Musical Memories from Montreal (and other places)

We had been invited by Declan in our final time of morning prayer at the L’Arche International Extended Leadership meeting in Montreal to recall our first encounter with L’Arche and how it had touched our heart.

My first contact with L’Arche was a visit to the community in Liverpool in 1985. After the warm welcome, there was a community gathering in the large basement room of one of the houses and my stand-out memory was an Irish assistant, Kevin McCann leading us in a joyful rendition of ‘He’s got the whole world in his hands.’ I didn’t actually join L’Arche at that time, deciding instead to go to a Camphill community. However, when I was considering L’Arche again in 1988 it was music that sealed the deal. I’d arrived at the founding house of L’Arche Kent just in time for the evening meal. There were about twenty people gathered around an enormous oval table. We ate a delicious tuna pizza that one of the assistants had made and there was lively conversation and banter amidst a very diverse and international group. ‘What an interesting bunch of people,’ I thought to myself. After the meal we processed into the living room for a most moving time of prayer, then an Irish guy called Gerry O’Riordan picked up a guitar and sang some James Taylor songs. I was ready to sign up for life!

I managed twenty-eight years in the end but then needed a change and I had seven happy years with the Irish Chaplaincy, a London-based charity. But as was said several times during the meeting in Montreal, L’Arche is like the Hotel Californian: ‘You can check out any time you like but you can never leave!’ In November 2023 I found myself moving to Kilkenny to become the new Leader/ CEO of L’Arche Ireland. And the music has continued. When I’m on a community visit I usually bring my guitar with me. It’s the beautiful hand-made Ovation that I was given by a complete stranger in Los Angeles in 1995 after my guitar had been stolen at a L’Arche event in Portland, Oregon. I’ve played that guitar at many a L’Arche gathering. Thanks to my work at the Irish Chaplaincy I’ve also had the chance to play it with groups of Travellers in prison, and with elderly Irish in care homes in London.

I didn’t have the Ovation with me in Montreal but there was a guitar there, thanks to Thomas who was one of the translators. We made good use of it! I also had conversations with a few people during the meeting about musical memories. On the first day I’d chatted with Vince, a Board member of L’Arche Canada. I was touched when he told me that a powerful memory for him of the Federation meeting in Belfast in 2017 was a big international gathering of people with and without intellectual disabilities going out one evening to a karaoke bar and being warmly greeted by the locals. I shared with him that one of my strongest memories of the Federation meeting in Quebec in 1993 was being in a bar one night with a bunch of Canadians and Henri Nouwen singing a Dutch (supposedly!) children’s song together with Jan, a Dutch fellow-member of L’Arche Kent!

When I met Des (Co-ordinator of L’Arche in Scotland and the North of England) one morning at breakfast I declared to him that whenever I hear the Ronan Keating song ‘When you say nothing at all’ I think of him! He had sung it, beautifully, at a L’Arche UK couples event some twenty-five years before. I hadn’t seen him since.

Claire who is Leader of L’Arche in Australia and also a musician suggested that we sing a bit while the group was arriving for the morning conferences and that went down well, with several people coming up to me later to say how much they’d enjoyed it. And then there were the evening sessions, after the formal programme had ended. There was a bar on site and it was full of L’Arche members one night and we had the guitar with us. Jean-Benoit, or JB, Leader of French-speaking Belgium, kicked off with an impressive version of ‘Let it Be’ and I followed that with ‘Molly Malone,’ and a couple more Beatles numbers.

You could hardly move in the bar for guitarists and everyone wanted a piece of the action!  Declan (who supports L’Arche in New Zealand) did ‘The Wild Rover,’ JB did more stuff, Curt (Canadian living in L’Arche in France), did one or two more mellow songs. I had the room rocking again with ‘500 miles.’ Kate from Kansas City, and who supports L’Arche in Bangladesh, did a shy but lovely version of ‘Landslide.’ Des did ‘When you say nothing at all.’ We even let Thomas do a few tunes on his guitar! I especially enjoyed playing ‘When you were sweet 16’ and ‘Wonderful tonight.’ The evening had been wonderful indeed. As I said to the group in the final formal session of the conference, “I left L’Arche seven years ago and it’s great to be back!” After I’d sung ‘When you were sweet 16’ Muirne from the L’Arche Ireland Board said to me, “You were made to come to Ireland!”

Vince was in musical action again, together with his Canadian colleagues, at the end of our sessions on governance. It could have appeared to an observer that a sizeable group of people had flown in from every corner of the L’Arche world and spent a day and a half discussing governance and other important issues and not really resolving anything! Hence the opening words of the song (in English and French!) that the Canadians had adapted from the Gloria Gaynor classic:

At first we were afraid, we were petrified

We travelled all this way to find out we would not decide…

However, after the line ‘Will our dreams dry up and die?’ the final verse begins:

Oh, no, not L’Arche, L’Arche will survive

As long as we know how to love, we know we’ll stay alive

And so the music continued during the week. There was a lovely ceremony one evening at which all of those new to their role, including me, received some gifts and a blessing. We began with the John Coleman (former Leader of L’Arche Australia) classic that I sing every year on the L’Arche Alps retreat, ‘Let us Drink,’ and I was pleased to sing a little blessing song I’d come up with for the occasion in English, French and German, according to the mother tongue of the person.

Then we had St Patricks Day. It was the day that Declan led the prayer and he played a gorgeous piece of music that he had written with Mike Foulkes of L’Arche Cork. We also sang another fantastic John Coleman song, ‘Bush Beatitudes’ (which I’ve listened to many times on his CDs) and Claire led us in actions for the lyrics ‘on you go, on you go, on you go.’ I could barely sing for tears. I was delighted then that Declan let me play at the end my setting of ‘St. Patrick’s Breastplate.’

We were sad to go our separate ways but I suspected that the memories, especially the musical ones, would remain in the heart and sustain us for a very long time to come…

Eddie Gilmore