Pádraig Ó Tuama interview: The missing peace
Pádraig Ó Tuama talks to Stephen Tomkins about where to find peace and reconcilliation
Poetry and peace are the business of Pádraig Ó Tuama. Reform readers might remember his powerful poem “Shaking Hands” in the February 2014 edition. Since then, he has become head of the Corrymeela Community, which has 150 members dispersed around Northern Ireland, working for reconciliation and social justice.
Pádraig’s wonderful book, In the Shelter: Finding a home in the world (Hodder and Stoughton, February 2015) is a patchwork of reflections, poems and true stories. (The reflections and poems are also true.) It takes the reader to some tough places, with calmness and hope, letting us into the story of someone facing the hard task of growing up whole in Ireland in the 1980s. It’s also an inspiring guide to the kind of conversations that bring peace and understanding between people.
Reform met with Pádraig at a pavement cafe on a February day that was briefly warm enough to make us think it was a good idea to sit outside. Hello to poetry. Hello to peace. Hello to conversation that changes things.
You grew up in a Catholic family in Cork. What was the religion like that you were brought up with?
Very pervasive. Catholicism was so much taken for granted. When I was 11, our teacher said to us: “There’s a boy who won’t be coming to school with us any more. He’s gone to the other school” – the Protestant school. We were like: “The OTHER school?” One boy put his hand up and said: “Miss, I noticed that when we used to say the rosary, he wouldn’t mouth the Hail Mary!” We were a bunch of little sectarian bigots… in very nice little 11-year-old ways.
When I was eight, my parents got involved in a Catholic charismatic prayer group, going to long prayer meetings with people singing in tongues. Then we started praying the rosary every night in the house.
How is the cause of peace between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland today?
Improving all the time, thank God. Factions still run deep in Northern Ireland: 92% of children are educated separately, but there are people of good will in schools working for diversity and integration and sharing.
The question of how we tell the truth about our past is a complicated one. We see differently who is the perpetrator, the victim, the aggressor. Where do you even start the story when you see it differently? The start of the Troubles? The partition of the island? Clare Mitchell, a sociologist of religion in Northern Ireland said: “There’s conflict about what conflict is about.” Such a fine piece of analysis. Northern Ireland has a huge amount to say to the world, because of the desire to work this out with each other – the pain and dignity of that. It can speak to fractures with Christianity – for instance, liberal and conservative.
When Christians are divided, where does peace
My writing uses a lot of personal narrative because I’m convinced that there is something very true in incarnation. Look at the incarnation of the thing we’re talking about; meet the flesh and blood. It’s saying: How do we become converted towards each other? How do we bear witness to how people’s lives are impacted?
I lead residential events where people come together for training in conflict mediation and theology. There was a guy at one who had used strong words to describe his stance that would not affirm lesbian and gay people, and at the end he said: “I have a question for gay and lesbian people in the room: Since we’ve begun this residential, how many times have my words hurt you?”
And one of the gay guys in the room said: “Ah, you’re lovely, you’re grand.”
He said: “No, answer my question.”
Somebody started to count on their fingers and then said: “I’ve given up after the first hour.”
The guy went: “Are you honestly telling me that every time you meet somebody like me that you have to shield yourself?”
Somebody said: “Not just you – every time I turn on the bloody radio.”
What really moved me is this man asking a question, not having a trap of an answer prepared, and having a disposition to believe what he was told. I was absolutely converted to his courage. I think of him with such respect and honour; and I hope, in times when I’m dwelling in privilege, that I have the capacity to undo my privilege in the way that he did in front of people.
What brought that about? If I’d said to him on day one: “Think about the way your words are bruising us!” that wouldn’t have been fruitful. But he reached…
This is an extract from the April 2015 edition of Reform.