Pádraig Ó Tuama on Building Bridges, the Power of Language, and Place

We are pleased to share the recording of a conversation with Pádraig Ó Tuama as part of Rural Assembly Everywhere. Pádraig joined Rural Assembly Director Whitney Kimball Coe for a conversation on common ground, building bridges, the healing power of language, and place. 

Pádraig Ó Tuama is a poet and theologian from Ireland. He presents Poetry Unbound from On Being Studios. His work has appeared in Harvard Review, Poetry Ireland and national broadcasters in Ireland, Britain, the US and elsewhere. For 20 years he worked in conflict resolution in his native Ireland, particularly addressing the sectarian legacy of British-Irish conflict. He’s coming to us from Ireland. You can rewatch the full conversation and read the transcript below. 


Padraig: Hi Whitney and hello everybody So good to be with you, I’m thrilled. I’m Krista’s lesser Irish cousin but I am thrilled to be with you. And I know she’s very sad not to be able to make it and she’ll look forward to being with you when she can this week.

Whitney: Oh yeah, thank you. I was disappointed, but I was so grateful to her for sharing her special Irish cousin with me. So I wanted to channel Krista to get us started if you don’t mind. And you’ve probably heard this before, she always starts her interviews with that question about spiritual and religious background and upbringing and childhood. But I wanted to add a little nuance to that question and ask you about your spiritual, religious background. And also just to tell us who your people are. That’s something somebody asked me the other day. Who are your people?

Padraig: Our people? So I grew up in Cork, on the very south coast of Ireland. I felt like I was very exotic ’cause I had one granddad who was from County Kerry, which is the next county over and in my class was very few people whose families weren’t entirely from Cork. So having a Kerry granddad made me feel like I was some kind of exotic character. All my people for the last as long as the census go back, they mostly just worked on loading and unloading trains between Cork and Kerry. So that’s all the jobs listed on the census over the years and on the birth certificates as well. ‘Cause those birth certificates used to ask for the names and the occupations of the parents back until the famine in the 1840s. And obviously lots of records if there were any were destroyed during the famine. But my granddad’s granddad was from Irish speaking West Cork. And he was the only one from his whole family who survived the famine. His mom and dad and his brother all died. And he was taken in by a Protestant family at the age of six. The rural farming family, they kept him, he learned English with them and they kept him for five years. And then he walked to Cork City about 60 miles. And for the rest of his life anytime he had a day off, he was a factory worker, he would walk as far as he could trying to find out any news of his family. And he would have been just one of thousands upon thousands, who we’re looking for stories. So that story is very important in our family. So I think partly the religious and spiritual background to me is the Irish language is a very important feature in our family, Catholicism ’cause the certainly the Ireland I grew up in there, wasn’t a choice but to be Catholic, whether you liked it or not. And the question was which mass you going to, whether I as opposed to whether you’re going to go to mass and then for me poetry was part of the spirituality really of my childhood in an enormous way. I turned to it like a bomb, like some of comfort I grew up in the countryside about 10 miles from Cork City.

Whitney: How was poetry part of your upbringing?

Padraig: So I feel very lucky that the Irish school curriculum is suffused in poetry. And so no exaggeration from the age of five to 17, I learned two poems off by heart every week one in English, one in Irish, just the whole way through. And those were often very political poems or poems about midlife crisis. At the age of nine, I was able to recite a poem called written in Irish by Sean O’Riordain. And it’s about a midlife crisis. I read it recently and thought, my God I understand that poem now, but I was able to recite it off like a little nine year old parrot as a child. Not that doesn’t mean that everybody loves poetry but poetry, if you do love it is absolutely everywhere in the school curriculum here. And for me that totally gave me a love for language from the word go. I loved the magic of language and one of the words for prayer and poetry and Irish as the same, dawn. And so, often written dawn prayers are also written dawn poems and there’s an overlap. So there’s an enormous spiritual richness in the poetry and the prayers that all hold themselves together.

 Whitney: I imagine the other, did you go to Catholic school then, that is how she said.

Padraig: Well, I mean there kind of wasn’t any, the state system is the Catholic system. Yeah, so yeah, that’s changed now, but certainly growing up the state system was the Catholic system.

