Once I had said my goodbyes to Jan at the airport in Memingen, my motto became, “It’s all part of the adventure!” Not enough leg room on cheapo Ryan Air? “It’s part of the adventure!” A long, expensive cab ride to my first B&B? “It’s part of the adventure!” At home I live at points “A” and “B,” and “C” etc, and the transit times between them, I regard as annoying interludes to be kept as short, uneventful and expeditious as possible. In Ireland, I overruled this attitude, and allowed even these intervals to carry their own import and become a rich part of my experience. Have to get up at 4 am, take a cab to a bus to take me from Belfast to the airport in Dublin and then wait two hours? No worries, “It’s all part of the adventure!”
Hopefully, elaborating on my pledge will illuminate how I happened upon the most significant experience of my time in Ireland and stumbled upon the words that have haunted me ever since.
The full day of sessions held out at the School of Ecumenics was over, and the Re-Emergence conference was relocating to the Black Box downtown for an evening concert with Vince Anderson and then Foy Vance. I had started chatting with a delightful couple from Northern Ireland, and by the time we had come up for air, everyone else had gone to find something to eat. The Irish emergent couple had a date with their son, who was studying in Belfast, so they generously offered to drop me off near the Black Box. At first I was disappointed that I would be on my own until 8 pm, having enjoyed meeting and conversing with several other participants, but I decided that I would savor some time alone to have a good meal and reflect on the abundance of words I had already heard that day.
To this end I slipped into the Four Corners restaurant, one of the few which was not overcrowded with St. Patrick’s Day revelers, and was waiting to be seated after the two women who had come in just before me. Having been led to a table not far from theirs, I had hardly laid my little pink notebook on the table, when one of these women, who had obviously been celebrating St. Paddy’s herself, approached me with an invitation to join them and the two male companions who would be meeting them shortly. Taken aback, I scanned my brain for a tactful way to decline: maybe that “I needed to go over my notes from the day and was glad for some alone time, before I met up with others later in the evening.” Or that “I had the H1N1 virus, and would instantly self destruct, if I came into contact with drunk people, whom I’d never met before.”
But just as I was about to say all of that, my pledge intervened, “Lee, you’re in Ireland! It’s part of the adventure!. Do something you’ve never done before, and who knows, maybe something will happen that has never happened before.” It seemed apparent from her friends reaction, that inviting strangers in a restaurant to join her was something this well dressed woman, about ten years my senior with short but styled reddish brown hair and high heels, had never done before either. We were all quite surprised that I said yes, as was our waiter, who admitted, when we asked for a new and larger table for all of us together, that he had never had that happen before. The men that joined my host and her blond Finish sister-in-law were equally quizzical about my presence at the table, when they arrived a few minutes later.
Introductions were made, and you know, I can’t remember a single one of their names! So, I will call my intrepid, tipsy new Irish friend, Maggie, if for no other reason than I have grown to love that name and have been looking for “Maggie” ever since I’d gotten to Ireland. Maggie’s brother and a Scottish man, who was not her husband (silly me for asking) had also obviously been honoring St. Paddy that day. Of course they wanted to know what an American, living in Germany was doing in Belfast without her family. When I told them about the conference, and tried to explain what “The Emergent Church” was, Maggie had a vague idea of what I was talking about. She told me about growing up pentecostal, and that their parents were actually pastors. She also told me that unanswered pleas for divine intervention during a long, unsuccessful battle to save her marriage with an unfaithful husband had robbed her of her faith in a “happy-ending God.” But recently she had seen a speech by someone on tv about this “emerging way of faith,” which really caught her attention.
I couldn’t help myself, but had to ask them about the conflict. Had they been touched by it personally? Maggie’s brother jumped on that question, “You don’t want to hear about that do you? Do you really want to hear about my friend getting shot in his own home by an IRA dressed up as a Postman? No, you don’t want to hear about me standing shoe deep in his blood in the entrance of his home. Or about me going upstairs to fetch his father, who was shakin’ like leaf all over his body. You don’t want to hear about me laying him in my bed next to me, just to keep him warm and to get him to stop shaking. You don’t want to hear any of those stories. Of having to choose which bar you can go to by whether you’re catholic or Protestant.” I smiled, “No, at least we didn’t have that problem between our denominations in the states!”
How were things now? “Things are better now. For about the last ten years, with each year, things get better. Every year is better than the last.” Why do you think that is? What has helped to bring peace? I asked, wondering if he might mention grassroots efforts for reconciliation. Then Maggie’s brother looked at me with his clouded over, red eyes, making sure he had my full attention and said, “Imagine Al-Qaida, who have bombed and killed American citizens. Now imagine putting one of the head leaders of Al-Qaida in a top position of your government. That’s what we did. We put a terrorist in a top position of our government. That’s how we started to make it better.”
Seeing that I was drawing a total blank, Maggie took over, “We took one of the main leaders of the IRA and made him Minister of Education.” And after waiting for that to sink in, she added, “and you know what? He was the best damn Minister of Education we ever had!”
And though I don’t think I have grasped their full implication even now, these words have stalked me ever since that night. What Maggie and her brother tried to convey has only gained in significance, as I have sought to fill out my embarrassing lack of knowledge about The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Maggie’s brother was talking about the implementation of a power-sharing executive as part of the devolution of Britain’s control. Maggie, I believe, was referring to Martin McGuinness, who was a leading member of Sinn Fein and had been a noxious and seditious IRA thug, as the title of a biography about him might suggest, “From Guns to Government,” and who became Minister of Education in December 1999 and deputy First Minister on May 8, 2007. More amazing is that Ian Paisley, co-founder of the DUP, who called Pope John Paul II the Anti-Christ and who in 2006 said, "[Sinn Fein] are not fit to be in partnership with decent people. They are not fit to be in the government of Northern Ireland and it will be over our dead bodies if they ever get there," became the First Minister. The two of them represent the most extreme and aggressive positions on their respective sides of the conflict! On 8 December 2007, while they both were visiting President Bush in the White House, McGuinness said to the press "Up until the 26 March this year, Ian Paisley and I never had a conversation about anything – not even about the weather – and now we have worked very closely together over the last seven months and there's been no angry words between us. ... This shows we are set for a new course." Indeed, “Paisley and McGuinness subsequently established a good working relationship and were dubbed by the Northern Irish media as the "Chuckle Brothers."
When eight o’clock drew near, I excused myself, thanked them for inviting me to join in their lives for a couple of hours, and went to pay for my dinner, only to find that the two gentlemen had already taken care of the bill. I left the Four Corners Restaurant with a fond admiration for these strangers who had shared a meal with me, a deepening respect for the people of Northern Ireland, and in awe of the courageous steps they had taken to pursue peace. And I find myself still amazed at the mystery, as if it were the first time I had encountered it, that within the very souls that exert a horrifying propensity toward violence and destruction, it is also possible to find a divine potential to self-sacrifice for peace.
What better gift could I have asked for from the Irish? I must look no further for my Irish inheritance, Maggie’s mit-gift to her American descendants, something I can salvage from a family that has not survived the rough storms at sea. This is why it is so bloody good to be Irish! They have given me words; ancient words (Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization), written, spoken, recited words; words sung; words in a quiet, powerful, chance conversation; words that can challenge me, change me, and words that can guide me home. They have given us all a treasure of language, a language with which to embrace each other.