Barry Phillips Meets... Pádraig Ó TuamaPosted in : Podcasts on 17 April 2019
Born in Cork, Padraig O’Tuama was one of 6 children. He studied theology with an eye on the priesthood. It was in his teens that he first began to realise that his faith, his religion and his sexuality did not sit comfortably together and that very hard, very personal choices, lay ahead of him.
Still a deeply religious man, last month you may just have heard Padraig presenting BBC’s Prayer for Today on Radio 4. But you’re as likely to find him carrying a dictionary of etymology as you are a bible. For he has an almost nerdy interest even obsession with language or languages. His “In the Shelter” autobiographical work introduces the reader to many Irish phrases, it dissects and analyses English words and muses with Hebrew, Japanese, Zulu and even American Sign Language.
If he’s geeky about language he has an equally geeky twin interest in story-telling. He’s co-founder of the Ten x 9 storytelling movement something that started in Belfast but has spread to Australia, Britain, the Netherlands and the USA.
Since moving north, Padraig has worked teaching in schools, as a chaplain and most recently as the leader of the Corrymela Peace building Community head quartered on the North Coast. But first and foremost Padraig describes himself as a poet. His poem "Shaking Hands" capturing the moment Queen Elizabeth met Martin McGuiness is just one of his works that has received wide critical acclaim.
Barry: Hello, everyone and welcome to "Barry Phillips Meets." My name is Barry Phillips. The first person I ever interviewed for this podcast was the head of the CBI in Northern Ireland at the time, David Gavaghan. When I asked him recently, what he thought of my next guest, he simply replied, "Barry, he's the most extraordinary man I've ever met." Recently, when BBC journalist William Crawley introduced my guest on the stage to deliver his TEDx talk he said, "He's probably the best public speaker I know."
Born in Cork, Padraig O'Tuama was one of six children. He studied theology with an eye on the priesthood. It was in his teens, however, that he first began to realize that his faith, his religion and his sexuality did not sit comfortably together and that very hard, very personal choices, lay ahead of him. Still a deeply religious man, last month you may have just heard Padraig presenting BBC's "Prayer for Today" on Radio 4. But you're as likely to find him carrying a dictionary of etymology as you are a Bible, for he has an almost nerdy fascination with languages.
His "In The Shelter" autobiographical work introduces the reader to many Irish phrases. It dissects and analyses English words and muses with Hebrew, Japanese, Zulu and even American Sign Language. His autobiography reveals a complex but honest thinker capable of deep dives into the Bible, but also the likes of "The Lord of the Rings" and other epic works such as Vikram Seth's "A Suitable Boy." But it's probably Padraig's range that says most about him. When he writes, he calls on the likes of poets such as Jane Kenyon and Paul Durcan, writers such as Samuel Johnson, Jane Austen and Elizabeth Bowen and psychiatrists such as Jung and Freud to help press home his points.
If he's geeky about language, he has an equally geeky twin interest in story-telling. He's cofounder of the Tenx9 storytelling movement, something that started in Belfast but has spread to Britain and Netherlands, the USA and Australia.
If it's true what they say that radio is superior to television because the pictures are better, picture in your mind, if you will, someone in front of me now who cuts quite a figure. It's an image that is part Bohemian, part Biblical and part Frodo from Middle-earth with a twist of Rasputin thrown in for good measure. An Irish word for warmth is [croíúil 00:03:25], has plenty of croíúil to be heard in both Padraig's soft voice and Irish lilt, which also somehow says, "Come in, sit down, let's have a cup of tea, a good chat and share some stories."
Since travelling north, Padraig has worked teaching in schools as a chaplain and most recently as the leader of the Corrymeela peace-building community headquartered on the North Coast. But when I met him last just a few weeks ago, he told me simply, "Barry, I'm a poet." Padraig, welcome to the podcast.
Padraig: Thank you very much, Barry.
Barry: Padraig, when we last met you were head of the Corrymeela Community. You still are until the end of April. But you did choose to describe to me or say to me that you're a poet. And I found that really interesting because we very often define who we are by how we make our living, so to speak. So I'm curious, what is it about poetry that defines you?
Padraig: Thanks for the question. I find poetry to be a creative endeavour. With poetry, you are at once in a great tide of form and cannon. You can look back through centuries of sonnet of the great inherited cannon, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, Mara [inaudible 00:04:56]. You can look back through all those great inherited poets, but also you're alone. And I find the endeavour of writing poetry to be a solitary project that is also in communication with the past as well as hopefully the future reader of a piece of work. And so I find poetry to be something that locates me in the present, in a loneliness that I think is true and locates me in a peopled nature, which at once asks for a person to be well read as well as asks for a person to be simple as well as hoping that you can create human encounter with anybody who might read your poem in the future.
Barry: And Padraig, certainly in Northern Island, we have things called poetry slams. We have I guess students at universities who are embracing and beginning to perform poetry, but it's still very much a minority sport if I may put it that way. For anyone listening who's never really made an effort to get into poetry or perhaps they were put off poetry at school, is there a gentle path into it that you could recommend? For example, do you have any favourite poets that are quite accessible?
Padraig: Yeah, I have both favourite poets who are accessible as well as some collections, which are really wonderful. So Neil Astley is the founder and editor in chief of Bloodaxe Books, a publication in the north of England, a publishing house in the north of England. And he has some stunning volumes of poetry that look at the human condition and then offer poems for the times of grief, times of joy, times of mourning, times of war, times of delight, times of change and he's arranged them like that. I'm going to get some of the names of these collections wrong, but it's "Being Alive," "Being Human," "Staying Alive" and "Soul Food." Those are four collections and they're stunning.