Whitney: I wonder if the other children took the poetry in the way you did and the memorization?

Padraig: Well, I mean the memorization wasn’t even my choice. We just had to, I mean, it was pretty strict you know, examination by teachers and trouble if you didn’t get it right. Like I’m from a family of scientists and engineers. And my dad was the technician in the physics department of the university for all of his working life. He started at 14 and finished the same job at 64. And I like my, one of my sisters is a biochemist. She does research with Eli Lilly who I know the Lily Foundation are a funder of on being it’s the foundation wing of that corporation. And she would regularly call poems back to me from stuff that she learned at school. She wouldn’t say that she had a deep interest in poetry, but it’s just there. So I’m very grateful for that kind of cultural and artistic learning. And it wasn’t just children learning poems for children. There was children learning poems because sometimes it’s a great thing to learn big words, you know.


Whitney: So you’re a poet and a theologian and conflict, group conflict resolution as to, someone who deals in conflict resolution, how in your mind, how are all those things connected or how are they doing.

Padraig: Nice question Whitney, thank you. So for me, all of those things center around language and poetry obviously is the arrangement of language on the page or when you’re reading it out and religion also was trying to put language around what we hope life means. I mean, maybe heaven afterwards too but ultimately religion is trying to infer meaning with what it means to be alive and conflict is not always but often mediated through language. And certainly conflict usually begins in language. The kind of things we say to each other, for me looking at the possibility of not using highfalutin complex language but just plain speaking, truthful, difficult language with each other. All of those things center in poetry and center in religion and center also in conflict resolution trying to figure out how do we speak to each other, the kind of things we say about each other. And I think that can often take more courage to do that than to just be talking around my kitchen table about the people I don’t like. What’s it like when somebody who I’m talking about can answer for themselves and saying actually you’re misrepresenting me or you got that wrong or your doing the very thing you’re accusing me of doing that kind of language is not sophisticated except it is on a different level because it is so brave, it’s so courageous, it takes a lot to say it and it takes a lot to listen to it. And that’s the kind of language I’m really interested in.


Whitney: It strikes me that language can be used to build up and restore, like you said, in conflict it can also create conflict. And I think there’s a lot of difficulty around language right now, particularly in the states and I’m sure in sectarian Ireland as well.

Padraig: Yeah, I mean, even thinking about it from the point of view of our closest relationships with friend, family member or spouse, if you say to somebody regularly, I love you, you communicate something and you create something. If you were to imagine saying to a child, I hate you and doing that just once or doing that on a regular basis you would know that you would create something, you would destroy something very quickly. And that would take a very long time to build back up. So we all know that the power of language in terms of the kind of things that have hurt us if you asked anybody, what’s something that happened to you in school that you still think back to every now and then maybe a small injustice that actually wasn’t so small. Maybe I know so many people who were told in front of their classmates, you can’t sing, never sing again. And as an adult, if somebody said come on, let’s have a sing song at a party. They’d just find a way to bow out. Or somebody was laughed a lot at for sport or they were ridiculed because the education system wasn’t working for them. So all of these things can create time bombs in our lives that can be filled with sadness and filled with power. And often they were communicated through language and that can happen on the personal level. And it can also happen on the political level ways within which somebody might feel ridiculed or feel misrepresented always within which somebody might have inherited a story of pain over and over again by that being reinforced by structure. And in all these things, language has done destructive work. And what we’re about, I think can certainly in The On Being Project, is looking at ways within which we can find language to do the slow and steady work of reconstruction that needs to happen personally, as well as needs to happen interpersonally. And in Ireland, we have hard so many hundreds of years, really of the question of what does it mean to be Irish? What about British presence in Ireland? What’s this place called? Because the British people called it different things at different times, should we be Catholic or should we be Protestant that had nothing to do with religion really but to do with who was King or Queen in England, were they Catholic or Protestant? What did that mean in terms of religious belonging and national belonging. What language should we speak? And then 100 years ago, Ireland was partitioned and the last 200 years have had a lot of murder. And so how do we begin to heal from a legacy of conflict and murder and where you have communities of British people in Northern Ireland who would perhaps tend not to socialize with communities of Irish people in the North of Ireland, neighbors living nearby each other, speaking about each other but not to each other, being educated separately. How do we do something where we’re not just merely tolerating each other but finding the courage to begin to speak of the trauma that people have lived through ’cause people have lived through trauma. The fact that different sides blame different factors- each side says, no you are to blame, no you’re to blame. And you’ll never find out the perfect answer in Ireland because of that there’s always going to be complex histories. But do we just allow ourselves to live in some kind of apartheid system or do we try to find build relationships with each other in politics and in community that can be curative. And I can say actually a blame game will fail us all always that’s one piece of certitude. It can be difficult to know what certain, but we know that comfort will increase and blame will increase, if we keep going the way we’re going. So what we need is the possibility for people to recognize that deep and courageous communication is something that might build something very exciting and vulnerable and important that can save us all.

