I joined him. Karen had a selection of quotations on slips of paper and we each pulled one, sat with it for a while, and then read it aloud and spoke about what it evoked for us. Karen has a marvelously calm and centered air--one of the other participants said that she got from Karen the best hug she had ever received from a stranger. At the same time she's happy to giggle at a good joke, or at herself and I really enjoyed spending time with her.
In the later morning we'd have a full group session, led by Gareth or Dave. Gareth would tell us a story and then give us exercises around one of its themes. We talked about stopping negative self-talk, being our own best friend, and learning to tell ourselves better stories. I loved Gareth's stories and his way of telling them and it was lovely connecting with the other participants, getting to know them and their perspectives and concerns. In some ways this was the least satisfying part of the retreat for me, because the issues that Gareth was focusing on don't happen to be challenges for me these days. But I got a lot out of these sessions anyway. I particularly liked Gareth's framing of the "better stories" idea: focusing on stories of abundance, ease, and acceptance, rather than scarcity, struggle, and judgment.
When it was Dave's turn he would play for us and talk about the experience of crafting songs, of sitting "in the empty room with the blank page." He explores some very interesting ideas through his songs and talked at length about using the observer within yourself to deepen emotional experiences by remembering that you have choices. He also talked about the challenge of realizing that the biggest obstacles in your life may be behind you--and what do you do then? A couple of times he performed what he calls Medicine Music, when he listens to someone speak about what's in their hearts, or on their minds, and then creates a song that connects to the issues raised. He did this for me one cool, rainy morning, sitting together in Tommy's Cottage, under an amazing thatched roof in front of a peat fire warming the stone floor. He said a friend once marveled at how he does this, making up the chords, the melody and the words on the spot, like he has two brains. Dave said "Yeah...or none." I'll share the song in a separate post--it's not at all polished, but it has some lovely turns of phrase. The experience of having someone whose work I love create something beautiful for me was an incredible gift and there is part of myself that will live in that moment always.
We piled back on the bus in the afternoons, heading to nearby towns for lunch on our own before reconvening to explore together. One day Gareth took us to his favorite place, Silent Valley.
We climbed the dam at Ben Crom and then walked the three miles back down to where the bus met us. It was grey day, but the valley is beautiful and it was lovely to walk along in shifting groups, chatting with the other participants. There were twenty-three people in the group, including four leaders, two family members, and seventeen visitors. They came from all over the US--Cincinnati, Minnesota, Colorado, California, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, the Carolinas--and one gentleman from up near Thunder Bay in Canada. We were couples and singles and two mother-daughter pairs.
One of the more awkward aspects of the whole retreat was the relationship between the different categories. I think part of the problem was that two of the four facilitators had family members with them--Dave brought his wife, Nance, and Laurel brought her daughter, Sabby (short for Isabella, which is not a nickname I'd heard before). One of the other participants was also a personal friend of Dave's, who is developing a tv show about the Troubles. They were all lovely people, interesting to talk with, but it pulled Dave and Laurel's focus to them, created a slightly weird dynamic, and I think added to the stress that Gareth was under. He was having a lot of trouble sleeping--two of the group were Reiki practitioners and did at least one session with him that he said helped him. It seemed that at least some of our time on our own was occasioned by Gareth not having it together to deal with leading us, though it's hard to say without being able to compare it to other trips (this was their sixth).
Our second outing in County Down was to the St. Patrick Centre
in Downpatrick, which has a very interesting exhibit about Patrick, his writings, his life, and how it's been interpreted. One of the most interesting tidbits I hadn't known was that the Catholic church made it a requirement that every altar have a relic in order to be consecrated, creating the reliquary market. We also got to see a movie tour of various other sites in Northern Ireland connected with St. Patrick that included some beautiful swooping footage of the area as viewed from a helicopter. From there we went on to Saul, where it is said that Patrick erected his first church. The church that's there now is much more modern and is a simple, quiet place in the midst of a graveyard with views of the surrounding area.