Barry: And his name again?
Padraig: Neil Astley.
Barry: Astley, okay.
Padraig: Yeah. And Bloodaxe Books is the publishing house that he founded. So those collections are stunning. I suppose poetry in the big sense of it can often seem inaccessible. However, if people go to a funeral and hear a poem that just feels like the right poem for the day, you don't feel like, oh, I have to know the great canon of poetry. I need to know the biographical details of the poet if indeed the poet's name is even said. But there's a poem, a simple humble thing that's been offered to a community who are listening that feels like it's met them at the right moment. And I think that's where I like to hope that people can connect in with poetry where their point of need connects with a hunger around which the poem also circles.
Barry: Sure. And I'm going to ask you at the end of this interview project to finish with a poem of your own. But for now I just want to take you to another of your passions, which is storytelling. In your book, "In The Shelter," you say this, "I know that I tell a lot of stories. For me it's the only way that life can become a verb. I cannot live more than the lives I lead. And so through love and curiosity, eavesdropping and story listening, I can live bits of the life that I don't. One-sentence stories, 10-sentence stories, well told stories, choppy stories."
The Irish are known for their storytelling ability. I think they are just one of the few countries that actually has quite a few professional storytellers. I'm curious, where did this fascination for storytelling come from?
Padraig: I don't know a way to live without being interested in stories, so I don't know where it came from. It feels like it's in the blood and in the bones. And while Ireland has a popular reputation for being a storytelling country, I've rarely met a person who isn't interested in stories no matter what country they come from.
So, I just love a good story where if you hear a story, the likelihood is, is that you can remember, upwards of 70% to 80% of it. And there'll be little moments in it that you remember almost word for word. There'll be ways in which a story links in with you because of its discordant nature with your own story or because of how it resembles your own story. There are ways within which you find yourself thinking, "Oh, this is what I would have done," or "I didn't know what I'm supposed to do." And there's drama, there's suspense, there's the sense of you're waiting to figure out what's going to happen next. So attention is held. I don't know anything more interesting.
You know, when you hear somebody who can tell a good story and you don't want them to stop talking. I know people who stayed on the bus a few bus stops longer because they're talking to somebody who's telling a good story and they just think, "Ugh, screw it. I'll be late. But this person is so good."
Barry: And do you see any negatives in the art of storytelling? I mean, can it be a dark art as well as a wonderful creative art?
Padraig: Well, yes. I mean, story is very, very powerful and you can choose to tell a story in a really compelling way that intentionally castigates a person or a community or throws a person or a community in a negative light or creates a rhetoric. So on a social level here, one of the big questions is, when did whatever it is we call the conflict here start? You know, The Troubles, for instance. Some people might go, "It all started in the late '60s," and that's a really interesting, powerful choice of the beginning of a story. You could say it started with partition in the early 1920s. You could say it started with the famine in the 1840s. You could say it started with the Act of Union. You could say it started with the Plantation of Ulster or with the Plantation of Munster.
So all of these things are narrative points of view being enacted in something that has daily repercussions today. And so that's why I am interested in story, but I'm always interested in story as plural and as not fixed because story needs to be fluid in order to take in all of the parts of itself that it hasn't done yet.
Barry: Yeah. As you're speaking there, I'm thinking about the business world and the story and you know, every product or service has a story. And a product that may have failed three years ago there's a story why it failed, but very often you can dig very deep and you can find out that there was never one root cause of that failure, but many, but the story has come out that it was due to one particular thing. And you started with your partner Tenx9, for anyone listening not familiar with Tenx9, can you just explain what it is and what it is that you hope to achieve with Tenx9?
Padraig: Yeah. Tenx9 is a storytelling event where 9 people have up to 10 minutes each to tell a true story from their life. And it's on a theme each time and it's curated so people have to submit. It's not an open mic. And we started almost nine years ago now in 2011 in the front room of the black box. About 30 people came along and now it's one of the bigger arts night, monthly art nights in Belfast. We've turned people away unfortunately regularly, but 200 people come. We're in the same venue but moved to the back space which is much larger. It's spread around to various countries. As you mentioned, the Netherlands, Britain, the United States, Australia, there's four in Australia. We've also started doing it in prisons and we're doing it at festivals and gatherings.
So we run Tenx9 for the Institute of Physics, Ireland's annual gathering twice, which was hilarious. One might've thought that physicists would not be skilled storytellers, but that's the thing, you find storytellers everywhere. People told the most magnificent stories in a physics gathering or in a prison or wherever it is. Paul and I are both passionate about language. Paul's a journalist and so for him, words have been his craft his whole career and for me with poetry. So we both approach words very differently, but we're both thrilled with the productivity of hearing nine true stories of an evening where you go, like if the theme was pets . . . that's what the theme was in January this year, you think, "What kind of stories will we hear about pets?" and at the end of the night, people go away mesmerized.
And not every story is for every person. That's part of the reason for the limitation of 10 minutes to just think, if the story isn't for you, well, it's only going to be 10 minutes long, sit and have a drink and it could be another story.
Barry: I'm always amazed at the reach of this podcast. We have listeners in New Zealand, Canada, USA, Thailand, Malawi, Argentina. If there's anyone listening who would like to set up their own storytelling Tenx9, what do they need to do, Padraig?