Whitney: I’m thinking back about, the theme for today and about this idea of we belong to each other and it’s something that really resonates as truth with me. For me and I think for many people the notion that we are in this together that our futures are bound up, that there is mutuality and flourishing all of those ideas but they seem more like ideas and theories in this moment and in some ways kind of like a prayer to put out there on the top of a conference banner or something. So I wonder how do we speak what we feel to be true but also acknowledge that it is in particular, this idea of belonging acknowledge that it’s fraught this notion of belonging in the

Padraig: I mean the word belonging has, it’s been used a lot in TV ads. I see it a lot. You know, somebody wants to sell you a watch and they’ll say belong to this group of people who wear this watch. And so belonging is being peddled like it’s some piece of quick magic that you can buy with money. And sometimes you can belong to a group that are so filled with their own sense of belonging that they say we belong to us because we hate them. And that can be really powerful because often you can find a deep sense of belonging with the group. They could be kind, if you have a crisis, people will help you. But there’s a lot of frets to say, if you begin to change your mind about this item of politics or this item of history, well then you’ll be out and then we’ll speak about you the way we’ve spoken about the other people. And so belonging can come with a lot of conditions. And so the question really is what’s the quality of belonging and is this belonging gathering together because we all have common enemy. And if so, what would it be like if we didn’t have that enemy? Could we still belong with each other? And how do we speak about people who were here before and who left. The borders of belonging can sometimes be easy to get in and difficult to get out or difficult to get in and easily to be kicked out. You know, so a group belonging can be a really difficult thing. You can know sometimes what it’s like to be brought into a group of friends or a group of colleagues where you really wanted to be part of them. But after a while you thought this is pretty toxic, you know, and there’s a lot of frets going on here and I’m beginning to feel like they’re telling me, “Oh, you shouldn’t dress like that “or you shouldn’t look like that.” You certainly shouldn’t vote like that. And suddenly your belonging can feel really conditional. And those are some of the things that’s really worthwhile asking about the question of belonging, because what’s wonderful, and we know this, in every community and I am from the country, and so I’m really, I hate when people speak about the country or the rural places as if those places aren’t filled with political sophistication and economic and educational sophistication people holding extraordinary amounts of professional capacity together and personal capacity and community capacity. How is it that we can recognize that our communities have always thrived where people who believe vastly different things to each other have been able to cooperate on harvest or on supporting each other when there’s a crisis in a farming family different ways in Irish, we have a word called which is all about how a farming family, our farming community would support somebody who’s in crisis. And that’s the only thing that that person needs to do is perhaps to share some food that there’s never any money taken. So communities all across world know that we can do this. And that is not conditional upon believing the same going to the same religious community being religious or not voting the same. People know we are people who are custodians and tenders of the land and therefore we support each other because of that. And that I think is a powerful kind of belonging because it demands something of us and it demands that we don’t create this hierarchy to say, “Well, I think you belong to a different party “or religion than I therefore I won’t give you support.” And we know everywhere that that doesn’t work. And we know everywhere what happens when communities can be supportive of each other. In Ireland, we talk about sectarianism the way within which there’s been so much violence. And we, one of the ways of describing what sectarianism is belonging gone bad, where you belong to a group where actually that group has become so dependent on having a common enemy that even the belonging has become poison. And that is a really difficult thing. What we want is to find a way where our belonging is encouraging, is flourishing and is filled with creativity. And when somebody who thinks or acts, or is different comes along, there’s a sense to go fantastic expansion rather than threat.

