Silence in the aftermath of trauma: golden or grim?

Diarmuid Ferriter, the Irish historian who has become a campaigner for history itself as much as anything that history might tell us, was speaking to Ryan Tubridy on RTE Radio One on Tuesday morning.

Ferriter is unbelievably prolific.

As well as being a university professor, it seems that he has a book out every other year — and no slim books either. The Transformation of Ireland checked in at almost 900 pages (and it’s not exactly large print) while A Nation and Not a Rabble was comparatively slim at 528.

He was speaking to Tubridy about another project he has been involved in, a documentary called Keepers of the Flame about the generation who survived the most tumultuous period in Irish history, spanning the Rising of 1916 and in particular the War of Independence and Civil War from 1919 to 1923.

Keepers of the Flame explores the impact of these events on the collective and personal memories of the Irish state and its people, using as its source the vast archive of personal accounts, Irish Military Pensions files and rare and precious archive film footage.

It was a fascinating interview, and Ferriter’s thoughts on the stony silence that many people would have carried with them were interesting.

I firmly believe that honest two-way conversation is a powerful combatant against trauma, but the historian makes a valid point that silence in the aftermath of such trauma can also be noble.

There’s an awful lot of trauma that I think was internalised. One of the things we’re trying to do with this documentary is provide an antidote to the silences.

An awful lot of people did not talk about that period, and these letters [from the archives] are now speaking to us. They didn’t talk about it for reasons that were often noble. Silence is not always ignoble, or not always something that needs to be seen in a negative way.

There were good reasons why they would want to have remained quiet. There was a dignified silence, and they might not have wanted to pass on whatever prejudices they might be carrying to the next generation.

The full interview can be accessed here


Identity and deciding who we truly are

Dr Phil Hammond was talking about defining “health” recently. But five words he said in the middle of his speech have been coming back to me regularly over the past couple of weeks.

… one world and precious life…

We have one world and precious life, and if there’s one thing that’s holding us back from experiencing this one world and precious life in the way we would love to experience it, it’s the things going on inside our head.

Our inner voice can hold us back. For the fortunate among us it holds us back occasionally. For others it holds us back incessantly, projecting fears on us at almost every minute of almost every day.

Lewis Howes speaks about three fears in life.

  • the fear of failure, which prevents us from even trying
  • the fear of judgment by others, which compels us to live our life in the projected views of others
  • the fear of success, which would place new expectations and responsibilities upon us

The two things all those fears have in common is that (a) they exist exclusively inside our heads, and (b) they are bound up in the identity we’ve constructed, or that has been constructed for us by our environment.

Both of those can be changed. They can be changed by us.

The habits and behaviours of our minds can be changed. It takes some self-work and it takes some time, but it’s possible.

And our identity can also be changed. That also takes self-work and time, but the biggest thing it takes is a decision.

A decision to stop playing the role of an identity that isn’t fully us.

A decision to believe that our identity is a construction of time and circumstance and environment, and can be changed.

A decision to discover what it is that is truly us, and to give expression to it.

We are not what we do. We are not even what we have always done.

We are.

We are whatever we choose to be.

I am.

I am whatever I choose to be.

Finding out who and what we are, and giving expression to that because who we truly are is important, and starting first just by expressing it to ourselves, that can start right here, right now.

Not tomorrow, or next Monday, or January 1st.

Because who we are, who you are, who I am, is important.

I am whatever I choose to be.

And you are whatever you choose to be. Not what you used to be or what you’ve always done.

Extraordinary ordinary

This post inspired by my friend Claire Bellis’s beautiful tribute to her extraordinary, ordinary Nana Delia, who was born 100 years ago this weekend.

Claire writes:

“During her long life (she died in 2012) she experienced such changes I’m sure no one living in the early C20th could have imagined; but at the heart of everything my Nana witnessed, she remained an extraordinary, ordinary woman.”

And that got me thinking about how extraordinary is most visible in the ordinary, the everyday.

IKEA has a strapline on its ads: “The Wonderful Everyday”. It’s marketing, yes, but like the best marketing, it is also true.

The beauty in the banal is a recurring theme in the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh.

Three quick examples. In “Epic”, he recalled the happenings in Monaghan when the world was shifting on its axis in Munich, and reminded himself that Homer “made the Iliad from such / A local row”. In “Canal Bank Walk”, he does “The will of God, wallow in the habitual, the banal, Grow with nature again as before I grew.” And in “Advent”, he writes about “the spirit-shocking Wonder in a black slanting Ulster hill”.

When we look closely, the ordinary is utterly extraordinary. A spider’s web on a frosty morning. The blur of the stars in the Milky Way on a clear night. The redwings and fieldfares and Canada geese and Whooper swans who cross oceans from colder parts for the temperate winters in Ireland, the Atlantic salmon who leaves Ireland for the wide ocean before returning, somehow, to its river of origin to spawn and start the life cycle all over again.

All of it and more happening all around us when we stop and breathe and look.

In an age when so much is digital and online and ephemeral and wispy, all around us are tangible things, things we can see and feel and sense and touch and which reconnect us to our spirit and our self.

The ordinary is truly extraordinary, when we choose to see it that way.

(Thanks for the inspiration, Claire.)

