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Readings in Nonviolence

'Readings in Nonviolence' features extracts from our favourite books, pamphlets, articles or other material on nonviolence and related areas, or reviews of important works in the field (suggestions and contributions welcome)

Corrymeela 50

Rob Fairmichael considers the work of Corrymeela, and his relationship to it, partly with reference to two books "Don't fence me in" by Ray Davey, 1954 (printed by the Belfast News-Letter (sic) but publisher not stated) and "Sorry For Your Troubles" by Pádraig Ó Tuama, Canterbury Press, 2013.

I first came into contact with Corrymeela in 1969 – four or five years after it started - when I was 16 years old and it was very important to me at the time for several reasons. It was a community when I was feeling isolated as a peace activist and, although my own direction would have been somewhat different there was a lot in common, and I received support from the likes of Billy McAllister (who was warden there). It was also prepared to examine received wisdom and ask questions of society. My own ideology took peace way beyond the boundaries of Northern Ireland and, while Corrymeela's main focus was on the North, there were numbers of people involved who would not have thought very or any differently. There are others who would think differently, or would not have considered wider international peace issues but then Corrymeela is mainly about issues in Northern Ireland.

After a certain amount of involvement with Corrymeela for some of the next decade or so, I continued to be in contact with it throughout the years since and would probably have been at more peace meetings in the old Corrymeela House in Upper Crescent than any other location. When I wrote an article on Corrymeela House and the work that went on there or based there, marking its closure (Nonviolent News 224) it was not designed as a personal or critical reflection on Corrymeela and its work as opposed to a tribute. That was intentional. But in Corrymeela's 50th anniversary year I thought I should do more. So I have written this piece and it is based on my own thoughts without doing further research.

I will share one little story from my early involvement with Corrymeela before I move on to the rest of this piece. In 1972 I was present at the Centre in Ballycastle when a young Protestant boy of eight from Belfast, on his first visit to the coast or the countryside, burnt down a neighbouring farmer's haystack before breakfast the first morning he was there. This was experimentation not maliciousness. Walking beside him going down to the Giant's Causeway I was spinning the usual yarn about Fionn Mac Cumhail, and said how you couldn't see him because he was visiting friends in Scotland. This young lad looked up at me and said "Does the giant kill fenians*?" (* Derogatory Protestant term for Catholics in Northern Ireland.) How do you answer that? Indeed the giant might have had a bit of fenian or pre-fenian in himself. But it shows part of the baseline that Corrymeela could be working from.

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Ray Davey was 'the founder' of Corrymeela, not that he did it himself but that the community formed around him. A non-combatant worker with the British forces in the Second World War, with the YMCA, after capture in north Africa he ended up a prisoner of war in Italy and then Germany, and was in Dresden for 'the' bombing of Dresden. But presumably because he was a non-combatant and in a pastoral role, he had been allowed to wander about to different POW camps and even meet individual Germans. He knew that many, while trapped in a war that Germany was losing, were not Nazis or in favour of the war and he got to know individual Germans as just that, individuals, rather than stereotypes.

This stark realisation of humanity on all sides, and in the light of the Dresden bombing (which he said made him understand 'total war'), along with the intense camaraderie of bring in prisoner of war camps, persuaded him of the need for two things; reconciliation and community. Thus Ray Davey's journey began. It was twenty years after the end of the Second World War, 1965, when Corrymeela was formed around the purchase of an old Holiday Fellowship building on a (small) cliff edge outside Ballycastle, Co Antrim.

As a university chaplain, Ray Davey had opportunities to talk, and consider the application of his Christian faith. He took groups to visit Christian reconciliation centres around Europe, like Agape in Italy, Taize in France, and Iona in Scotland. "Don't fence me in" was seemingly written at the end of the war but the 1954 edition had a postscript where he considers the needs of peace. The book is intriguing – and for me, as a polished piece of work (even with a catchy and modern, humorous title) preferable to his edited war diaries which appeared more recently ("The War Diaries – From prisoner-of-war to peacemaker" by Ray Davey, Brehon Press, 2005). However the most fascinating part that I find in "Don't fence me in" is the 1954 postscript because this was written about half way between the end of the war and the formation of Corrymeela and gives a picture of the evolution of his thinking.