Padraig: Now we have a fairly engaged licensing process. It's on the website starting a Tenx9 where you are partly because the format is so simple and that looks like it's easy, but it's not. And people are really, really open to feeling invaded if there's ever a way within which a story is being used for manipulative purposes. So if there's a storytelling evening and at the end of the night somebody says, "Great, look, there's a political party that's going to be having a hustings here over the next few days and you're all very welcome," people might suddenly feel like, has this all been leading up to that or our religious group or our charity group? And that can feel that people are so . . . because people are so attuned to recognising manipulation when it happens.
Because to tell and to hear a story requires an opening of the heart. And it is so important to make sure that you get that right and that you don't violate that by trying to use that for any other purpose than hearing the damn good story. And I think that is one of the things about Irishness that is really important to Tenx9. The old seanchaí tradition, the storyteller in the community much and all as the storyteller in the community might've been telling fables, they're just told for the sake of telling a damn good story and that's really important for us. So people are very welcome to get in touch. They normally need to have visited a few Tenx9s or been at a few established ones before they can start their own. And yeah, there's a bit of an engaged process.
It's free, they don't have to pay, but it does take time because we don't own story, but we absolutely do own this format and it's really important to us that the format is kept with integrity and isn't used for manipulative purposes.
Barry: Sure. Padraig, I just want to take you back now to your childhood. You were born in the '70s, beginning to really notice the world in the 1980s, one of six children. Do you remember it as a happy childhood? Like what stories in your mind about your childhood?
Padraig: It was a childhood with lots of children. So, yeah, there was always babies around the house. And in the midst of it, I was a solitary child. I took lots of long walks and I developed a love for poetry and music and there's an enormous amount of music in the family. So all six of the kids, we all play musical instruments, some of them, multiple musical instruments. My dad is a very, very fine tin whistle player and the uilleann pipes as well. He was on the Cork Pipe Club. So there was always a lot of music, Irish dancing and Irish language. All of us have Irish names. And my dad and mum both left school very early and so they believed fundamentally in the power of education and it was simply never an option to not do well.
Sometimes I hear people older than I am who describe their growing up years and I feel like I was given an education experience that was almost earlier than the '80s in a certain sense because it was simply not an option to fail an exam ever, no matter what the subject. So work hard was the thing. There was I failed a pre-exam in chemistry and like I was petrified going home. So education was absolutely enormous. All six of us have post grad degrees.
Yeah, some of my siblings are natural intelligents and they are not people for whom plural intelligence has worked really easily. I've only ever done well if I've worked really hard, and I am not sure that I would have been a child who'd have worked really hard without threat. Threat was absolutely present.
Barry: So you actually look back at that sort of discipline from your parents in a very positive way? You know, we might call them tiger parents nowadays, but you kind of look and think, well, actually . . .
Padraig: Well, it's shaped me fundamentally. It's totally shaped me. Similarly because dad worked in the Physics Department of University College Cork from the age of 14 and a half to 64 and a half in the same department for almost 50 years. He believed powerfully that Irish language is important and religion is important of course, but when it comes to your career, science is the only way. And particularly within science, physics. He loved to quote Rutherford who says that, "Physics is the only science, all of the sciences are stamp collecting." Very pejorative phrase to biochemistry and other things. I have a sister who is a biochemist and so she has bucked the trend and then some siblings who were engineers.
Barry: And how did you do at physics?
Padraig: I was terrible. It's awful. It just didn't make sense to me. Literature did and languages did.
Barry: When you say terrible, are you still good enough to pass a physics exam? Is that my guess?
Padraig: Yeah, I think I kind of scraped by it. I got a C. Of the six of us in the family there's two of us who have arts degrees, me with theology and my sister Mave with sort . . . well, she did English and history and then went on to do a PhD in social work. And my father refers to us somewhat disparagingly with love, but with also a level of critique as the humanities department of the family.
Barry: Oh, that's lovely. Padraig, you studied theology with a view to becoming a priest.
Padraig: I did.
Barry: Is that right? Okay. But at some stage in this process, just having read your book, you realised that you were gay. I'm sure you didn't realise this overnight. Did it take you a long time to come to terms with your sexuality?
Padraig: Yes, it did. I mean, I knew I was gay from the age of 12. That was really clear. There was never a doubt in my mind, both that I was [wan 00:20:25], whatever the term was, you know, a faggot as the first thing that you were called. And like, okay, that's what I am and I might have heard the more cynical homosexual and then various other words as years went by. So I always knew that was the case. But the question was, what do I do with it and do I tell anyone and am I safe? So I mean, I was really interested in the priesthood because I like people and I really enjoy community work and I love public language also. And certainly being in a clergy role is a way of using public language and so those things appealed to me.
And so I was moving towards the priesthood but had always said to myself, "If I find that there is a huge amount of fear in the choice that I would be moving toward the priesthood because I'm frightened of what would happen if I were to have a boyfriend and be rejected by family and friends or religion, if I discovered that fear is a major motivation, I will cease this pathway."
Barry: Roughly what period of time are we talking about? Mid '90s?
Padraig: Yeah. So my interest in priesthood started from about 1995. And then I suppose it was 2005 when it was finally exiled from me, not by me.
Barry: Okay. And at the time, conversion therapy was very much one response to being homosexual. Were you ever confronted with conversion therapy?
