In my last post about marking the Day of Reflection on the conflict in and about Northern Ireland, I said that I would be attending an event to mark the day at St Oliver Plunkett’s Church in Lenadoon.
The evening service was led jointly by Fr Martin Magill, the parish priest, and Rev Steve Stockman, the minister at Fitzroy Presbyterian in Belfast. The Victims and Survivors Trust was also involved in the service, most prominently through an extended reflection by its chairperson, Paul Gallagher.
The event featured a simple yet moving liturgy, which allowed plenty of space for quiet reflection through the sharing of music and times set aside for contemplation and prayer.
The book Lost Lives, framed by two candles, formed the centre piece at the front of the church.
VAST also had some of its literature available for perusal, including a book outlining its Three Tiers Project Evaluation, May 2009-2011. In his introduction to the evaluation, Gallagher wrote:
We do not want to become the forgotten victims again. We want to get involved in society again. We want to give something back. We want to share our experience with others to show that we have something to offer. We may be broken and in pain but we are survivors and we will come out of the darkness. We just need your help and support to do this.
For me, the public acknowledgement of victims and survivors’ suffering that is inherent in a Day of Reflection is important. One reason it’s important is because it can go some way towards prompting the wider society to offer victims and survivors ethical or moral support.
Below, I’ve reproduced the text of Gallagher’s reflection from the event. Gallagher picks up on the theme of seed sowing in the Bloom song, and points out that for many, ‘the day of reflection is constant,’ because their losses live with them in mind and body.
Paul Gallagher on the Day of Reflection
Today, the 21st of June, is the longest day of the year. A time when light is at its most powerful against darkness. This day has become for many in this country a symbolic time to reflect upon the loss of our loved ones, to contemplate how we may overcome our injuries and to look to how we make a better future for ourselves and for our society.
The longest day of the year, the summer solstice, has been viewed with great importance for millennia. Our ancient ancestors based many of their ancient ceremonies around this date. It is from these ancient times that many of our myths and cultures have evolved.
I would like to use some metaphors and myths to put into context the reason why many of us are here today. There are many ancient myths which come from the time when humans first used agriculture and moved away from hunting. Everyone was seen as part of the earth, as plants, connected to each other through the soil. Jesus used the same type of analogy when he spoke of himself as the vine and of us as the branches.
Sometimes these plants were burnt by wildfires, sometimes hacked down in their prime, sometimes ripped from their roots and discarded. This can also be said of many of us here today. Many people have had their limbs ripped off by violent explosions. Others have been blinded. Some like myself have had bullets pass through our bodies leaving untold damage and pain. Others have had their loved ones taken from their family circle leaving an emptiness that may never be filled.
However, when a plant is damaged, uprooted, pruned or burned it is not always the end of the story. From the trauma and damage, the open wounds, in time may heal over. New shoots emerge, new growth begins. We, here today, may recognize this in ourselves. We cannot grow back our amputated limbs, regain our vision, reconnect our spinal cords or welcome our loved ones back to our homes, but we can see shoots of hope in ourselves. We can reconnect with each other through support groups like VAST. A new forest can grow from the embers of the wildfire. We can all grow again and regain the strength to face the world.
This is the message of the myth of the ancient farmers. The connections we have through our experiences help us to grow again, together. This new growth can be seen in individuals, in families, in communities and in society in general. It is up to groups like VAST to continue the good work as the benevolent gardener and it is up to wider society to help these groups until we are all in full bloom again.
To conclude I would like to say that the Day of Reflection for many is constant. We reflect on our losses every day of the year. My own experience of the conflict is with me every day. And not just every day but all day every day. My injuries, this wheelchair, is a constant reminder of the day that violence came into my life. For others an empty chair at the dinner table is their reminder.
However, we should not let these reminders hold us back from living our lives. We should not feel guilty for surviving. We should try to be positive about what we have and to make the most of it. We owe this to ourselves and to future generations and we should do all that we can to make sure that they do not have to live through the same trouble and pain that we have endured.
This is a hard journey but there is always help there. All you have to do is ask for it. For those that can give help, all you have to do is offer it. It is, I hope, through this self-help and communal support that we can make this place a better place, a safer place and a happier place.