Last Saturday I attended a conference with a difference, one which had a real impact on me and qualifies as my most interesting experience of the year so far. Prior to attending I was pretty ambivalent about attending Troubles, Tragedy & Trauma but I came away with a very different set of feelings. St Paul’s Centre, Hammersmith, London was the setting for this event, noteworthy to my eye, as I’m constantly on the look-out for smart spaces and places. It forms part of the church of the same name, a place of workshop since 1629, nestled in the shadows of Hammersmith flyover and serving a multiplicity of community purposes. Confounding common perception, the entire complex was buzzing last Saturday. The main church was hosting a healing prayer event which complimented the conference I attended. Over the past few years St Paul’s has been a good neighbour and provided a home from home for conference co-hosts –Hammersmith’s Irish Cultural Centre (who have had the builders in). So a smart place in my view.
I spent the day listening to a range of stories which riveted me to my seat and filled me with emotion plus the odd tear or two. I suppose the title ‘Troubles, Tragedy & Trauma’ should have prepared me; quite emotive words in their own right but the harrowing stories shared with the large audience went way beyond the simple meaning of the words themselves. I was there to build on my understanding of the period that any Irish person should be more informed about; not the much publicised centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising but the more recent troubles in Northern Ireland. Held on the 44th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the conference aimed to explore the legacy of over 40 years of violence in Northern Ireland and the impact of the conflict on victims and their families. As conference chair Ireland’s former President Mary McAleese set the scene by saying;- “Telling the truth about the circumstances of these tragic and unnecessary deaths is an essential part of the ongoing peace process.”
Troubles, Tragedy & Trauma was conceived by Michael O’Hare, a student from co hosts St Marys University. The agenda focused on the personal testimony of four people directly impacted by the violence that occurred in Northern Ireland during what was described as the Troubles. Their stories pinned the audience to our seats as we listened with tearful eyes to the stories of those whose lives have been wrenched apart by events of 40 years ago and who have yet to get closure. Recounting the mix of sad shocking tales is a job for others, as I lack the ability to properly impart the depths of pain, sense of loss and the frustrating search for closure. What struck me was their integrity, their courage in sharing painful memories and the durability of suffering across four decades. Apart from the stories from victims and their families, the narrative was bolstered by those on the panel and indeed by contributors from the audience. I was taken by the fact that everyone had a violent story to tell which dispelled for me a long-held perception that strife was limited to certain parts of Northern Ireland. One of the more notable contributions came from a former British soldier who unprompted, stood up, and talked about the importance of journeying to reconciliation even if it takes tiny steps.
Troubles, Tragedy & Trauma provoked in me a number of very powerful insights into life;- how it is vital to promote greater understanding of issues, how to learn from one another and most of all the power of just saying ‘I’m sorry’. It was a conference like no other I’ve been to before – the sharing of so much personal anguish is not something one comes across on a regular basis. Yet it had a cathartic effect on many as we listened to both the victims’ stories and the contributions from the audience as it opened our eyes to the realities of Northern Ireland’s legacy. In fact, these could be applied to many other trouble spots across the world. For many of us who live on a diet of well spun headlines and carefully crafted messaging, hearing simple human stories based on real pain is somewhat of a rarity and more’s the pity. Last Saturday from me was a day when I was well and truly stunned by the reality of the stories of Troubles, Tragedy & Trauma, brought down to earth by the consequences of violence yet bolstered by the determination of those who fight to find truth and justice.