Two weeks into my Irish adventure I found myself in a bar in Callan telling the story of how Peter Brabazon and I had been at a convent in England in 1991 (the second time we had met at a convent!) and had sneaked off one evening to a pub by a canal to join the locals in an open mic. session.
It had been quite a whirlwind fortnight for me up until that point. At 3 o’clock on the morning of November 12th I had scraped the heavy frost off my car and driven away from my house in Canterbury where I’d lived for twenty-five years and where my wonderful wife of thirty-one years was upstairs in our cozy, warm bed. Just over seven hours later I found myself at the port of Pembroke in Wales. It was grey, it was raining, there was barely a soul to be seen, and I had three and a half hours to hang around until the ferry left for Rosslare. I felt utterly alone and wondered what on earth I was doing. As if to add insult to injury, the fingerprint sensor on my phone had decided to stop working!
There came to mind a message that had been sent to me the day before by a dear friend of the Irish Chaplaincy, the charity I had worked for since 2017, following twenty-eight years as a member of L’Arche Kent. I must have confided to Karinna in the days before my departure that I had decidedly mixed feelings about the whole business of moving because she wrote to me, “Go to it, and don’t be like Lot’s wife; don’t look back!” I had to google Lot’s wife! I discovered that she and Lot appear in the book of Genesis and are urged by an angel to flee Sodom. They are warned by the angel not to look back. What does Lot’s wife do? She looks back, and is promptly turned into a pillar of salt.
Not wishing to be turned into a pillar of salt, I drove into the town and found a nice little café serving big breakfasts. Both the food and the friendliness of the woman serving me lifted my spirits. So too the jovial bit of banter with the security man in the port. “Are you going home,” he asked me, to my surprise. I gave a rather incoherent reply to the effect that I had left my home and was on my way to a situation that was sort of familiar but very unfamiliar at the same time! Close to my thoughts were my parents, who had gone across the Irish Sea in the opposite direction: my dad having left Galway in 1949 and my mum departing from her native-Newry in 1957; with them meeting and marrying in Coventry. I tried to clarify my remark to the security man by saying that I was going to Kilkenny to be CEO of a fantastic organisation called L’Arche and he waved me on with the words, “You’ll have a great time.”
I was wondering how it would feel when we finally landed in Ireland. I took a look out at the Wexford coastline and I felt instantly at home. I passed the sign bidding me ‘Céad Míle Fáilte,’ I put my total trust in the lady on Google Map that she would get me safely to Callan, and truly I did not look back.
Chris greeted me at An Síol and we had a cup of tea and a chat. And Mairead and Peter had kindly invited me for a meal at their house. By happy chance, I had also the day before received a card from Peter. It had a picture of the bright red front door of An Síol. The words inside the card were, “We don’t have a red carpet for you but at least a red door!”
This was the latest in several very apt cards that Peter has sent me over the years. One time, it was a picture of a bus stop in Callan (in fact, the bus stop in Callan!). On the Perspex screen, almost invisible to the eye, there is a little verse from the second book of Corinthians, ‘We walk by faith, not by sight.’ Back in August, when I’d been on the way for my L’Arche CEO interview I had suddenly been beset by doubts and as I was walking up that main street in Callan I remembered that verse in the bus shelter and went over to read it. Those words gave me comfort then and have continued to give me comfort in my occasional moments of doubt or desolation.
Coming to Ireland has certainly been a step in faith for me, and I have been carried along, in part, by the kindness and friendliness of a multitude of people. Yes, there have been one or two low moments, but alongside that many moments of pure joy.
One of which was in Keoghs bar on a Saturday night where I joined a bunch of musicians, including Peter with his mandolin, for the monthly session. The mic was being passed from one person to the next and when it came to me for the first time I sang a song that Peter introduced me to, ‘The Voyage’ by Johnny Duhan. It has been especially poignant for me in these weeks, following my own voyage in faith. The next time the mic arrived in front of me I said I was going to sing my wife’s favourite song. When I got to the chorus of ‘When you were sweet 16’ it sounded as if every single person in that crowded bar was singing along with me and, with the different instruments as well doing lovely harmonies, it was an utterly magical moment.
Then it came to my third song and I decided to tell the story of how I first met Peter. We had been on a week-long silent retreat for new L’Arche assistants in 1989 and had shared a room. We didn’t say a word to one another for the entire week (we both took the silence very seriously) but we played music together each day during the liturgies. We next met in 1990 on a formation week for house leaders. It was held in a very quirky convent in England called Cold Ash (mention that name to anyone of a certain generation of L’Arche UK assistants and you will get some interesting responses!). Again, we played music together each day. And then in 1991 we were at a L’Arche event being held at another convent in a place called Ditchingham on the Norfolk/Suffolk border in England. And yes, we sneaked off one night to the pub and were allowed two songs each. I did something by U2, ‘All I want is you.’ And I did the song that I sang again thirty-two years later in a bar in Callan; another song which is particularly apt for me at this time of leaving a place and, albeit temporarily, the person I love. It was ‘The Leaving of Liverpool.’
I’m always struck by how our stories weave in and out of one another’s, and how we can touch each other in the most profound ways. How blessed I have been so far in my Irish adventure. And what incredible gifts can be in store for us if we but take that step in faith…