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I swear I have been in Northern Ireland for at least a good four or five days. It isn’t just jet lag. Sure, that accounts for ill-timed bouts of sleepiness and irregular hunger cycles, but I just feel like I have been here so long. Time may fly when having fun, but with attendance to detail, laser like focus, and a stream of activities that demand consciousness, time slows down, overtaken by familiarity, ultimately creating an experience that appears unbounded by the constraints of the clock. This came to me as a Corrymeela volunteer asked me to confirm how long we have been in Northern Ireland. I tried to answer a seemingly simple question. Then I realized I’ve been here a not a long time, but I have been here with full experience.

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For those of you reading who don’t know…
My eldest son, Conlon, is named after the Irish Catholic from Belfast, Gerard Conlon, who, along with his father and three friends were kept imprisoned by the British government for 17 years for a crime they did not commit. I had watched the film In the Name of the Father (and subsequently read Conlon’s autobiography) when i was pregnant. My paranoia of wrongful imprisonment is pervasive enough to make me wonder about possible past life connections with such an experience. At any rate, go rent the movie from Netflix. It’s worth a watch. Daniel Day Lewis is amazing, as are Emma Thompson and Pete Postlewaite. If nothing else, swoon at the soundtrack and get a taste of the Troubles. People here know the story, and truth be told, those on the unionist side may not be impressed by my son’s name. I look forward to seeing if there is any difference in the reception of the story once I’m in the republic. But for real, do yourselves a favor, watch the film. I can’t wait to watch it again when I get back, so if my husband is reading this, go ahead and buy the DVD if you can find it. 🙂

Corrymeela is a small but ample bit of land on the ocean’s shore near/in Ballycastle. It was purchased and developed by Ray Davey to be a place for war veterans to share their stories for healing and reconciliation. The organization functions through the efforts of volunteers who stay various lengths of time on site (from a weekend to as long as a year or more). The primary focus shifted as a result of the Troubles, to allow a space for opening dialogue between the warring factions. Corrymeela has hosted such known guests as the Dali Lama, Mother Theresa, and…well…EIU students. Haha! They did have a welcome sign for us when we arrived, took us in and gave us every bit of their attention.

The girls’ initial reaction to Corrymeela was one part confusion (religious center? Cult? Commune?) and two parts enchantment (so homey, so beautiful!). It took about a half hour, and everyone was completely enthralled, if a bit tired. After tea ( lunch) our volunteer leaders, Emily, Michael, and Matt (from Canada, Germany, and the US, respectively) engaged us in ice breaking activities, a tour, a brief history of the Troubles and a simulation where we play acted the various sides (UK, Republic of Ireland, UVF, IRA, and US). This allowed the students to gain more perspective of the goals and constraints of each faction.

It seemed like we were constantly eating; we had more tea (or coffee for me) and biscuits and another meal before the last had worn off. The view had us all captivated, and made it difficult to focus sometimes. The sounds of crashing waves relaxed us as much as the Irish lilt. The feeling of community embraced us. We talked, ate, and helped clean up. I used my first commercial dishwasher. That would be handy to have in my kitchen. Dishes done and sterilized in 5 minutes or less. (fewer)’Sweet.

The volunteers told us how they came to work or spend their gap year cooking, cleaning, running programs, and a variety of other tasks, such as chopping firewood or filing paperwork. They were completely charming. The girls took a particular liking to Michael and Aaron. The two of them graciously talked to a group of us late into the night, answering dozens of questions.

I felt privileged to sit in the Croi (pronounced: Cree) where upon the wall hung the Dali Lama’s shawl under framed glass. The Croi was designed in the shape of a heart with atria and ventricles, little round meeting places for talking, working through conflict, meditation and worship. The acoustics of the arched walls and curved ceilings made it possible to hear someone speaking softly from the other side of the room. The vision of Corrymeela is vital and it’s purpose to resolve conflict.

How perfect to see the walls of Belfast…designed to keep peace (or at least control the violence) by segregation in the morning and by afternoon come to a pastoral vortex of positive energy designed to create Peace by building bridges via communication. The evening speaker, Derek, an esteemed past director of Corrymeela and accomplished educator, prompted us to consider that in order to have reconciliation, victims must be able to come to terms with the resentment, that is, if they have passed the first step….letting go of revenge.

As suspected, a vengeance ethos and tit-for-tat strategy fueled much of the Troubles, escalating the violence until over 400 people were dying a year in Belfast alone as a direct result of bombings and assassinations. Thousands more injured, and countless people put out of their homes in the wake of the destruction. Derek tried to scale the numbers for us. Relative to the population of Chicago, he said it would be like having well over 150,000 people murdered and bombed over the course of a year. That boggled our minds.

Then Michael started a campfire, Emily and Allen served hot chocolate and toast (apparently as logical a combination as peanut butter and jelly?) and Matt played guitar, though I missed the musical interlude in favor of my B & B … Whenever I have wifi, I Skype my Boys (that includes you, honey) and post my Blog. Also a Skype session with Leigh! 🙂

I there is so much more to say about the experience at Corrymeela. It’s an amazing place to visit. We could have easily stayed longer. There are many conversations I hope to remember and share (working class/middle class, the movie Wonderlust and is it the red hand of Ulster or a box of McDonald’s fries?…the list goes on and on…)

Perhaps on a day I’m not finally passing out at now 2 am.

Yawn.

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