Whitney: So, I mean, and you just gave some overview of kind of like what do we do or how do we reframe this to become more expansive and open? And I wonder if there some specific tools or experiences you’re having in your work, either as a poet or as a convener or as a theologian, what does it look like in practice for you right now?


Padraig: It’s very simple and very difficult all at the same time. What it has tended to mean in this bringing people together to hear each other. And often it can be so of difficult to hear each other. I have brought people together who have been where their families have been bereaved through murder together with people who have belonged to the police or to the paramilitary organization or the army where they would be blamed for that whether guilty or not, and people would be caught in cycles of blame and deep bereavement and shame and shock and fear. And so bringing people together in that way there’s a lot of anxiety in the room. And part of the worry is that people won’t even be able to hear each other because your fear is so loud. And what does it mean to find a way to be calm, be gentle and recognize that in that, will be our strength. By being able to say, “We’re here, we’ve got a lot of fears, “and what we’re going to do first of all “is to find a courtesy with each other, to be able to hear, “to be able to appreciate parts of our lives.” And step-by-step as we build a trust, to be able to build our capacity to hear more difficult things with each other, not that everybody has to agree but that the hope is, that we can hear and understand it. And for 20 years that’s been the work that I’ve done, bringing people who’ve been victims of terrible sectarianism, terrible murders of police, terrible murders of people in the army, terrible murders of young people, terrible ways within which a community has ripped itself apart, terrible para-military violence where young people have had their kneecaps torn in. How do you bring a community together to somehow build some trust with each other? And what is and important to say, is that people are capable of the most remarkable ways of being with each other. It’s not to say everybody forgives each other and it’s easy. I’m actually not that interested in the word forgiveness because people have all kinds of ways of finding a way to live with justice and with hope and with dignity and with equanimity. These are the things that we’re hoping for. If somebody wants to use the word forgive that’s fine, but I’m not interested in that really. I am interested in people learning how to live well in a situation where we’ve been torn apart. And over and over again, from people from all sides of the community, we’ve seen that people are capable of meeting with each other and finding out, I didn’t know that about you. I had believed a wrong story about you and you have believed wrong story about me. And we have the capacity to do away with the headlines that would rip us apart and find something together that can be really powerful. And we will still vote differently probably but we vote differently in a different way because I’ll vote because I’m voting for something rather than voting because they hate the other side. Because I’ve met the other side and I don’t hate them. I don’t vote for them, but I live in a different way because of some kind of encounter. One of the ways of saying trust in Irish is And that translates as, you are the place where I stand on the day when my feet are sore. And I think people who live in rural communities know what that means because you’re a dependent on your neighbors in a profound way. When something happens, you might need a lift to a hospital or you might need somebody to make a phone call that you’re not able to make, somebody to check in on a neighbor. And you’re the place where I stand on the day when my feet are sore, isn’t a political ideology. It is a practical way of living where we depend on each other. And we are so capable of this. And I think we’re regularly in need of reminding. That’s why I’ve been so taken with the work of Krista for years, I’ve been listening to her, since she started on the radio because she opens up question that build curiosity. They don’t do away with difference, but they build curiosity. And where I suddenly go, I have a question for you, and I know I don’t know the answer. So I actually want to learn from you. And that changes the posture rather than saying, I want to trap you in a corner because I know I know exactly what you’re going to say.

Whitney: Oh, that’s lovely. I think part of your story is leaving Ireland and returning?

Padraig: Yeah.

Whitney: And I wonder if belonging has anything to do with those, that movement or learning new, you know, coming back and realizing you don’t, you knew a different story about home but now you know a new story.

