Sunshine on Leith

I was delighted to be asked to sing a particular song on a L’Arche retreat, and it was a common thread linking together my first year at L’Arche, the recent retirement party of my wife, and my various encounters over the years with Maria who was leading the retreat. The central message of the song is, I suppose, how we help one another in the healing of hearts.

Maria and I were with a group from L’Arche Cork staying up the road from Rostrevor in Co. Down, where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea. Indeed, from my bedroom window I could see right down the valley to Carlingford Lough. How I revelled in that view. And as well as the physical beauty of the place, it was special for me to be so close to Newry, the town where my mum had grown up. How I enjoyed hearing again the local accent: such as I would have heard on my arrival into the world.

We were gathered one morning for a time of singing and prayer and Maria asked if I would do ‘Sunshine on Leith.’ She said she’d loved hearing it played at L’Arche events in the early 90s by myself and Anthony Kramers who had been with me at L’Arche Kent when I arrived there and then for many years was leader of L’Arche Edinburgh, which happens to be located in Leith, the old port area of the city. The song begins:

‘My heart was broken, my heart was broken.

Sorrow, sorrow, sorrow, sorrow.’

I added a few words to what Maria had said, introducing my little bit by pointing out how struck I always am by how our sacred stories weave in and out of one another’s. I explained that I hadn’t sung the song in a long time until a week and a half before, when my wife Yim Soon had asked me to sing it at a celebration in Canterbury to mark the end of her thirty-five years at L’Arche Kent. Yim Soon and I had met each other in 1989 when we’d spent a few months living at Faith House, one of the L’Arche houses in Canterbury. Anthony had been our house leader and he, together with Chris, one of the core members in the house, was a big fan of The Proclaimers (most famous for ‘500 Miles,’ which I also sang on the Rostrevor retreat!). Anthony, Chris and I would sing ‘Sunshine on Leith,’ and Yim Soon would do Makaton signs to the lyrics.

Then, as Maria mentioned, Anthony and I would perform the song in various places in the early 90s. After which I didn’t see Maria again for over a decade, until we bumped into one another at an international L’Arche event in 2002. When Maria spotted me in the crowd she called out, “Eddie Gilmore; sunshine on Leith!” The lyrics of which song continue:

‘My tears are drying, my tears are drying,

Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.

My tears are drying, my tears are drying.

Your beauty and kindness made tears clear my blindness.’

In the spirit of the song, Maria invited us at several moments during the retreat to mention something we were thankful for. For some of the young assistants it was getting the chance to swim in the sea, for Nuala it was a new Brown T-shirt she’d bought in the ‘Good Craic’ gift shop in Rostrevor, for Joe it was getting to eat chicken for lunch at Diamonds, a restaurant in Warrenpoint. For Marie it was her favourite sausage and chips at that same restaurant, and Angela, in common with others, was grateful for the beautiful countryside. Listening to, and even dancing to, Abba whilst making ‘heart collages’ was special for several of us, so too the big musical session in the evening. Clodagh and I had been instructed to ‘rock the room’ and I think we managed it, and Clodagh noted on the final morning how impressed she had been by the dance moves of Margaret! Angela, like everyone, had loved the singing and I’d been touched when she’d started to dance during ‘500 Miles.’

And besides all of that there were countless moments of little kind words or gestures. There we were, a group of people of different ages and from different countries; some with so-called intellectual disabilities, some without. There we were together being reminded that, whatever wounds we carry, we are loved, and that each one of us has worth. Just as the chorus of that great  song goes:

‘While I’m worth my room on this Earth I will be with you.
While the Chief puts sunshine on Leith,
I’ll thank him for his work, and your birth and my birth. Yeah, yeah, yeah.’

Eddie Gilmore