War and Peace: Reflections From the Glencree Centre for Reconciliation
“It’s a horrible, terrible thing. Unthinkable, really.” The kindly woman in the airport grasped my hand and met my eyes squarely with a knowing sadness. Other strangers approached me with condolences after hearing my American accent.
As an American in Ireland shortly after the terrorist attacks, I was greeted with expressions of compassion, support and even at times, benevolent pity. I was grateful to all who offered comfort.
It was a strange reversal for me in on an island where, on my previous trips, I had been the one offering sympathy for the latest act of terrorism.
The staff at the Glencree Centre for Reconcilation in the Wicklow Mountains welcomed our volunteer team with reassuring words and hugs. The quiet serenity of the campus settled over us. A single candle burned resolutely on the reception desk.
Outside, a cool mist crept over the ivy-covered gate. Sheep bleated contentedly in the valley….was this a scene from Barry Lyndon? Our home for two weeks, Glencree offered an antidote to the scenes of terrorism and tragedy we left behind.
“Because what is forgotten cannot be healed, and that which cannot be healed easily becomes the source of greater evil.” -Lionel Chircop
The connection I felt with the conference attendees from Northern Ireland was immediate. Participants in Glencree’s L.I.V.E (Let’s Involve Victims’ Experiences) Program, they assembled to share their successes and struggles on the journey to healing.
All had been personally touched by violence….some had lost a parent, a brother. Some had lost a limb. All had lost their faith in humanity for a time, and longed to gain back a sense of place.
Hour after hour I heard their stories of betrayal, confrontation, retribution, and sometimes, eventually, reconciliation. Only two weeks earlier I would have listened with my heart, but not heard the pain and felt the vulnerability rise up inside me.Now, after Sept. 11, I knew their grief too well.
Anna (whose name has been changed to protect her identity), a young wife who lost her father five years ago in a gruesome bombing, described the agony of confronting Pat, her father’s murderer.
“He told me he killed my father because he was an obstacle to his mission. It helps that it wasn’t personal, but that doesn’t make my father any less dead. I’ll never forgive him, but I can reconcile myself to the reality.”
Anna is working with the BBC on a documentary about her journey through shock, grief, and anger to reconciliation and forgiveness.
It’s a long journey that many program participants struggle through, falling down and losing ground along the way. Some in the room say Anna is too bold. Give yourself time to work through all the stages of grief, a crippled man says. You’re giving too much notoriety to the perpetrator. One young woman leans forward and proclaims: “We must blaze our own trail…together.”
Healing is as personal as grieving, it seems.
“The first bomb I was close to was when I was working for the Irish Times in Belfast. One evening a man parked a car right outside the front door, about a yard out from the footpath. He got out of the car and just walked away, leaving the door open.
We immediately rang the guarda (police). At that moment we heard a voice yelling through a loud speaker for the street to be cleared immediately. There was no way out except through the front door past the bomb. As I was going out the door, one of my sandals fell off. I got it an hour later….after the bomb exploded and blew it up to the end of the street. All I could think was….it could have been me.” — Jill McKenna
“I’d known it in my heart. Such a feeling of peace came over me that day, that he wasn’t suffering any more. They found Brian’s body with two foot of soil over him. The coroner assured me it was Brian.
He’s buried at Milltown now. At least I have that. Others don’t even have a body. I know that when you die, that’s not the end of you. That’s not the end. You’re always among us. That’s something I hold on to. But there’s something I have to know. Why at the end I have to be grateful for being able to go to my son’s grave. Imagine being grateful for that.” — Margaret McKinney
We reflected on the victim’s testimony, compiled by An Crann, “The Tree”, a charitable organization in Belfast. The room fell silent. We sat still in each other’s presence. The moderator turned to me. “Now our experience is shared by our friends in America.”
How could I sum up the feelings of a country numbed by the horror of the previous week? Who in this room could remember a time so innocent so far away now?
“We have learned to LIVE with fear,” Colin Murphy, Glencree’s retired Chairman said. We’ve survived terrorism, and you can too.”
“You can learn to go about your life without being paralyzed by not knowing what might come next. If you give in to fear, you lose.”
“I will not lose,” I repeated silently as the efficient airport security officer patted me down.
Glancing at the women passengers in line with me, I reassured myself. “We’re on a journey now that others have blazed for us. We’re not alone.”
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