Gareth told us the story of Bayard Rustin
, an important, but little-known figure in the Civil Rights Movement, tying his commitment to non-violence into the peacemaking theme of the week, and to Gareth's own position about St. Patrick, which is that regardless of what one thinks of the Catholic message that he brought, he was the first outsider to treat the Irish as if they were fully human and worthy of the gift that he had to give.
In the evenings after our outings we had simple dinners together in the largest of the cottages at Hanna's Close and then gathered to meet and talk with guest speakers. The first was Gail McConnell
, a lecturer on poetry at Queen's University in Belfast. Gareth interviewed her, drawing out the story of her father--a policeman in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, like Gareth's--who was shot in front of her when she was three, and of her search and work for peace and understanding. "Forgiveness," she said "can make horror bearable." Gail read to us several poems, including Belfast Confetti
and Least Action
, which sparked a lot of conversation.
The second guest was Philip Orr, a historian and playwright. He brought some artifacts with him--a button jar, a vase made from a World War I shell casing, flags and emblems from the Loyal Orange Lodge--and discussed their provenance and historical significance. One of my favorite things he said was that "death is not lovely, but there are lovely moments in it." Gareth interviewed Philip about his work helping various groups to create plays from oral histories of their experiences during the Troubles. I'm interested in reading his play Halfway House
, about two women living in a house divided by the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. He talked about his work as part of the storytelling tradition of the seanchaí
, a word that quite intrigued me. The conversation ended in a discussion of Brexit and its potential impact on Northern Ireland.
During the morning session on our last day in Hanna's Close, Gareth explained that after lunch and until after breakfast the next day we were requested to be silent. I wondered if I would find that hard, or if I might find it deeply meaningful. The answer was no, not really, in either direction. It was a bit of a hassle communicating when necessary through gesture, but I didn't feel any pressure to speak. I took a nap and then Jason and I went for a long walk along the accessible section of the Kilkeel River, just below Hanna's Close, and out around the sheep pasture and along the road that led through a couple of other farms.
We've spent a lot of time walking together all over the world, so that was comfortable, though I missed being able to talk with him about what we were seeing. I also had a glancing encounter with stinging nettle that might have been avoided with a verbal warning, but that faded by the next day. Back at Johnny's Cottage, Jason heated up the frozen pizzas we'd been given for our supper and in the evening we sat in the living room with our housemates. I sketched out a rough plan for a play I'm thinking of directing next fall and then colored for a while in the book I'd brought with me. Overall I found myself thinking that there's not a lot of need for silence in my relationships--though I'm always looking for ways to listen more deeply, I'd rather use my time in communication--but then I thought of a friend who was on my mind a lot through the week, with whom I have such high bandwidth communication that our conversation has been described as a spectator sport for others in the room, but with whom I think it could be good to spend more time in mindful appreciation of simply being together. I was glad to have spent the time in silence, simply to have experienced that and seen what I might glean from it.
We gathered after breakfast in the morning, broke our silence, and some of the others talked about their experiences. Then we packed up and got on the bus to head back to Belfast. We stopped for lunch in Newcastle, where Jason and I had a nice Sunday lunch at the Percy French
, and then drove on to The Strand Arts Centre. This was the movie house where Gareth's love for film was inspired--he is, among other things, a film critic--and he had arranged for them to show us The Dam Keeper
, a short animated work, and then an Icelandic film, Rams
, about two brother sheepfarmers who haven't spoken to each other in decades. They were each beautiful and meaningful--Rams
was a bit of a slog, but the final scene was a great payoff.
After the movies we were taken to Lorne House
, our home for the rest of our trip. The headquarters of the Girl Guides of Northern Ireland, it's set up for groups of girls, so the rooms were all single beds in various configurations--ours had five. The public spaces were very elegant, including a beautiful conservatory that made me long for a lead pipe and wonder about secret passages.
The grounds are lovely, with fairy doors built into several of the trees.
It's just up the hill from the sea and on our first morning we made the beautiful walk along the shoreline to Holywood, where Gareth grew up. My favorite meal of the whole trip was a bowl of smoky seafood chowder at Johnny the Jig
. After lunch we strolled the Holywood high street and then headed back, enjoying the weather and the view.