Padraig: Yeah. Here's the other thing is it still is, conversion therapy still happens. People call it by all kinds of different names, healing prayer, you know, journeying with you, journeying alongside your evolving as a true man. All of these, they have all these ways that are lying about the true motivation. So that's an important point for me to make that it still happens and it happens in this city. Yes, so I joined a religious organisation when I was 18, a kind of youth work organisation. And as part of that there were three exorcisms visited upon me, two public and one that I was told to do by myself.
And then when those were deemed to be unsuccessful, I was living where I was working in Dublin and I was told that if I wanted to stay living there, I needed to go to see this particular character who was offering what he called reparative therapy. No, it was neither therapeutic nor reparative. It was not accountable nor was it professional. But what did I know? I was 19.
Barry: And what was the impact on that therapy the he [inaudible 00:23:05]?
Padraig: Oh, it deep embedding of shame that has lasted decades of course. I mean, to have somebody try to dissect your sexuality and continually prove to you that every impulse towards romance, every impulse towards attraction has to have a negative beginning point. For me that has caused a terrible repercussion of shame throughout decades of my life. I think it motivates me enormously to in public advocacy now as to how these things are shame inducing and shameful in themselves. And for their intellectual lack of care . . . for the lack of intellectual capacity as well as their emotional impact. But it's the lack of intellectual capacity, they're not open to scrutiny, not open to accountability, not open to discourse with the other disciplines and therefore I find them really flimsy.
Barry: And how did that affect your relationship and view of the Catholic Church?
Padraig: This man wasn't Catholic, but was Christian. So I think I see it as an addiction to certainty. And you find this in all religious traditions that in the name of something that people don't know what to do with, i.e. the presence of a person in front of you that says that they're gay. In the name of not knowing what to do with that people make up all kinds of shit to explain what is true and certain and pure and predictable about this. Therefore, something must have happened. God, you know, you can be cured. This will be terrible. You will die of AIDS. So in causation, cure and consequence, there's addictive relationships to viewing the incarnated person in front of you who is embodying the experience that you seem to find discordant with your ideological point of view. And that is a serious mistake I think.
I see it happening over and over. In the name of the unexplained people make shit up to make themselves feel more comfortable without paying any attention to the intellectual capacity and then the emotional impact of what they're saying.
Barry: And to your knowledge or even your surmising, are there still many people that are struggling with their sexuality and their faith?
Padraig: So I think people struggle with other people's views of their sexuality in faith. I had to be taught how to struggle with my sexuality and I didn't struggle with my sexuality indigenously. I struggled with what would happen if I was open about my sexuality in a world where hatred is permitted. So that's not struggling with sexuality, that's struggling with other people's struggle with my sexuality. And I think that needs to be unpacked.
There are all kinds of major powers in the world who are fundamentally aligned to the idea of resisting the presence of women in power and resisting the presence of ethnic minorities or ethnic majorities in power. I suppose I'm describing their white supremacy. Even in places like South Africa for instance, where whiteness was a minority. Nonetheless, the idea of supremacy had a major impact on the majority of people of other ethnicities in South Africa.
So I am really motivated to find ways where we uncover and unpack those powers and look at their destructive impact. And it is happening in so many places.
Barry: And Padraig, in terms of the reading of the Bible and homosexuality, what does the Bible say as far as you're concerned that is relevant to the question of whether homosexuality is permissible?
Padraig: That's not even a question I'd ask of the Bible. So I mean, the Bible is a great library assembled over, I suppose you could say two and a half thousand years written across languages and cultures and religions and with different and evolving understandings about what the question of God is. So as a result, I find the Bible an extraordinary invitation into story, into attempts to survive into the stories of genocide and people's survival of genocidal activities. And I think to have an idolatrous relationship with saying, look, this one text here says something and therefore it has to mean this today. So in for instance, Leviticus, where that classic, you know, "A man shall not lie with a man as he lies with a woman is an abomination, they shall be put to death." That is written in a time where nomadic people are desperately struggling to survive.
And the question is one of population. It is not a moral question. The question is one of absolute population. Can you have the babies? Have the damn babies. That's the moral imperative that's happening there. And so therefore, that needs to be taken into account when thinking what does that mean today?
Similarly in the New Testament, when you hear these prohibitions against words since the 1800s has been used, termed homosexuality are [foreign language 00:28:01] is the word in Greek and that is a word to describe a monied married Greek speaking man who would've kept slaves, teenage male slaves, have castrated them so he could rape them and they couldn't rape him back, [foreign language 00:28:21].
Since the 1800, that's been translated as homosexuals. Now that is an inappropriate translation and I am curious about whose power is involved in translating that. And then when you look at some of these lists of prohibitions in the New Testament, it says things like, you liars, you fornicators, you [foreign language 00:28:40], you mutilators. So you see it in the sequence there. I have no problem that the New Testament has a problem with [foreign language 00:28:47]. I have a serious problem if somebody thinks that it should be translated to homosexual.
Barry: Sure. Padraig, in the work that you do as Corrymeela leader, you move in many, many circles. I just wonder, in your head, how you deal with those in Northern Ireland who view homosexuality as an abomination.
Padraig: I have met many people throughout the whole course of my whole life who see LGBT people as an abomination. And I am always interested in what does it mean to have human encounter here? What does it mean to ask a question? What does it mean to ask a question the answer to which you know you don't know? What does it mean to open up the heart? Because often when it's a religious justification that's anti LGBT, people are motivated to that by saying that they believe the truth, God's truth. And I think that's a really interesting intellectual premise. And I think if truth is truth, well then it shouldn't be frightened. Truth should always be open to love and to beauty because those are all from the same sources. If we believe in a God, well therefore truth, love, beauty, all come from the same source.