Padraig: Yeah, I mean, I’ve always loved being Irish, but I always imagined I’d spent all of my life outside of Ireland. Partly I wanted to learn new languages and live in countries where I had to learn new languages. I loved Irish and English so much growing up. Then I learned French and then a little bit of sign language as well enough to use in sign supported English. I have a deaf auntie, so I was always around her a fair amount of to sign. And so I thought, what are all the other languages to learn? I’m not brilliant at them, like I am, no, I wouldn’t be getting A’s. But I have confidence to think if I can trundle through people will be good enough to think, “Eh, he’s making some kind of sense.” So I moved to Switzerland, French-speaking Switzerland, for a while and then moved to Australia and to my shock then after about five years overseas, I moved back to Ireland. I wanted to study and I couldn’t afford to study anywhere. I couldn’t even afford to study in Ireland. I studied part-time and worked. And I never thought that I’d spend all of my life in Ireland. And it’s a great joy, I think, to be rooted where I’m from to know that I speak the language of the stones and the fields here. To know too that I’m linked with the politics and the pain about the last 100 years of Irish history, and next year is the centenary of Irish partition and I’m very invested in that, not as an academic outsider but as somebody local to say, “How can we commemorate?” What for some people, was the creation of the state of Northern Ireland. And for other people was the partition of Ireland. And those two things one will be celebrated and one will be lamented. How can we do that in a way where nobody gets murdered? That’s my interest. And I’m not doing that as an exotic outsider. I’m doing that as a deeply invested insider. And so for me belonging here has meant that sometimes I had a fantasy about the foreign and the far away and now I’m just back here with the old stories that I grew up with. And they can frustrate you sometimes but also I’m up to my eyes and them. And I think that might be a good thing.


Whitney: I have just a couple more questions and then we’re gonna open the flood gates to a bunch of questions that are coming in from all the other platforms. But there are a couple of more that I just wanted to ask because II could talk to you all day. So what is, you know, 2020, as I’m mentioned the introduction just feels like this massive pandemic of many kinds of pandemics, but I wonder is it actually really that unique or are we just seeing more clearly or is it just bringing into sharper focus, what is always been? So what does 2020 mean to you, I guess, is my question.

Padraig: I studied theology. I was thinking of becoming a priest and I, one of the things I love, about in theology that I learned was that the word apocalypse that you often hear in religious context, doesn’t mean you know, whatever happening apocalypse now. The word apocalypse isn’t about the future, isn’t about the end of the world, the word apocalypse means to pull back the curtains. So to look at what’s happening now. And that’s what I think the pandemic has done in a very intense way. And the various pandemics, as you mentioned in the introduction, they pulled back the curtain on the way things already are rather than made them worse. Just more people are beginning to go, “Oh my God, look at that, look at how difficult it is.” Certainly in Ireland, I can’t speak for the United States but certainly in Ireland, the pandemic pulled back, the curtain on, you know, immediately schools were saying “Well, just get your kids to Zoom into school.” That kind of depended that people had a laptop at home or had access to WiFi or had a table or had space where maybe three kids and a parent could each find a place to do their work, you know. And so some people are kind of complaining about saying, “Oh gosh, no, it’s tough enough.” And it is even with all of those things, it’s tough. We’re under an enormous amount of pressure, but other people around are disproportionate amount of pressure and the pandemic of coronavirus didn’t make that happen. But the pandemic revealed, “My God look at that.” And for some people, obviously being furloughed or being paid, your salary is covered by the government. But what if you’re in a situation where you don’t have any guarantee that your employer is going to continue to do that. What happens when you’re both unemployed as well as trying to look after your kids and not able to go out to look for work. How do you find a way to do that? And so I think each of these things has been an apocalypse not because they’re spelling the end of the world, but because they’re highlighting the way that the world is. And when it comes to exposing your systemic racism, it’s not gotten worse this year. It’s more people are beginning to believe the truth that black Americans and black Irish people have been saying for a very long time to say, “This is what it’s like.” And hopefully more people are listening to it going and listening and believing and then hopefully getting involved in actions to change policy and to change practice.

Whitney: Yeah, that uncovering and kind of an awakening that comes from staring at it.