That evening we gathered back at Lorne House to meet the Rev. Dr. Lesley Carroll
, a Presbyterian minister (though she's recently decided to leave the congregation she's served since 1998 and is under heresy charges from her bishop at the moment, though she doesn't think that will come to anything) who was part of the secret conversations between Sinn Fein and Ulster Unionists that eventually led to the 1994 ceasefire that was the beginning of the end of the Troubles.
Laurel and Sabby had to leave us at this point and Gareth thought he had recruited both his mother and sister to come and help Karen with food and other logistics, but in the end only his sister, Caryll, made it. Gareth had asked each of the women in the group to try to find an opportunity to talk with her and she and I ended up spending over an hour sitting under one of the trees near the house, talking about life and love. She's going through a very rough patch, but has a wicked sense of humor that I believe will get her through.
The next day we took the train into East Belfast, the Protestant section of town. We met with Jim Wilson, a former Red Hand Commando who is now involved in community development and bridge-building. He talked some about how he became involved in the violent struggles in the 1960s and what inspired his commitment to peace--his grandchildren. He led us around the neighborhood, showing us some of the many murals, including one just by his home that features his grandson and the granddaughter of a Catholic activist, with a poem that Jim wrote.
After a break for lunch in Belfast Center, where we introduced one of our fellow travelers to Yo! Sushi, we met up again at City Hall. From there we walked to West Belfast, the very Catholic neighborhood, and up the Falls Road
. Gareth described this as "the walk that no one makes," and how even the name "Falls Road" has a slightly sinister feeling to him, even though he never really felt comfortable in Protestant Belfast, either. At the top of the hill we reached Clonnard Monastery
, where we met Ed.
Ed is originally from New Jersey and has lived in Belfast for fourteen years, where he is married and has four children. He led us into the monastery, offered us tea and cookies, and then talked about the peacemaking work of the Redemptorists at Clonnard, which is known as the Cradle of the Good Friday Agreement. It was fascinating stuff with a very different energy and perspective than we'd found in East Belfast. One of the things I really noticed was how Ed's face would light up whenever he said "Pope Francis." After our conversation Ed took us to Parlor 4 (which happens to be Room 007, a fact that amuses Gareth) where the Secret Conversations took place and Gareth reflected on its humble nature: it's just a room.
Most of the participants left at that point, but a few of us stayed talking with Ed and he took us several flights up to a window where we could see the "Peace Wall" that divides their Catholic neighborhood from the adjacent Protestant streets.
Once we were done there, we were on our own for the rest of the evening. I was really sorry in retrospect that they scheduled it this way--I think could have all used a chance to decompress and share our impressions from the day and get more of the story from Gareth. Several of the others headed off for a pub, but we decided to have dinner on our own at Deane's Vin Cafe
. They had a special for three tapas and a carafe of wine, so we took two of those and it ended up being a lot of wine, but very tasty. Jason had checked out what was happening in Belfast on a Tuesday night in August--not much--and suggested that we catch a showing of Bobby Sands: 66 Days
. I was a bit over-Troubled by that point, but glad in the end that we saw it. It was less graphic and disturbing than I'd feared, but very interesting. I remember when it was happening, but didn't really have much context at the time. Jason felt that the ending voiceover argued that the eventual success of the hunger strike--after the death of ten strikers--demonstrated that non-violent resistance was more effective than armed struggle. I thought the message was more that the side that managed to create a better story won.
Perhaps the most surprising thing was the crowd--this was the film's third weekend and the cinema was more than half full and not with an art-house or activist crowd. The other thing that we noticed--here and on the rare occasions that we watched a bit of television--was how brutal Northern Irish advertising is. You can check out some of the ads we saw here
, but don't say I didn't warn you.
We were on our own for the entire last day of the retreat. I had really wanted to get up to the Giant's Causeway and it turned out that there were several tours that included stops at some of the filming locations for Game of Thrones
. We picked one and eleven of us ended up going. The places we visited were marvelous. I'll insert a few photos, but I encourage you to check out the whole set on Flickr--that day's photos start here
. We visited Carrickfergus (no connection, just a cool castle and a convenient bathroom stop) and drove slowly past Magheramorne Quarry, where Hardhome and Castle Black are filmed. We had a short stop in Carnlough, which doubled for one key location in Braavos (though most of those scenes are filmed in Morocco), and then a spectacular visit to the caves at Cushendun.
