21 Mar 2017
We are saddened to hear of the death of Martin McGuinness today. His life was marked by a move from violence to peacemaking and reconciliation. Corrymeela Leader Pádraig Ó Tuama met the former Deputy First Minister at our centre in Ballycastle and his personal reflection is below.
I first met Martin McGuinness when he and Peter Robinson opened the Davey Village at Corrymeela. He was speaking about violence and peacemaking and he spoke about how people need to come on individual journeys. It hadn’t been long since he’d shaken the hand of the Queen. I’d written a poem about that handshake and, to my surprise, he quoted some of the poem.
We got chatting afterwards. He said to come visit him in Stormont. So, I did. It was the first of a number of meetings over the next years.
Mostly we spoke about poetry. He wrote some poetry himself, but mostly he loved reading it, Patrick Kavanagh in particular. He loved Kavanagh’s ones about clay, the ones about the fields, the ones about family members — In Memory of my Mother and the one that I can never remember about old men in ‘October coloured weather’.
We spoke, too, about violence, compromise and change. He was well practiced in warmth and friendship, making me feel genuinely listened to. Speaking about the move from violence to peace, he said “We’ve all come on long journeys”. It might have been a newspaper interview. He spoke a lot about Ian Paisley, and, in private meetings, always had a lot to say about the achievements made between different parties. His capacity to engage in the individual moment was remarkable.
When I got the job as leader of Corrymeela, he sent a short message in Irish on twitter. I replied and I think he sent me a thumbs–up. He was engaging with the new technology.
“What do you call him?” my mother asked when I told her about the meetings. Her question surprised me, because I had never spent a second worrying about it. “Martin” I said, “or Máirtín if we were speaking Irish”. It wouldn’t have occurred to me — or anyone else I’ve talked to — to call him by his official title. It was this openness that struck me each time we met. We were no great intimates. The questions I had about his change from the 1970s to the 2000s were not ones I asked; mostly because I didn’t think I’d get any different answers than the ones I’d read from interviews.
Elizabeth Bowen wrote “To turn from everything to one face is to find oneself face to face with everything”. In Martin McGuinness, I think we see in one face the extraordinary story of someone turning from a campaign of violence to a campaign of peace. The past isn’t so easy to leave behind; we will see that in every obituary. But the history of many political leaders has been the history of turning, of repenting to use the theological term, from endorsing pain towards enacting peace, as much as they are able. I always got the impression that it was a lonely road, as there were many public reasons to question motivation. The word repentance, or metanoia in Greek, means ‘to change direction’ or ‘to change your mind’. I can think of no more difficult vocation. Such repentance requires extraordinary commitment. Effort, energy, compromise and commitment must be enacted. Martin was the first one to say he was no saint. He would have been the last one to call himself a great peacemaker, but in the last twenty years, that’s what he’s worked hard and I am left with profound respect for the work he’s done, and for the person I met.
The Christmas before last, I got a phone call from an unknown number. “Pádraig,” a voice said “Martin here. Nollaig Shona. How’s Mammy and Daddy?” It took me a while to realise who was asking after my parents. He was phoning because he wanted me to write out a poem so he could get it framed as a farewell present for Peter Robinson. I was in the throes of a winter ‘flu. Shivering and sweating at the same time, I wrote out the poem about Martin’s handshake with the Queen so he could have it framed and given to Peter Robinson, a man he’d never shaken hands with in public. The irony wasn’t lost. But, I believed the desire was genuine. I think Martin knew he was a man of his time, and that for him, with his past, there were some gestures that would need to wait for successive generations of Irish and British leaders, people from the North and people from Northern Ireland; people from across the pluralities that exist in one place. The role of first and deputy first ministers is an experiment in the art of compromise and collaboration. These are roles endowed with purpose and problems. To do the role well is to do it within constraint. I can’t think of a better person for the job than Martin.
We kept in touch a little after that. I had his mobile number. I’d text him from time to time, and he’d usually respond. Sometimes I’d ask for news about any public funding cycles, but I never heard of any. But I always heard from him. He’d heard that my partner was from Derry, so he’d say “How’s that Derry fella?” He’d ask after my parents, he’d ask after the work of Corrymeela, and he’d always ask about poetry, saying what he was reading; always Kavanagh, always the clay, always the memory and love of land.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a hanam dhílis
Pádraig Ó Tuama