And so I wanted to go, well, let's do some inquiry then. Let's do some intellectual inquiry about the Bible. Let's do some serious inquiry about what you think is going on. Let's ask a question. Let's engage in a human encounter. Because if what a person believes is true, it will not be diminished by these great practices. And that's often seen as much more confronting than if I were to shout and scream. And so therefore, it implies to me that people have resistances to LGBT lives, not because they believe something is true, but because they're frightened and perhaps they've been taught to be frightened. And that's very understandable to inherit fear that we're taught. It's a very powerful education that's alive in the world today and always has been.
And so therefore I'm interested in what might a re-education look like and a re-education that comes from that Irish word that you spoke about earlier on, croíúil, warmth from the heart. How can we have heartfelt encounters that bring us to the source if you are a Christian or if you are a person of faith, the source of the heart, which is God?
Barry: And does it make any difference to you whether you meet a person who opposes homosexuality because of their interpretation of the Bible or simply because it's what you might call raw prejudice?
Padraig: Well, there're different things going on there. Ideology has a very important impact in the everyday. I mean, this is the same when people have a very strong particular attachment to a political ideology within which they would justify certain forms of exclusion. Is it an ideology that motivates you or is it simply an acknowledged prejudice? If it's an ideology, sometimes you do need to encounter with the intellectual project of that ideology. If it's just somebody saying, "I just hate gay people. I hate women. I hate people from the African continent." If there's those kinds of things, well, then you have a different project to do with them alongside.
And ultimately, here's the awful truth is that in the context of conflict resolution, I can't do anything to anyone. I can't make a person change their mind and I don't even try. What I'm interested in saying is, do you want to have an honest conversation where I ask you questions the answers to which I don't know and you ask me questions the answers to which you know you don't know and then we do something with that? Are you open to listening? Are you opening to believing the truth and are you open to us changing each other as a result of a conversation? And that is not me controlling because I can't control, but it is opening us up to something interesting.
Barry: Sure. Padraig, you strike me as a very reflective person. You've strike me as a very calm, mild mannered person. I'm curious, do you ever lose it? Do you ever get really angry when you come across prejudice?
Padraig: I get really calm when I get angry. So I get calmer.
Barry: Your anger goes inside or . . . ?
Padraig: Goes all kinds of directions. I mean, there's nothing virtuous about being a calm angry person. It's just another thing that happens. My words become more sharp and pointed and that, forget angry at somebody I love, that's a terrible thing. I think sometimes people would prefer that you shouted and roared rather than gosh, you know, use words like scalpels. So, I have learned to pay attention to anger. In conflict mediation training, you're always taught that anger is information, your own or somebody else's and to pay attention to it. That it has an intelligence and it has a wisdom. There's nothing immoral about anger. This is the question about what you're going to do with it.
So I think to be an adult human person requires one to have a profound relationship with your own anger and the anger of others and then to know, what am I going to do with that? I should say I love anger. I think it's a fantastic thing. Anger is a motivation for my poetry. Conflict is a motivation for poetry. As a person working in peace, I'm not interested in eliminating conflict or anger. I'm interested in us working in ways within which conflict and anger are fruitful and productive and electric and brilliant and mesmerising as they should be rather than threatening reductive and dangerous.
Barry: And Padraig, are you optimistic in Northern Ireland in terms of as moving towards full acceptance of the gay community on the part of a large majority of people here?
Padraig: I think that's already established. I mean, the polls seem to indicate that there is a majority of people here who when it comes to questions to do with equal marriage, when it comes to do with other questions, that the majority is already established. What we have is a political system that has an addictive relationship to certain forms of power. That's the problem.
Barry: Okay. But we still have a religious right that had been very powerful. And some would say that until you can move them slightly, there's never going to be real change and acceptance of homosexuals.
Padraig: True but also there's the religious right here are given a prominence here, which is an exaggeration of prominence. And I think sometimes we need a media and we need a public discourse that where people realise, "Oh gosh, I am not in the majority here when it comes to my viewpoints about LGBTI people." And so I think some of it is public prominence regarding that. And then there are ways in which of course things need to change. But I have full confidence that that is already the case. And the question for me is how do we enact a local public discourse, a local media discourse and a local political discourse and religious discourse that acknowledges the truth about what's actually here already? Not some feared future because it's already here.
Barry: I'm just curious to go back a little bit here, Padraig. For you in your late teens studying theology and then you realise that you're homosexual, many people in your situation would perhaps have taken the choice to abandon faith completely, but you didn't. Was that ever a consideration? Did you ever . . . ?
Padraig: I tried it a few times. I would go on dates with men and I would start talking about religion on these dates. One time I decided I was going to give up on God. And so I made a choice to go on a retreat to a monastery in France in order to give up on the project of God, a silent retreat for two weeks at Taize. And I wasn't being an idiot. I could barely recognise what I was doing. I just knew I have some serious work to do. Where would I go to do it? I know a place of prayer. The irony of giving up God in a place of prayer didn't strike me. And so I suppose what has happened, however, has been a glorious and wonderful thing, which has been the accompaniment by communities of people like Corrymeela who I really do think provided refuge for me, where I was brought into a community that honoured the question.