At that stage, 1954, the focus was still on the university chaplaincy and building that up as a reconciling community. But he could say "Part of our trouble is that we entertain in our minds a very unimaginative and negative view of peace. Usually we think of it merely as the absence of war, that which is created by treaties and conferences, primarily the concern of statesmen and politicians, and beyond the range of the ordinary person..." (page 117)

Subsequently the concept of 'community' in Ray Davey's thinking broadened so that, after another decade, Corrymeela was formed – but he and others involved with the Presbyterian Chaplaincy at Queen's were the principal movers in getting Corrymeela off the ground.

I suppose what is most impressive for me is that Ray and those accompanying him were on a journey. That journey took twenty years for Ray himself. And arrival at that particular destination was only the start of a bigger journey with Corrymeela. Adherence and steadfastness to such a vision over such a length of time has to be admired, as well as the realisation that overcoming divisions that lead to war and conflict needs dedicated work.

Many things have changed in fifty years since that start of Corrymeela. The old joke about early arrivals being told they will have to make their beds, wondering what the fuss was about, and then realising that they had to physically construct their beds from wood and nails, is apocryphal but may have been true enough. Health and safety concerns are on a different level now, and awareness of many other issues. But Corrymeela still tries to be an open and welcoming kind of place.

There is nothing new in the fact that there can be a tension between an organisation which runs an 'open' meeting place and the organisation's ideology. Corrymeela, as an open or liberal Christian reconciliation organisation, may feel right to some people and wrong for others as a meeting place – either because it is too Christian or not Christian enough. There is nothing which can be done about this sort of tension other than really being open and welcoming, and building bridges. But there are questions about the extent to which Corrymeela wants to, or can, engage with the Christian churches, and which ones. There are no easy decisions there because there can be pluses and minuses whatever is done.

Another source of possible tension is also held in common with any voluntary organisation which employs paid workers – the tension that can exist between paid workers and committees, boards or whatever other decision making structures are in place. In Corrymeela's case the picture is further complicated by a having a non-residential 'community' (of 150 people or so), and being a 'community member' is a specific kind of commitment. Fully involving all parts of an organisation in decision-making can be a complicated and difficult procedure. Working through the restructuring of the last few years, among other things the division of leadership roles separating 'business' leader from 'inspirational' leader, was not easy.

There is the feeling held or sometimes expressed that an organisation like Corrymeela is too middle class, too nicey nicey, even 'touchy feely Corrymeely' (as I have heard expressed). This is, I feel, rather unfair, not because elements of it can't be true at times – of Corrymeela or a host of other organisations including the ones I am involved in – but because it is a lazy stereotype. Have the people expressing this tried running an open operation like Corrymeela? Do they really know the problems of running a reconciliation-oriented body in a place like Northern Ireland? Are they familiar with some of the pioneering work Corrymeela has done and does today? Lazy stereotypes can permit the writing off of someone else. The Corrymeela model would be engagement.

My experience of Corrymeela has almost invariably been positive, of welcome and sharing of resources. I have found leaders and staff or volunteers really friendly and helpful. But I know of one or two others who have not always fared so well. The worst I can personally come up with personally as a negative experience, and it is pretty minor, was probably outside Corrymeela Fair, a fundraising event run in Belfast in the past. In 1980 I was selling 'Dawn' peace magazine outside the Fair; this had an interview I had conducted with Ray Davey and John Morrow at the time the latter took over the leadership of Corrymeela from the former. It also had an article by Una O'Higgins O'Malley, a prominent member of Glencree, on a meeting about the H-Blocks in Dublin (this was before the hunger strikes). The two most prominent words of the cover of that issue of 'Dawn' were 'Corrymeela' and 'H-Block'.