Padraig: Yeah, ’cause when you see something hopefully you have to be accountable to it. You can’t unsee it. And you, hopefully there’s a level where people will go, “Okay, I’ve seen this now, now what am I going to do?” We hope, maybe some people are feeling overwhelmed because they might feel like each of these terrible things has been an apocalypse they didn’t want to pay attention to an uncovering and pulling back of the curtain. And so they might go, “Oh my God, what am I supposed to do?” You know, I can’t solve everything but I don’t think anybody’s asking us to solve everything. I think we’re being asked to pay attention to what’s happening today. And to think in my way, in the way I can how can I make a change and how can I also vote for and hope for people in responsibility in my church or in my community or in where I work to make bigger changes systemically.

Whitney: My last question, before I ask you to read a poem and then we’re going to take a few questions from the audience. I’m trying to remember what sparked this for me, but thinking about contempt and not only conflict that we’re experiencing and not only just kind of a breaking open but there’s real contempt now in these close knit communities, where we are neighbors and it, you know, contempt can show up, as wearing face masks or not, or, ridiculing people for the way they’re gonna vote or, those kinds of things, but that fiber or the fabric that we talked about, or that you talked about earlier about how rural people are very practiced at being so linked to one another and connected. I’m worried that contempt is cutting us apart or splitting us apart. It’s making it harder to repair. So I guess, I wonder as a poet, theologian what words can we put to it or treat it with?

Padraig: One of the things that poetry is very very interested in is time. ‘Cause sometimes in a line of a poem, there’ll be a letter of reference to history, a little reference to the present and a little reference to the future. So one line of a poem can sometimes span the past, the present and the future. And I think that’s really important to think about when it comes to the way that we’re talking because contempt is so quick to enact. If I treat somebody with contempt, it might take me five seconds but it might take me five years to repair if ever. And so I am interested in time and the way that we speak about our relationships with each other. There’s this theory in conflict resolution that conflict takes as long to de-escalate as it took to escalate. So if the British have been in Ireland for 100 years, and that’s been complicated it’s gonna take 100 years of British-Irish peace in order to be able to begin to normalize relations. If the British have been in Ireland for 800 years, it’s gonna take, I don’t know, about 800 years, but certainly it’s a kind of a poetic measurement of time to say nothing comes too quickly and actually repair can be really complicated. You know, that in a relationship you can have a terrible day of fighting and actually still a year later somebody might still go that time that you said that I’m still thinking about it, you know. And it can feel like a time bomb can be planted. And so for me, what I’m really interested in and what I love about Krista’s approach in On Being, is that she’s uninterested in the kind of fighting type of interview where it’s proving points. You’re saying, yeah, but you said this, and you said this. And often that’s what public discourse is passed for in Ireland. And I think in America, but I’m not from there. And I wouldn’t want to speak to that. But what I think is really important is to recognize that kind of a curious and muscular kindness and courtesy is actually much more difficult and much more brave and demands a lot more. Courtesy and kindness can sometimes be spoken of as if they’re the weak options or they’re the things that people who don’t have any kind of backbone to. Actually it’s the people with backbone of thought. I’m going to ask a question before I make my mind up. I’m going to find out, has your life been affected by this in a way, I have a friend who was totally opposed to gay marriage. And he said to me once, “Look, I really am totally opposed “to gay marriage.” I’m gay, my friend isn’t. And my friend said to me, but I wanna check what I think by how it’s going to affect you, rather than what I think. And he said, what would happen if gay marriage became legal? I cried. I hadn’t thought about it. I said, “I’d get married to Paul.” And he said, “I have some work to do.” And I was so struck that he realized actually what’s going on and will affect you more than me. And in a different way, he wasn’t saying that he felt like he was to be shamed or anything like that ’cause he had thought differently but he was checking the border of his own thought. And I came away thinking, I hope to God and the opinions that I have that I can manifest something like what he was doing in order to check, does this affect you more than me? And if it does, right, I need to take that into account rather than thinking, I need to oppose you. He demonstrated something to me that I’ve thought about probably every week for the last 10, 15 years since he said it to me because it changed what connection and what muscular intellectual engagement looked like, ’cause it moved me. I love him more now because of that and him, me and he has changed me because he showed me what it can be like to engage with difference.