That said, "Look, what do we know about the afterlife? We don't know. We have a hope. And some of us here don't even share that hope, but what we certainly have an interest in is that even if there is a god, even if there is a heaven, that what we do here can make it. And if we find out at the end of our lives that there is not such a thing, you can still think, well, I don't have any regrets with how I lived because how I lived made me live in the present with courage, with virtue, with curiosity, with embracing the project as a prize, with art, with being open to someone who thinks differently."
And that's the value of religion to me. And certainly that I hold religion very differently now than I did when I was younger. I had a very fearful relationship of religion and I felt like it would save me and protect me from the evil world and bring me into a situation where God would allow me into heaven.
That's not the question for me anymore. The question for me now is how I might I be brought into the right now and how can I live in the right now in a way where whether there is or there isn't a heaven, I nonetheless, I'm experiencing something of holiness and human encounter. And Corrymeela has absolutely deepened the respect for the present moment and that that has a sanctity to it.
Barry: Well, and just staying with faith for a moment here, Padraig, my wife is a very spiritual person. She was delighted when I told her that I was meeting you today because she might see you as being the last chance for somebody to convince me that there's a god. I tell her I'm an atheist, I think just to keep her at arm's length. But I think in truth, I'm probably too much of a wuss to be a fully paid up atheist, which probably means I'm closer to being agnostic.
But I'm curious, have you ever crossed in the way that people find God or go to faith because it's interesting, isn't it? If you were born in Japan, the chances are you'd be Shinto or Buddhist. If you're born in Indonesia, you'd be Muslim. Iran, I might be [Sahin 00:40:10] with a Bahai person. Do you think there's a better way of finding faith than just the randomness of chance of where you're born?
Padraig: So what this does is it opens up the question of the relationship of particularity to universality. And I see sometimes in the West that people are so enamoured with the idea of finding universal truth that is transcendent and beyond questions of the constraints of culturally bound religion that they sometimes leave behind the stories within culturally bound religion that lead us to the transcendent. And I'm not sure we can get to the universal and transcendent except through story and story is always going to be limited. That's why I love the Elizabeth Bowen quote, "To turn from everything to one face is to find oneself face to face with everything." Robert Frost said it in a slightly different way. He said, "Poetry in order to be universal must be parochial."
And so there's always the need to turn to the particular, and I love turning to the particular of the gospel so I did a masters in the gospels. I find the attempt within this emerging Christian religion to say something about this character Jesus of Nazareth and that they ended up by saying, "Look, we've got four versions. How brilliant is that?"
And I think the four Jesuses that you get across the four versions have some differences to them and Jesus of Mark is quite secretive and it's really uninterested in a long discourse. Jesus of Matthew preaches all the time. Jesus of John turns off and basically says, "Hello, you can call me God," but is extraordinarily emotional. Jesus in Matthew and Luke, I think I got that right, is very interested in talking about loving your enemies. Jesus in John barely mentions enemies at all but says love your friends. Jesus in Matthew, Mark and Luke says, "This is my body, this is my blood." Jesus and John does not say that the night before he dies. He takes off his clothes, he wraps a towel around him and he washes the feet of his friends.
Like I think that is brilliant. I am uninterested in converting anybody to making that the gathering story of their life, but I am interested in saying this stuff is great. Like look at the brilliance here. Look at the critique of power. Look at the boundary breaking. Look at the limitations of Jesus of Nazareth. Look at the people who challenged him. Look at his openness to being challenged. Like that to my mind is part of why I love the project of Christianity. I'm not sure I'm a great Christian. I'm not even sure I'm interested in trying, but I am really interested in being part of this particularity.
I've studied Judaism, I love the Hebrew Bible. I love Genesis and Job and the Psalms and first and second Samuel and the apocalyptic literature. There's so much to be discovered there. In Zoroastrianism, in Behi, in Hinduism and Islam and all of those things. I think if I were born into any of them, I would be thrilled in any of them because the project is to find a way within which this inherited literature sits within our life and orients us toward courageous and curious and surprising and ultimately loving action in the present moment. And all of those traditions can do that in different ways and each of them have different things that others don't and that's a great wonder.
Barry: Padraig, I'm jumping around a little bit here, but I just want to take you to when you first came north, which I think was in 2003. Some people that I knew in Dublin about that time would attest to feeling a cold chill as they came over the border, even in 2003. I'm curious, what did the first few days or first weeks feel like for you in Belfast?
Padraig: I had been coming across the border since the age of 11 coming for camps, church camps and had friends up here, I'd hitchhike up here. So I suppose from that point of view I was very familiar with coming across the border. I already knew that depending as to what grouping of friends I was with, some of them would say, "Oh, you're from Cork for God's sake. We beat you in the hurling last week." And so there might be superiority about me being from Cork, but certainly that wasn't being treated as a foreigner, but other groups of friends would absolutely communicate to me that I was no more local than were I from Finland and was visiting. And that latter one was a curiosity to me and a strange thing.
Barry: Did you find that offensive?
Padraig: Oh yes. Yeah, totally. Because whatever a political reality, there's a simple geographic reality that we're on the island of Ireland. Like there's no point in pretending that we're not because we are, you know, the north does not exist separately. The border runs between farmlands and houses. Teorainn is the Irish word for border meaning limitation. I can come up here and read the etymology of all the place names. And so I'm absolutely at home here because of the land and the language. And so I understand there's different jurisdictions and people have different feelings about different jurisdictions to preserve the two, to reunite the two, etc. That's absolutely fine. But the lack of acknowledgement that I too belong here, I find that to be really limited in its imagination about what here might mean.
