On Sunday Fr Martin Magill visited McCracken Memorial Presbyterian Church in South Belfast, where Trevor Ringland, former Irish and British Lion Rugby star and now Chairman of the Northern Ireland Conservatives, spoke on the courage needed for future Peace and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland. The comments and discussion after the event prompted Fr Magill to reflect on whether we need — and how we can create — a space where people’s stories of trauma from the Troubles can be heard.
I’ve long thought that something like this is necessary. First, as a lecturer in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation, I know that transitional societies that provide some forum for dealing with the past, where people’s suffering can be acknowledged and publicly recognised, tend to ‘move forward’ better than those which do not. Second, like Fr Magill I have attended events in Northern Ireland where the time for ‘questions’ becomes an informal platform where people share their stories about what happened to them or their loved ones.
People seem to need such spaces to express themselves. But how do we create spaces that allow them to tell their stories in an atmosphere of safety, respect and acknowledgement?
Fr Martin Magill on Telling & Listening to Stories of Trauma
After a presentation given by Trevor Ringland, McCracken’s assistant minister, Fiona Forbes, opened the event to comment or question. I found this section of the evening unsettling and it left me with many questions.
The first person to speak was a retired medic who spoke about how he had operated for a number of hours on a high profile person who had been shot and seriously wounded during the Troubles. He believed that this man owed his life in part to the speedy response of the ambulance taking him to the City Hospital. The medic in what he said talked about how this was “by the way.” He used that expression at least twice before going on to talk about rugby with Trevor Ringland.
We then had a former police officer speak about his experiences of working at the scenes of bomb explosions. Owing to the graphic nature of what he said, I will not quote here any of his words. His comment included a reference to some of the smells from the events he witnessed.
In the course of the comment — and it was mostly comment — we heard people, mostly men, express views. Topic ranged from the Union flag on the City Hall, to doubt about the level of discrimination Catholics faced in the past. There was one question about the Orange Order and if it was reformable.
Reflecting on the evening, it reminded me of a recent event in Skainos in East Belfast at which Pat Magee and Jo Berry had spoken. The moment the floor was opened to question or comment, a woman spoke about the murder of her husband during the Troubles. On that evening, we also heard from a man who was wounded in a bomb which on that very day almost 40 years ago had killed one of his friends.
In this reflection, I am raising the issue of whether we need some forum where those who wish can tell their stories of how the conflict impacted their lives.
As I write this, I express some concerns about this. Who hears the stories? How much detail do people give? Owing to the nature of trauma, there will be some very disturbing detail. Some people still remember the smells from the event or events. Who needs to hear this? Will telling the story or stories help the healing or simply open up raw and painful wounds?
One thing for sure is that it would certainly seem that some people need a forum to express something of what they are carrying.
I am left to wonder if Churches have a part to play in providing safe places where people can tell those stories which will allow them to heal from the trauma of the past.
(image: Rev Steve Stockman of Fitzroy Presbyterian & Fr Martin Magill of Sacred Heart Parish in North Belfast promoting the recent 4 Corners Festival, the theme of which was storytelling)