Every St Patrick's Day for the past few years a Fun Fair takes over a section of Dublin's beautiful Georgian Merrion Square, just opposite Irelands National Gallery and Leinster House. Built in the mid-eigtheenth century, the one time ducal palace of the Earl of Leinster has been since, 1922, the home to the Irish parliament, the Houses of the Oireachtas. Dáil Éireann, our lower house, meets in what was once a lecture theatre attached to Leinster House, and Seanad Éireann, the upper house in our bicameral parliament, is housed in the Dukes grand and beautiful old ballroom.
As I parked my car further along the square there this March 17, St Patrick's Day was in full swing. A huge Ferris Wheel turned slowly against the background of the blue sky above the square, and people screamed as they were thrown about at the end of the twirling arms of fun fair rides. There were people dressed in various shades of green everywhere, with shamrocks painted on faces, glittering tinsel scarves of emerald foil wrapped around necks and oversized hats, fashioned to some imagined style of what a leprechaun might have worn, if they ever existed. Or at least some Disneyesque re-invetion of what a leprechaun might be.
I was on my way to the Mansion House, another of Dublin's great historic buildings, to take part in a very special event to mark Irelands national day, one which aimed to explore what it means to be Irish today, drawing on the experiences and lessons of our ancient past, our sometimes difficult present and looking to consider the shape of our possible future. 'We Need to talk About Ireland' which was organised by the wonderful independent collective The Trailblaze, was perhaps the most significant example of something which seems to be a bit of an emerging trend in post-crash and post-bailout Ireland. There is apparent an increasing desire to use important moments like St Patrick's Day to defy the stereotype, to do more than get of our heads as some mark of our 'Irishness', and instead to try get into our hearts, to discover the meaning of our collective experience of being Irish and explore the full potential of who we are and might yet be.
As I wove my way through the crowds, I cast my mind back to another St Patrick's Day I spent in Dublin, exactly thirty years earlier.
It was 1984 and I was seventeen. I was wandering along O'Connell Street watching the St Patrick's Day Parade go by. The centre of the city was packed, with groups of teenage friends ambling along, laughing and having fun. Everywhere I looked there were kids on the shoulders of their Dads, hoisted up to look over the crowds as marching bands blasted out their music and batons twirled in the air. It felt like the whole of Ireland had descended upon that one street as the parade wound its way along the main thoroughfare of our capital city. It was big and loud and crowded. But I was completely alone.
I'd left home just over two months earlier. Fled in fact. I was in a pretty bad place. For the previous three years or so, I had endured numerous sexual assaults at the hands of a Roman Catholic Priest, and in an Ireland where such things simply didn't happen, where that experience could not yet be named, I had nowhere to turn. So at seventeen, deeply traumatised and near suicidal, I had two choices, go in the river, or hit the road and run away. So, I ran. I packed a bag and hitched my way to Dublin.
And two months later, there I was on O'Connell Street, watching 'normal life' go on around me. I was homeless, surviving on the streets and trying to find my feet. As the parade passed and the crowds faded, as those families and friends returned to their homes, I still wandered. Before long there was just me and the street cleaners and an occasional stumbling refugee from a bar somewhere, the parade and the crowds evident only from the rubbish they left behind.
I was desperately lonely. I hadn't a penny to my name and nowhere to go. I stepped into a phone booth and dialled my home number. I just needed to hear a familiar voice, to connect in some way with home, with the family I had left behind and to whom I was too ashamed to return. My brother John answered. I didn't speak, I just listened to his voice and pictured him standing in the hallway of our home. The phone beeped, demanding the ten pence needed to properly connect the call. Ten pence I didn't have, and wouldn't have used even if I did.
"Hello, who is it?", asked John. Then the line disconnected, and I hung up before turning and walking back out onto the near empty street.
As I walked along another Dublin street last week, exactly three decades later, I remembered that younger me. And I reached out, back in time, to him: to remember him, and to bring him into my mind and my heart as I headed into the Mansion House.
I am the same person I was then, older, and wiser, but essentially the same. I have the same heart, the same belief in the power of love. It was that instinctive and deeply held belief that drove me away from suicide back then, and caused me instead to run towards an unknown but optimistically imagined future where I would be free of trauma and despair. And I found that future, it is my life now, a life filled with love and possibility. I am blessed.
I mention this not to celebrate my own resilience as if it is somehow a quality unique to me. It is not, life, in all its forms, is extraordinarily resilient. I thought about it this St Patrick's Day because my journey across those three decades has taught me that we can only become who we truly are if we are prepared to dive in and look at the totality of our lived experience. The good, the bad, the joyful, the sorrowful, the bits we can speak about easily...but most especially, the bits that we struggle to give to voice to. Because it is so often in that place of struggle, of trauma long buried, of pain and confusion unspoken, that we will discover our greatest strength; our capacity to move beyond the forces that seek to limit us, both internal and external, and create a new future, one without limits imposed by secrecy, or fear, or shame, one full of boundless and joyful possibilities.Suggest a correction