Barry: Sure. And Corrymeela Community, for people who have not heard about it, could you just explain its mission and give a kind of flavour of the typical activities at Corrymeela?
Padraig: So Corrymeela was founded in 1965, purchased on a piece of property, six acres, a piece of land on the North Coast. And it became immediately a place for human encounter where people from different political and religious points of view would meet to discuss, to be in community together. Ray Davey was chaplain at Queen's University. He founded it, and it was mostly him and students from the university, present students at that stage as well as some past students. And since then Corrymeela has grown into being Ireland's oldest peace and reconciliation organisation, 10,000 people a year coming through and programs of addressing marginalisation, sectarianism, dialogue, theology and its impact, inclusion. Primarily I suppose focused on the things that Ireland is known for within the question of British artist relations and the question of people coming with different points of view about Northern Ireland.
But then really since for a very long time there has been all kinds of other differences explored too. We're interested in how it is that difference can be the seed bed of our delight with each other rather than something that needs to be colonized. How can we indifference discover something that opens us up to brilliance towards each other and that that is not about only trying to establish common ground. It is also about saying let's deepen confidence in our own common ground where we realise that love can go beyond the border of similarity and go into the places where we are strange and foreign to each other and there discover something of the possibility of being human with each other. The mission is to transform divisions with human encounter. And that can seem like it is a tree hookie, you know, holding hands and wearing woolly jumpers and bouncing around the place, but it's damn difficult.
It's the art of having a really difficult argument. It's the art of saying, "I know you want to shout at someone. Don't. Say what you actually think and say it to them, looking at them in the face." I know there's people inside here who've just justified a political decision that resulted in the death of someone you love. Talk, talk to them. Tell them what that's like. Listen back. Put words to the things that are happening. This is the project, creating powerful, courageous, brave, risky moments in the present that might create the very future we say we want. And that is a really exciting project.
Barry: And Padraig, in your time as leader, I'm sure you must have seen many, many powerful moments and be part of those. Is there any stand out moment for you that you think you'll take away at the end of this month when you step down and always remember first?
Padraig: So you're right, there are so many. So what I'm doing at the moment is going through so many of them to think which are some of the ones that I love [inaudible 00:48:36].
Barry: Big question I know but . . .
Padraig: It is a big question. So as part of a group of people who spoke together about the Good Friday Agreement and United Ireland last year, and these were people who would have been very frightened to speak with each other. They would have thought that they would have erupted it into threat and violence. And we looked at the text of the Good Friday Agreement together, Belfast Good Friday Agreement, and then spoke about the provisions for that regarding parity of esteem and a border poll and what would happen. And people spoke about their fears. They spoke about their hopes. People were very divided and people spoke about their pain and it wasn't just pain in the pathways that you'd have predicted.
So some northern Catholics spoke to the southern Catholics in the room and said how abandoned they felt by the southern Catholics. Some English people in the room spoke to some of the Northern Ireland Protestants, British passport holding people in the room and said how foreign they felt as an English person in that environment. And so unexpected fractures within communities and gathering points were opened up. There was no point at the end to say, oh, therefore here's how we all vote. The point is to say if and when a border poll happens, we'll vote in different ways, but the Brexit project has certainly unleashed the need for us to say, "We actually know what this stuff looks like."
One of the interesting things about the Brexit project in Britain is that it is people in Britain having civic discussions, the likes of which they haven't had to had. We've had have had to have this for 100 years since the British partitioned Ireland, so we know that here. And actually I think that Northern Ireland does have a key to providing something about what civic discourse looks like and recognising that a trade deal won't save us at all. Whatever will save us, it is not a trade deal. It is the capacity for a community to hold itself together and to speak to each other rather than ripping each other apart.
Barry: Yeah. And Padraig, I want to ask you in a moment, what you feel your legacy will be when you step down from Corrymeela. But I'm just curious how Corrymeela has changed you since you've been there. You mentioned earlier it accepted you and you found a place, but how's it changed or developed you since you being there?
Padraig: Yeah, I served as an associate of Corrymeela since 2003 and then I became leader in 2014. So my time with Corrymeela encompasses five years of being leader but is not limited to that. I have grown in confidence and love of myself and other people. I have been reminded over and over again of the power of intergenerational friendships. There's people in their 80s in Corrymeela who texts and say, "Can we meet up for coffee?" and it's great meeting a friend. And I have been thrilled to meet people who've been volunteers of the Corrymeela, who are much younger than I am and so that intergenerational aspect is magnificent.
So in conflict theory, there's this understanding that there are . . . if there's an access between the access of cooperation and the access of assertion and that it's like an X, Y axis and that you find yourself located there. Sometimes high assertion, sometimes high collaboration, which is kind of both, sometimes it's high cooperation with low assertion, etc., and you move around there.
And the one that's low cooperation, low assertion is often called avoidance. And avoidance has its own intelligence because sometimes you just think, "I don't need to get involved here." And I have in the last five years really practiced and developed my love and appreciation for the art of avoidance when it comes because sometimes people can be high conflict and sometimes organisations can be high conflict or circumstances can be high conflict. And if you look for conflict you will find it. And I'm interested in looking for the creative and in order for me to focus on poetry, sometimes I had to think, "Well, what are the conflicts that are worthwhile paying attention to and what are the conflicts that are just about the desire for people to have a bit of drama?" and interesting is that might be for them, it's not interesting to me.