A woman, probably in her early sixties, coming out of the Fair saw the words and reacted to me that "We don't like Corrymeela being linked with the H-Blocks". I attempted to explain that the article on H-Blocks was written by someone from the nearest Southern equivalent of Corrymeela, Glencree, but she was not listening. At the edge of the pavement she said "If you follow me any more I'll get you taken in for molesting me". Ouch. I have no idea who the woman concerned was, and whether she was more than a casual supporter of Corrymeela. End of non-conversation.
As the Troubles faded and the Good Friday Agreement kicked in – insofar as it has – there have been changes in Northern Ireland. One change has been in the funding environment for peace and reconciliation, further exacerbated more recently by government spending cuts which are hitting the community and voluntary sector hard. At times difficult decisions have had to be made to keep Corrymeela afloat and solvent but high occupancy rates at the Centre and other factors have helped. The level of professionalism expected of an organisation and centre like Corrymeela today demands considerable staffing levels; "today almost 40 full–time staff and dozens of volunteers work alongside the eleven thousand people who spend time in our residential centre every year" to quote the Corrymeela website. The restructuring of the last few years has seen more project staff based in Ballycastle and the Belfast office more of an adjunct rather than the place the leader and most of the programme staff worked from. Schools and other programme work continue.

Northern Ireland needs all the meeting places and spaces it can get. It could also do with rather more support for such enterprises from government, and a vision from the centre stage to inspire and bring people on. But in the absence of these, people do what they can and Corrymeela is one of those organisations which, if it didn't exist, you would be tempted to create or invent. In its fifty years it has gone through different stages and approaches, including the brief pre-Troubles one, through to today, but the core methodology of dialogue and discussion remains the same.

Pádraig Ó Tuama is the current leader of the Corrymeela Community, and having referred to a book by the founding leader, I will refer to a book by the current leader. "Sorry for your Troubles" is a book of poetry by Pádraig and a first reaction might be to say, 'How is he writing about a situation he had no experience of, didn't live through?" But if you read or have heard Pádraig Ó Tuama's very human, and sometimes humorous (as well as polished) poetry you will realise this man has probably heard more stories, met more people, thought more about the nature of the conflict in Northern Ireland than I or most people in the situation have done. And much of that was at or through Corrymeela.

I have no idea what state the North of Ireland will be in fifty years from now but I can safely say that there will still be a need for Corrymeela's work and presence; perhaps people will have moved on somewhat from the sectarian stalemate of today but it would be naive to automatically assume that this will have happened. If it is to happen then meeting and dialogue of all kinds will be needed on a huge scale involving Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter (the latter defined in modern terms as those who identify as neither, or have a separate identity). And even if people have moved on there are plenty of other issues which will be in need to engaged discussion, in the same way as Corrymeela has provided a listening and sympathetic ear on LGBT issues.

There are other issues in Northern Ireland than simply the Catholic-Protestant one (believe it or not) – which may not get the attention they deserve because some people can be so fixated on the sectarian issue. In fact sectarianism's evil cousin, racism, and all that goes with that, is one. Both sectarianism and racism arise in a fear of 'the other'. That is not to say all the Troubles was about sectarianism, however you define it, because many saw themselves involved in a political and/or military struggle; but to deny that there was a sectarian aspect to it would be naive and it was often a dominant motive. Whatever the motive, violence compounded the problems.

I fully expect Corrymeela will be a key player in any dialogue and discussion that is needed in both the immediate and further flung future, in helping people in Northern Ireland – and indeed some from outside - to come to grips with issues, and to move on. It is not easy. Every organisation has its parameters and limitations but Corrymeela has been in its own way, and in wider society, a remarkable presence, statement and change agent in the past and I expect it to continue to be so in the future.

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The Corrymeela website is at including information about upcoming events and being a 'Friend' support.
There is a small set of Corrymeela photos, including this summer's 'Aperture' festival, on the INNATE photo site.

Copyright INNATE 2016