After a pre-ordered lunch at a pub in Ballycastle, we headed to Carrick-a-Rede, where we were given an hour to make our way down to and over the famous rope bridge. The descriptions of it stress how scary the bridge is, but unless you're super afraid of heights, it's really not bad at all and the views are amazing.
From there we went straight on to the Giant's Causeway, which is an astounding geological feature, exposed columnar basalt from Ireland's volcanic past, marching into the sea like stepping stones.
Our last stop was at the Dark Hedges
, a lovely avenue of beeches that was planted by the Stuart family in the 18th century.
As you can see, the places were amazing. Unfortunately, the logistics of the tour were...not. Our bus advertised five amenities on it's rear window: AC, TV, WiFi, Fridge, and Toilets. None of those were working. Without being able to show us clips from Game of Thrones
our guide had very little to say about any of the places we visited, or the countryside we were driving through. The transmission and shocks were shot--I was very surprised that we made it back up the hill at Carrick-a-Rede and we only did so in a cloud of smoke that left us choking for about ten minutes. It was a gorgeous day outside, but the sun made for an extremely hot ride, especially where we were sitting at the back. We stripped down as far as modestly possible, but it wasn't until Jason went up and found the button for the rear fan that we got some relief, after asking at every stop if there were any way to get more air back there. Our guide was incapable of communicating the timing clearly, or shepherding his charges, with the result that we ran later and later. He said there was roadwork in Ballintoy that would prevent our bus from getting down to see where Pyke Harbor is filmed, but we suspect he just didn't want to get any further off schedule. Our time at the Giant's Causeway was much shorter than advertised and he tried to talk us into skipping the Dark Hedges entirely. Our veto made us an hour late getting back to Belfast. We all agreed that the sites and the company had made the outing an overall pleasant one, and that the bus had been so bad as to be easily laughed over--as Jason put it, there was plenty of material for a story of abundance--but if you're ever there, I recommend picking a different company than Brit Movie Tours.
For our last dinner together we gathered over a goodly spread in the conservatory and Gareth put on music so we could have a dance party as we enjoyed the spectacular sunset.
Afterwards we had one last session of music and storytelling and a chance to say any last words about the trip. It was fairly low key and many of us had to be up early, so we broke up early and headed up to pack. I had another short conversation with Caryll, wished her well and promised to connect online, and then it was time for bed. A taxi picked us up for the ride back to Belfast International, we connected through Newark, and made it back to Somerville in time to see that evening's performance of The Spanish Tragedy
before we keeled over.
In the end, I think that if I had known more exactly what was in store for us, I probably wouldn't have decided to go. And I'm not sure that I would do it again, although I find myself more willing in thinking back on it than I was when I first arrived home. But at the same time I'm very glad that I went. The opportunity to get to know Dave was worth it and I very much enjoyed meeting Gareth and Karen and all the rest of the group. At the same time, it's not clear to me that I actually made any lasting connection with any of them, although continued online interaction might easily change that. The education on the Troubles from an insider perspective, or rather several, was intense and amazing and something I think will greatly influence my thinking about activism and peacemaking, and it was a unique opportunity. Both the city of Belfast and the countryside of Northern Ireland were lovely to visit and having a local guide to take us off the tourist path and tell us stories of life there was a fantastic travel opportunity.
One of the things the trip emphasized to me was how wealthy I am in terms of community. Several of the group made comments about how special the conversations we were having were for them, how hard it is to find like-minded people willing to talk openly and deeply and to share their authentic selves. And I've had periods of my life when that was true. But at this point I could pretty easily gather a dozen friends for that kind of conversation about important things, and at First Parish I feel that I could turn at any time to the nearest dozen and we'd have it, because that's pretty much what we're about. I am incredibly lucky to have friends that I can talk with and reflect on, who hold me accountable, and push me to evolve. So perhaps, like all truly great trips, the best part of this one was coming home with fresh eyes to appreciate all that waits for me here.