My eldest son Kieran was a bit mystified when I told him I was going on silent retreat for a week. “What are you going to do?” he asked. “Good question”, I replied. And my youngest son Sean was surprised (pleasantly, I think) when I phoned him a day into the retreat. “I thought you weren’t allowed to speak!” he said. “It’s your birthday”, I explained.

I had come to Noddfa, a big old house in a stunning location on the North Wales coast and whose name in Welsh means place of rest or refuge. To the front of the house are views over the beautiful Conwy Bay and to the back are the steep, bare hills of Snowdonia which rise rapidly to 1,000 feet in height. Following my birthday greetings to Sean I switched off the phone and gradually sank into the silence. With reference to Kieran’s question, I walked a lot, for one thing: up in the hills, and along by the sea. I even swam in the sea the first couple of days when the weather was still warm. It was pretty fresh at the end of September, but nice!

Besides all the walking I also took the time to just sit, whether on a bench in the garden or down at the seafront café with a cup of tea and a slice of bara brith (Welsh fruit cake). It was a week of living quite simply and slowly. I noticed as the days went by that my breathing had become slower and deeper. Even my walking slowed down. I wasn’t in such a hurry, and I was a bit more mindful of what was around me: the touch of a leaf, the sight of a squirrel eating a nut, the shiny feel of a conker, walking barefoot in the lush green grass or on the beach, the gentle sound of rain in the trees or on my face as I was out for a stroll (it was Wales; there was quite a lot of rain!). Eating becomes more of a sensory experience when on retreat. I enjoyed looking at the colours and textures of the food, the touch of certain things, and the careful chewing and an increased awareness of the taste. Half way through the week during breakfast I suddenly noticed the subtle pictures on the cereal bowl (I don’t normally eat cereal but I thought ‘I’m on retreat, let’s go mad’!). Those pictures on the bowls must have been there to start with but I just hadn’t really seen them! So I suppose what I did during that week was begin to notice, to be a little more aware of the world around me, of what I was eating, seeing, listening to; also of what was happening within me. There were the ups and downs in mood that take place in any week, but there was the opportunity on retreat to be a bit more conscious about this.

It was a deeply creative week for me. I hadn’t written a song for nearly two years but had brought a guitar just in case ‘something happened’. Well, goodness me did something happen! My retreat guide (who I spoke to each day) encouraged me to write a song and I ended up writing four. I sang three of them at the masses which took place each afternoon for the group of about ten people on retreat, and a woman said to me one day “that song really struck a chord”. I was touched as the week went on how (away from the usual ‘distractions’ of daily life) I seemed to be becoming not just more attuned to certain deeper ‘movements’ (for want of a better word) within myself but also in the group. Half way through the retreat I’d been thinking to myself that, although it was nice to be there, in silence and walking in the hills and eating nice food (there was also cake every afternoon!) nothing really ‘spectacular’ was happening but then found a book in the library about dreams and had gone to bed having read about Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious. I woke the next morning having had a dream which not only featured a young man playing on the guitar a great and original version of an old song (seemed very significant!) but also appeared to have a reference to the collective unconscious. I thought ‘yes, something quite interesting does seem to happening here’! For the last couple of days of the retreat I was increasingly aware of a whole range of remarkable connections and of threads coming together.

Returning from retreat is never easy, and when back into the usual hubbub of life there’s the question ‘did that really happen?’ One of the bible stories I prayed with during the week was where Jesus takes some of the apostles with him up a mountain and is transfigured and joined by Moses and Elijah. Peter remarks “it is wonderful to be here”, and he offers to build tents there on the mountain top. This suggests to me the desire to remain in the place of peak experience. However, just as Peter and the others had to come back down the mountain, so too must we return from retreat or holiday or whatever. Life must go on, with all its ups and downs. But I assure myself that what happened in that week at Noddfa really did happen, and it really was wonderful to be there.


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Newry Girl Turns 90

My mum was one of three ladies reaching the grand age of 90 at the care home in Coventry where she’s lived for the last year, and the home had organised a special celebration which included a versatile entertainer.

Mr Gallagher, as he’s known when he performs, was dressed in a very eye-catching yellow suit (for his St Patrick’s Day appearance he’d had a green suit, and he explained to me later that he also dresses up as Elvis on demand). The dining room was decked out in disco lights and Mr Gallagher had added balloons and a placard with the names of the birthday girls, Gladys, Valerie and Alicia. Before starting to sing he read out a little history of the lives of the three women. When he explained that Gladys had left school at 14 to work in a mill she called out “no, I was 13”! It was very sensitively done, so too when he told some of mum’s story: how she’d been born in Newry, Co Down, the second of ten children of Elizabeth and Joseph McStay; had left school (where her favourite subject was maths, which I’d never known) at 14 to work in Bessbrook Mill; and had then come to England in 1957 to take up a job in the café of Coventry railway station; had met her husband-to-be, a Galwayman, three months later at an Irish dance; and had married in 1960 and had two children, my sister Eileen and me. In fact, mum arrived in Coventry in probably the very month in 1957, September, that the Irish Chaplaincy was founded, in response to the thousands of people like mum and dad who were leaving Ireland in search of work.

The singing finally began, with Mr Gallagher going through the likes of ‘When you’re smiling’, and ‘We’ll meet again’ (after which Gladys called out “you sing it ten times better than Vera Lynn”!). He added a couple of Irish songs, ‘The Rose of Tralee’ and ‘Your Lovely Irish eyes’; and then he was into Elvis, at which he particularly excelled!

After the entertainment there was the cutting of the cake and then food. Mum hadn’t wanted to make a fuss of her 90th but she enjoyed it. She was tired, mind, by the end when we said goodbye in her room. I’m grateful that she can see out her final years in such a nice place with such kind staff. I’m grateful for the joyful and thoughtful celebration to mark her 90th. And above all I’m grateful for this wonderful woman who brought me into the world and who has loved and cherished me.


St John the Baptist celebrations in Irish

The evening of June 23, St John’s Eve, is the eve of celebration before the Feast Day of St John the Baptist. The bible states that John was born about six months before Jesus, therefore the feast of John the Baptist was fixed on June 24, six months before Christmas. St John the Baptist, like Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary, is one of very few persons to have the anniversary of the birth commemorated.

The Feast of St John coincides with the June solstice also referred to as Midsummer. The feast is celebrated in many countries throughout the Christian world. In Ireland this was the traditional night for the Bonfire. In this celebratory bonfire old bones were burned. In the Irish language the bonfire is called “Tine Cnáimh” which literally means fire of bones. Another name for the fire was “Tine Féil Eóin”.

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Everyone’s a Winner?

We are blessed at the Irish Chaplaincy with some wonderful volunteers and it was not easy to have to choose just one of them to nominate for the Irish in Britain Volunteer Awards. We did in the end nominate somebody and I was saying to Paul, our Seniors Manager “if that person gets the award it’s good for everyone at the Chaplaincy”, and I added, “everyone’s a winner”. I thought for a few moments, then said “but not in the Champion’s League final!” Continue Reading

Jean Vanier RIP

As I was told of the death, at the age of 90, of Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, there immediately came to mind my favourite story connected with the great man: an important story for me, and one which I discovered years later from Jean I’d actually misheard!

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