Afri’s 2018 Féile Bríde took place on Saturday 3rd February in Solas Bhríde in Kildare town. It was a rich and full day with contributions from Peadar Kirby about caring for our global village, Hanny Van Geel (Via Campesina), Rose Hogan (Trócaire) on ‘food for life’, John Maguire on ‘Peace Meal Change’ and wrongfully imprisoned Sunny Jacobs and Peter Pringle, as well as music and poetry. You can get a flavour of the day in a short film made by RoJ.
Here is a report from Sr Patricia Mulhall, who attended the conference:
This is the twenty-sixth year of another well-attended Afri conference hosted at Solas Bhríde Centre, Kildare. As visiting speaker, Peadar Kirby named it, the Ard fheis of Afri. Some 200 people attended in the beautiful setting of the Centre & Hermitages, a centre of hospitality, brightness radiating a warm welcome. Brigidines – Mary, Phil and Rita – organise and manage the Centre with Cairde Bhríde, faithful friends and staff.
‘Light out of Darkness’ was a fitting theme for a day punctuated by music and message of hope. Speakers with academic presentations and personal stories enlightened and entertained the participants. The day began with a presentation from Peadar Kirby, entitled ‘Caring for our Global village.’ Peadar is Professor Emeritus of International Politics and Public Policy in the University of Limerick, Ireland. He is associated with the eco-village of Cloughjordan, Co Tipperary, a 67-acre site with 50 acres of land for allotments, farming and woodland as well as 50 low- energy homes.
Peadar puts the question, ‘Are we caring for our Global Village?’ In his opinion, his answer, backed up with statistics, is ‘not very well.’ He suggests ways in which we might do this more effectively and points to the fact that our lifestyles contribute to the problem. Our carbon footprint is increasing.
We can measure the ecological footprint of every citizen and therefore, we know that we have surpassed the carrying capacity of the Planet. Clearly, this is unsustainable. For example, if we are to maintain our present lifestyle, Ireland needs 2.8 Planets (as opposed to the World average 1.4)
His suggestion is that we need to move from a Techo-optimism to a ‘development model.’
At present we have climate capitalism. If this is getting us where we need to go, fine, but we must move beyond it. We need robust and sustainable communities, an ‘eco-socialism’ with an economy based on workers democracy and a financial system at the service of society. There is the need to de-commodify Land, Labour, Money. While the notion of the global is always in our heads, the local is where we all belong. This is where our attention needs to focus. Much of this change will come from the bottom up. He quotes President Michael D Higgins, “we have so much to learn from the extraordinary creativity deployed by the people of the shanty towns of India and Egypt, of Peru’s pueblos jóvenes or of Brazil’s favelas.”
Peadar praised the 2014 Encyclical of Pope Francis’, Laudato ‘Si and furthermore, considers Francis as the leading ‘voice’ calling us to pay attention to our world so as to make necessary changes to care for all creation. He quotes from Laudato ‘Si
LS2. “This sister (mother Earth) now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.”
LS139. When we speak of the “environment”, what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it…
Peadar ends his talk by making a passionate plea for our need of a global solidarity, to challenge the dominant model of ‘capitalism’ and be creative in forging a new way forward.
The next two speakers linked with Caring for our Global Village in a very practical way. Hanny Van Geel, an organic farmer in the Netherlands, President of the Dutch Arable Farmers Association and a member of Via Campesina Europe since 2012, spoke about the need to ‘return’ to the old traditions in farming and food production and not label them as ‘old fashioned.’ Like Peadar, she was recommending a sustainable agriculture at the local level. Before coming to Solas Bhríde, Kildare, she studied the life of Brigid, discovered the goddess Bríd, one of the three holy sisters, coming from the Celtic tradition where women and men had an equal role in society and the Christian Brigid was Care-woman. Hanny emphasised the importance of women taking back their role in food ecology. A role that is now taken over by the big food companies. A role that is often not valued in modern society as it is perceived to have no ‘economic’ benefit.
The philosophy of the Via Campesina – an association of 200 million peasants, is that Food Sovereignty should be in the hands of the people who grow the food and those who eat it.
The Capitalist system has created many of the problems and the big companies are dominant in the production of our foods.
It is the poor who are most affected by agribusiness especially if they have to leave the land and move to the cities. Land is then taken over by the few; seeds are patented; water is privatised and production is often a monoculture. Big companies have the monopoly and those who struggle for land are often penalised. Police, soldiers take the side of the big companies!