Whitney: Thank you for that.

Padraig: Pleasure. Do you want a poem?

Whitney: Yeah, I want a poem.

Padraig: Okay, this one is called, I think there’s a relationship between belonging to each other and being alone ’cause I know at times when I find it most difficult to be alone that’s the time when I’ve been most difficult to be around with other people. ‘Cause I’ve got an unseen ness that I’m projecting onto other people. So here’s the poem called, “How to be Alone.” And it’s about belonging. It all begins with knowing nothing lasts forever. So you might as well start packing now. In the meantime, practice being alive. There will be a party where you’ll feel like nobody’s paying you attention. And there will be a party where attention is all you’ll get. What you need to do is to know how to talk to yourself between these parties. And again there will be a day, a decade where you won’t fit in with your body, even though you’re in the only body you’re in. Remember when you were younger and you practiced kissing on your arm, you were onto something then. Sometimes harm knows its own healing, comfort its own intelligence, kindness too it needs no reason. There is a you telling you another story of you. Listened to her. Where do you feel anxiety in your body? The chest, the fist, the dream before waking, the head that feels like it’s at the top of the swing or the clutch of got like falling and falling and falling and falling. It knows something, you’re dying. Try to stay alive. For now, touch yourself. I’m serious, touch yourself. Take your hand and place your hand some place upon your body and listen to the community of madness that you are. You are such an interesting conversation. You belong here.

Whitney: Thank you. I should say you have a poetry reading coming up, is that true?

Padraig: Oh yeah.

Whitney: And that’s international, right?

Padraig: Yeah, yeah. It’s happening on Zoom on Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Eastern.

Whitney: Okay, Zoom, Sunday, 2:00 p.m. Eastern. We’ll make sure and post that so people can join.

Padraig: Oh, thank you so much.

Whitney: I do have, a number of questions for you. I’m gonna start with a simple one that I think is lovely. This is from D. Davis. What’s a verse that sustains you when you returned to when the moment demands.

Padraig:  A verse, I wondered did the man a verse, a poetry or a verse from the Bible? I can hear it being either.


Whitney: Whatever you want. It’s whatever you want it to be, I’m sure

Padraig: There’s a verse in Irish that I’d like you to just hear the music of And I just think that the music of that is so lovely. That’s a poem I learned off by heart when I was 11 by The Aran Islands poet Mairtin O Direain. And a verse from the scriptures, there are so many. Yeah, I love the Book of Job. And there’s one point in the Book of Job where the God is speaking to Job, Job has all these questions and the response coming from the sky is to say, “Were you there when the morning stars sang together for glory?” And it reminds me that my own angst is always happening in a location. Maria Hall calls the Book of Job the first eco poem ’cause the poet who wrote it clearly loved the land. Has referenced the nature and animal and sky and horizon. So that’s the verse that I love ’cause it displaces me from my own drama.

Whitney: That’s wonderful. We have another question from Marvin on Crowdcast, given your work Padriag can you speak to how critical it is for rural people everywhere to retrieve and drawn their respective oral traditions?

Padraig: Oh yes.

Whitney: Yeah, well and vis-a-vis the devaluation of orality by computers by you know, the digitalized world, all those things.

Padraig: Totally. Thank you to Dee, for that question.

Whitney: That was Marvin.