And so this is a surprise to me as I come to the end of my time. I have come to the end of my interest in other people's drama be my drama. And this is not just learning from within Corrymeela. You look at Twitter for instance, and Twitter is just the latest version. I don't think Twitter is responsible for anything, but I think it's the latest version of people who like to make their drama other people's trauma and in a useless way and in a distracting way. There are need, there are great needs for dramas to be elevated for civic anxiety. Absolutely. But not everything. And I think that there can be a way within which we can be distracted away from the important by looking at the urgent. And Corrymeela, my exhausting and delightful five years in that role has brought me to that kind of discernment, which I think I'll have to pay attention to for the rest of my life.
Barry: That's very interesting. And when you step down, Padraig, what do you hope your legacy will be? Or what do you think you'll be most proud of?
Padraig: Fabulous shoes. I think that's a hope. I don't know. I mean, fantasizing about what one's legacy is always an interesting but also self-involved. So I don't know. I suppose you need to ask other people what they think. Certainly I can say the things that I worked hard on, which was to elevate a civic discourse about the importance of religion and to the importance of speaking about religion in a way that's of validity for all, whether one is religious or not. I think elevating the public profile of being an out LGBT person in a role of leadership within an organisation that has religious affiliation, that has been a really important visibility for me and for others.
I think promoting in a public way the contribution that poetry and the Irish language have to civic discourse here. I'm often really annoyed by people across all political affiliations who talk about the politicisation of the Irish language. And I think that is a flimsy construct on two levels to say that on the one hand, if there's any language that's politicized on the island of Ireland, it's English because English was forced to. The Irish language was taken from people. So that is such a limited view of history to think that you can just project what the English language has been used for on the island of Ireland onto a language that is trying to survive.
And then the other side of that is God Almighty, if a language can't be political, well, then it's a waste of a language. Language needs to be political, needs to be powerful. So I think what we see in this really terrible language regarding the politicisation of the Irish language is an absolute avoidance of the legacy of colonisation here and how linguistic colonisation is often how you begin to break a people. And I am interested in us having serious conversations about that and not being distracted by what's happened in more recent times, but saying, let's talk about power. Let's talk about disenfranchisement. Let's talk about what it means when you rip a language from a people and you damage a soul. And let's talk about paying attention to that now.
Barry: And what about your plans for the future? End of April [inaudible 00:56:22]? What are you going after?
Padraig: So my life really has circled around three huge interests, religion, poetry and conflict. And that has always been the case and will always be the case. So I am making space in my life for more writing and more writing about conflict and more writing about religion and more writing about poetry. I have a new volume of poetry that's finished. Well, it needs to be edited, but it's pretty much finished.
I have a couple of book projects that are on the go, book projects that explore the overlap between conflict and poetry and another book project that looks at the overlap between conflict and religion. I have a podcast that will be broadcasted on the "On Being" platform starting in January 2020, a weekly podcast looking at poetry. Lots of speaking and teaching engagements at Ireland and abroad.
Barry: Padraig, at that section of the podcast now that I've just got a few rapid fire questions to put to you. And the first of these is as follows, is there a book, podcast, DVD or resource that you felt so passionately about that you've actually given it to others? And if so, what was it?
Padraig: "Six Feet Under," extraordinary HBO series that I think is one of the most inventive and public television projects of my life and it narrated me back to myself and challenged and confronted me. I think it's genius and directed by Alan Ball.
Barry: And if you could hang a banner with huge letters on it from the Harland and Wolff cranes for a whole year, what would it say?
Padraig: It'd be a quote from Michael Leunig and the quote says, "There are only two languages, love and fear."
Barry: Is there one belief, habit or practice that has propelled you forward more than anything else? And if so, what is it?
Padraig: People like to talk about themselves and so therefore find a way to ask people questions about themselves.
Barry: And finally, is there anything that you've purchased in say the last 12 months for around £50 that has actually proved of huge value to you? And if so, what?
Padraig: Yeah, a wobble board. I have a sore back from a car accident a few years ago and so I stand at the desk and I bought one of those wobble boards for 15 quid that you might find to . . . you find them in gyms for people to improve their balance. So any day I'm spending the whole day at the desk, I'm standing on a wobble board and I have enormously reduced back pain.
Barry: I never heard of a wobble board. Where do you find a wobble board [inaudible 00:58:57]?
Padraig: Any sports shop. Yeah. I mean, I should also say yoga is the answer to pretty much all of these things. It's important as like prayer in the body. Poetry is prayer for the soul, yoga is prayer for the body.
Barry: Okay. Right. Well, I'm going to finish by asking you to give us a bit of prayer for the soul with a poem. Before I do that, I just want to thank you so much for your time. I've really enjoyed talking to you, Padraig. So can I ask you to close with a poem of your choice?
Padraig: Here's a short one called "In Between the Sun and Moon," which I do really feel captures what I'm interested in, which is finding the in-between spaces between things that might seem to be discordant and finding hospitality in places of hostility. In Between the Sun and Moon. In between the sun and moon, I sit and watch and make some room for letting light and twilight mingle, shaping hope and making single glances last eternity, and a little more extending love beyond the door of welcoming while wedding all the parted peoples, even sons to violent mothers and searching all the others finding light where twilight lingers in between the sun and moon.
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