Hanny concludes by reiterating the point that all our decisions about food, water, seeds, soil need to be in the hands of the people. Via Campesina motto is ‘don’t talk about us without us.’
Her message of hope is that we can all do something daily to change our reality. She names Brigid as the Pachamama – the goddess revered by the indigenous people of the Andes, also known as the Earth/Time mother.
Hanny’s talk was followed by Rose Hogan, who has designed and embedded an agro-ecological approach to sustainable agriculture in 12 countries on behalf of Trócaire. In her power-point presentation, Rose named the three ways in which agriculture and food production is carried out. Conventional farming – Industrial and Factory; Conservation agriculture; Transformative agriculture Agroecology. She has been helping communities to adopt the transformative system based on Scientific Ecological principles.
- Low external inputs.
- Whole landscape approach.
- Crop rotations and poly cropping.
- Local knowledge and knowledge intensive.
- People-centred technology and food systems.
- Production with resource stewardship.
- Multiple varieties and breeds of multiple species.
This has been successful in many parts of the world, giving examples of the improvements that have taken place where the transformative system has replaced the ‘business as usual’ conventional model.
The morning session ended with Rose’s presentation.
After lunch, the assembled audience was entertained to music before the first speaker of the afternoon, John Maguire, professor Emeritus of Sociology, University College, Cork, spoke of the importance of peace in our world. He began with the poem Nigerian poet Odia Ofeimun ‘Thinking about art’
Recently, John told the assembled group that he has come to reflect on words and on silence which he says has become stronger to him about peace. He says:
‘We are living in peace (in Ireland) and we need to extend that to others, so there is the need to raise our voices about society and our world, about our story of neutrality, non-conflict, because this story that has been trashed in recent times. Part of this trashing has to do with the secrecy of military affairs and our grooming into silence.’
John likens this ‘silence’ (grooming) to the present culture in which we avoid talking about death. And yet, he believes that we end up by being controlled by what we suppress! If we are able to accept the sense of limitation in our lives then we are able to accept death. He invites us to see our world, shaped by the military machine, indicating a people who must be in denial about death. There is the link between our denial/suppression of death and militarism.
In the nuclear age, Samuel Beckett was writing a novel about the Unnameable, and Thomas Merton pointed to the Unspeakable while the US foreign policy at the time, was setting up the CIA. What Merton wants to suggest to us is not just governmental, social, but goes deep with many, with Agencies that are able to wield dreadful power rendering us feeling powerless. Ironically, Merton wasn’t able to speak on this subject, or write on it because his Order silenced him! So he wrote letters instead.
John believes that there is an unhealthy silence in the area of military activity. For example the silence about Shannon airport where on average two US planes a night are touching down for refuel, carrying bombs and weapons on board.
He considers that this is part of a process of ‘grooming’ with official Christianity and Militarism intertwined – consider the ‘Armed Man’ Mass by Karl Jenkins, commissioned by the Royal Armouries Museum. Consider our National Anthem, ‘soldiers are we…’among others.
John posed some pertinent questions to the participants, such as:
- How many military components are being made in Ireland? In an outdated AFrI report, the figure is 39.
- Do we still have a need to defend ourselves?
- Where are we defending?
- Does military action actually work or does it create more violence, war and destruction?
- Should we look at other ways of defending ourselves?
He takes Switzerland as an example, a neutral country with no standing army! Instead, every citizen has to join a civic group and each citizen is obligated to defend the country.
Ireland proclaims neutrality and does not live up to it. John urges us to reclaim Art 29 of our Constitution. He concludes by affirming the vital role of women in peacemaking, citing examples of Bertolt Brecht’s play ‘Mother Courage’ written in 1939, and the Biblical story of the woman ‘touching the hem of Jesus’ garment, stopping the issue of blood as a metaphor for us to ‘stop the arms trade.’
Finally, he says that neutrality is a label for who are in Ireland and where we are in the world as Irish people. Frank Aiken was articulating that very idea in the 1960s.
John ends on a note of hope and encouragement, inviting the participants to begin the conversation as he stresses the need for conversations among us, to reclaim our story of neutrality. He considers that 70 percent of population agree with the idea of neutrality.
The final stories of the day were very personal accounts of Sunny Jacobs and Peter Pringle, wrongly convicted for crimes they did not commit. Sunny and Peter told very moving stories of their wrongful convictions – thousands of miles apart. Their stories are amazing journeys of utter forgiveness for the wrongs that were done to them. Sunny was incarcerated for 17 years, aged 27, in Florida USA and Peter for 15 in Portlaoise, Ireland. Sunny’s husband Jessy was also sentenced to death (later executed) – both having been framed for the murder of a policeman.