Padraig: I remember Dee’s was the first one, and then Marvin’s for this. I didn’t say thanks to D. I think that there is nothing like the capacity for a story, any device we have we’ll never do the work that storytelling with each other will do. What happens often when we have met somebody whether we’ve met them at the market or whether we’ve worked with them on a harvest or whether we’ve worked with them in an office, if they have a story that they told you, you come home and you tell whoever you’re living with, or you’re on the phone and you say, “Wait I let me tell you “the conversation I had with somebody on the bus today “or somebody on the coroner today “or somebody in the shop today.” Stories have this inexhaustible capacity to link us with each other. Again not in a simple way. We’re not gonna sit around and make daisy chains and pretend everything’s okay, and we’re all going to be fine, we’ll all vote the same. But we have the capacity to learn stories of profound power from each other. One time I was leading a group and this man came in and as he came in, I just thought, “God you’re gonna be a typical person of a particular area.” I had judged the way he walked, his voice, what I knew about his professional background and I thought were gonna have a very particular stance on religion. And he said, all my life, he was a retired gentleman, he goes all my life I spent my whole life reading how I could try to convert atheists to my version of Christianity. And he said when I retired, I decided to read some books from atheists in order to be able to beat them at their own game. And he said, strangely they convinced me. And he goes, I’m not an atheist now but I’ve got a lot more space for doubt than I ever did. And I had totally misjudged him. And here’s me telling you his story five years later. And so orality as Marvin is saying is vital and nothing will increase that without us increasing it. Finding ways to communicate stories to each other. Take a theme, invite some people around to your house and say, let’s all tell one story about your first job, go. Just tell one story, don’t try to tell the story of your life. Don’t try to say and here’s what it means, and here’s the lessons they learned. Just tell a story because stories are inexhaustible and their brilliance.

Whitney: Let’s see, this is from Megan on Crowdcast. She says, considering the role of plays and how we walk through the world, how does the geography and landscape of Ireland serve as a lens through which you view the world? And you talked a little bit about that, keep going.

Padraig: Yes. Well, I mean, partly there’s just the simple fact of the land looking around. I mean, I grew up with a view out fo the fields. There were farrows at the farm that came up towards ours and I was friends with their son, so I used to sometimes just get in the way of the cows really I was not helping on the farm. I was just getting in the way but the parents tolerated their son’s friends the way that good people do. I think being connected with that is really important. I always, whenever I travel anywhere want to know the story of the traditional custodians of the land, the indigenous people who’ve been there. I lived in Australia for years and it was really important for me to know that in Melbourne, where I lived, it was the the land of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin alliance. And to know what courtesies and protocol to think 200 years ago this was very, very different. And how can we live in a way now, not where we’re winding back the clock but where we are being just and where I live now just this way about a quarter of a mile is the border the Northern Ireland-Republic of Ireland border. And that border is gonna be 100 years old next year. And borderlands do something various, different to landscape because you know a blade of grass doesn’t care what side it’s on, a hare, there’s a family of hares or Jack rabbits. I think you call them, live in at the garden. They cross the border 20 times a day probably. And so for me, sometimes the political nature of land is totally interrupted by nature and what nature is doing. And I’m sure lots of people recognize that during the particular lockdown this year that, you weren’t traveling around as much. So there was more time to, maybe as you’re working notice spring coming or summer coming or the changing seasons. And I hope that we want to preserve that and find a way where that can be preserved for generations to come. And I think the land therefore calls to an ethic of treating the land in a way that’s going to sustain it.

Whitney: I’m noticing right now, outside my window the fall foliage. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen it so brilliantly and beautiful before, Though we have to close, but I wondered if you had another poem that maybe you could send this out on.

Padraig: Oh, sure, yeah. This is a short one.

Whitney: Okay.

Padraig: This poem is called, “Narrative Theology” and it’s dedicated to Peter Saunders, who was a man who helped me enormously when I was falling apart in my twenties. It’s very short, “Narrative Theology.” And I said to him, are there answers to all of this? And he said, the answer is in a story. And the story is being told. And I said, “But there was so much pain.” And she answered plainly, “Pain will happen.” Then I said, “Will I ever find meaning?” And they said, “You will find meaning where you give meaning.” The answer is in a story and the story isn’t finished. 

Whitney: Thank you Padriag.

Padraig: Thank you so much Whitney.

Whitney: I’m so grateful to Krista for making this connection.

Padraig: I’m delighted to meet you and everybody. Thank you so much.


Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on linkedin
From Our Blog

Recent Posts

Rent Help Graphic

New Resources For Renters and Landlords

If you’re a renter having trouble paying your rent, utilities, or other housing costs – or if you’re a landlord trying to stay afloat with tenants in this situation – help may be available. State and local programs are distributing billions of dollars in rental assistance to help renters stay housed during the pandemic.

Young poets share their work

Young Rural Poets Share Their Work This spring, the Rural Youth Catalyst Project invited rural young people from across the country to