Sunny was locked in a small windowless cell, as young mother. At the time her son 9 years, and daughter 10 months. Kept in complete isolation, with no one on allowed to speak to her and even the guards were under instruction not to speak to her, she was in solitary confinement for 5 years. Her only possessions were the Bible and a Law book. She consulted the Bible daily for solace and wisdom. One day the Bible ‘told her’ that power was in her own hands. Although locked up, yet she had ‘freedom’ in her own world. She decided that she didn’t have to live in misery, with hatred, but shifted her perspective from waiting for death/execution to turning her cell into a ‘sacred’ place, a sanctuary. She decided there must be a God after all. She started Yoga, prayer and meditation and so her world was transformed and she began to see herself, not as victim, but with inner freedom.
After 5 years, her sentence was changed from death to life because of one man on the Jury could not ‘in conscience’ condemn her. As a result, she entered the ‘ordinary’ prison population and was the ‘happiest’ prisoner on the block! Because, now she could eat, speak, and associate with the other women. She was even assigned a job in the prison kitchen, chopping carrots – and with a knife! She chose the biggest one for the job.
In the meantime, Sunny’s children, initially taken into care, were now looked after by her parents who brought them to visit her 4 times a year.
Taking a well-earned holiday, tragically, her parents were killed in a plane crash. This, she says, was the worst day of her life. She was unable to be present at the funeral.
Friends never gave up on her and campaigned for her release. Finally after 17 years she was released with no money, no home, no job. Now she was a widow, orphan, grandmother, at 45 years old. She had no way to ‘connect’ with people, except teaching Yoga. So this was her salvation and she began teaching Yoga. She discovered there are lots of reasons for anger, resentment and hatred, lots of injustices ‘outside’ the prison. Without forgiveness she felt she could not ‘make room’ inside herself. She decided she had a choice. A choice to live a happy and beautiful life, so she chose Yoga to do that.
In time her children came to live with her and so became a family again. She knew she could not ‘go back’ and share all the years of being separated, but she could bring hope and joy to them. They too had suffered and were angry at what had happened to them and to their parents.
Sunny began to speak out against the Death Penalty and advocating for Human Rights. And it was an invitation to Ireland to speak at the conference on the Death Penalty that she met Peter.
Peter was sentenced to death for murder and robbery by a non-Jury at the special Criminal court in 1980. His death sentence was commuted to 40 years penal servitude without remission. During his time in prison, he practised Yoga and meditation to keep his sanity. He used his time to study Law so as to fight his case, and this he did at the High Court in Dublin in 1992, representing himself. His conviction was quashed in 1995 and he gained his freedom. It was when he joined the action at Shannon in 1995, protesting against US planes carrying weapons of war as they touched down to re-fuel in Ireland, that he met Brigidines, Mary and Rita who carried the flame of Brigid at that action.
He admits to having ‘no religion’ because he left the Church at 14 equating God with Church. But, he has a belief and in his own words,
I believe in the Native American creed in the GREAT SPIRIT which is love and each of us is a little spirit.
When Peter was released he realised that the holding of anger and resentment, justified emotions, only hurt him. Through Yoga and meditation, he brought himself to a point where he could let these go, let the wrongs and injustices go and when he arrived at that position, he gained his freedom. In his own words,
I was free the moment I spoke to the man who convicted me, as I said, ‘I hold no grudge against you for what you did to me’
Three years after his release, he met Sunny. They shared their stories, became best friends and now are happily married.
Together they set up the ‘Sunny Center’ where today they are dedicated to the healing of those that have been wrongfully incarcerated and where the motto is ‘Peace becomes the way and love becomes the answer’
In their own words, We have found Happiness in Life and in Love. And, at the very least, we can give Hope to others that they might have a Happy Life too.
Mabel, seeking refuge in Ireland, living under ‘Direct Provision’ in Sligo, which could be termed another form of ‘conviction’ told her story through song as she led the group in a ‘We are the World’ song! (see YouTube for full version of the song) Mabel is in a ‘limbo’ stage as she awaits leave to remain in Ireland and be able to work so as to integrate into Irish society.
Interspersed with speakers was the music provided by the trio on guitar, banjo and harp – RoJ, Paul O’Toole and Emer Lynam.
With thanks for Sr Patricia Mulhall for sharing her report.