Brexit and the mood of uncertainty

If you’re anywhere in Europe, it’s hard to avoid talk of Brexit and the uncertainty of just about everything these days.

Theresa May, negotiations, Commons vote, People’s Vote, no deal, Norway minus, Canada plus plus plus, hard border, backstop. Brexit and its strange language are everywhere.

And a recurring theme of the Brexit talk is the uncertainty of what’s next. The uncertainty of what happens after March 29th — whether Britain leaves the European Union with a deal, or no deal; whether the common travel area between Ireland and Britain (because we might be nearly 100 years independent from Britain, but don’t take away our right to move there and back freely…); whether the United Kingdom is breaking up before our eyes.

So much uncertainty.

But it got me thinking. Is every generation faced with its own constant doubts,  its own recurring uncertainty?

I remember a time, back we were kids, a friend of mine was in tears because of the hole in the ozone layer and the prospect of humanity being fried to death.

The Bay of Pigs, the Cold War, recessions, depressions, climate change.

So much uncertainty that it might not be a bad idea to resist certainty. To treat uncertainty as normal. To think that uncertainty is everywhere and uncertainty is not necessarily bad.

Uncertainty means problems to solve, but humanity, for all our history of bloodshed and war and terror, has a decent record of solving problems and making things better.

Does that mean we can kick back and relax on a job well done? No, because that would be to stay still and to stay still is to stagnate and eventually die.

No, maybe it’s just that we need to embrace the uncertainty that exists both in our own small three feet of space and at local, national and global level.

To embrace the uncertainty and to try our best to do the right thing.

Here, now, today.

In an uncertain time, doing the next right thing, in this precise place and the single moment we have before us, is the only thing we can really do.

And when uncertainty is everywhere and forever, doing the next right thing, in this precise place and the single moment we have before us, is the only thing we can ever really do.

The best definition of success I’ve ever heard

There’s many a definition of success, but I haven’t yet heard one as on-point as this.

Yesterday I heard Gerry Hussey speak for the first time, at the All-Ireland Business All-Star awards. Gerry Hussey is an Irish high performance psychologist, who works everyone from with business leaders to Olympic athletes.

I took plenty of notes during his 20-minute presentation, but it was his definition of success that really stopped me and made me think.

He said:

Success is arriving at a place where there’s no other place you’d rather be.



The power of small: education, business and sport

I posted the second episode of my new podcast this week, with university professor Finbarr Bradley, and have lined up business for good entrepreneur Masami Sato for an interview in the New Year.

Finbarr Bradley is a finance and business lecturer who is unusual, I think, in the fact that he sees his primary role as educating people to make a life, not just to make a living.

His focus in recent years has been on sustainable ventures and purpose-driven business, including a co-authored book entitled Digging Deeper: How Purpose-Driven Enterprises Create Real Value. (You can listen to the podcast episode here, and read more about Finbarr Bradley here.)

Masami Sato is the founder of B1G1, an organisation on a mission to bring charitable giving to the core of businesses all over the world and help for-profit business, rather than non-profit charity, play its part in helping improve the world one project at a time, all in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. (Subscribe to my podcast in Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss my interview with Masami Sato in 2019, and you can read more about Masami and B1G1 here.)

In talking to Finbarr Bradley and posting that podcast interview earlier this week, and in listening to Masami Sato speak at an event in Manchester recently, I was struck by one common thread.

The power of small.

The power of small is that it’s easier to remain agile while bigger bodies become sluggish and lethargic.

The power of small is that it’s easier to retain a heart and soul to everything you do, as bigger bodies suffer a disconnect between what someone once set out to do and what a hundred or a thousand or a hundred thousand people are trying to do today.

The power of small is that it’s easier to have clarity of thought, clarity of communication and clarity of action.

Finbarr told me stories of purpose-driven businesses that have consciously decided not to aim for any more growth, because while growth might lead to more profits, growth might not serve the community that they’ve decided to serve.

Masami spoke about the ability of every person and every small business to make a lasting positive impact, through making a conscious decision to connect real humanity and genuine purpose to what we do every day as individuals and enterprises.

Ireland’s own sporting David and Goliath

Following the story of Mullinalaghta of County Longford over the past few days, I was reminded again of the power of small.

The All-Ireland GAA Club Championships are one of my favourite sporting competitions. It is the levellest of playing fields. There are 32 counties in Ireland, and the club champions of each county go forward to contest first their provincial championships and then onward, if successful, to the All-Ireland series.

The All-Ireland Club Championships are a mountain anyone can take on, but it takes all the preparation and togetherness of an Everest expedition, and it takes time. Years of time. Often intergenerational time. It takes a group of people to lay foundations for success, and then maybe a generation later another group of people to come together on the field and be fused by such togetherness and spirit and talent and dedication that they can scale the mountain together.

Winning a county championship is a fiendishly difficult feat in its own right. In the GAA every championship, at every grade, is fiercely contested because it’s about identity at least as much as it’s about a game on a field.

Mullinalaghta of County Longford scaled their own mountain on Sunday. Mullinalaghta has been described as a half-parish (the other half was moved into County Cavan in a boundary redrawing at some point). It has a population of around 440, give or take. There are 45 children in the school, give or take. It is a collection of country roads, a handful of houses, a handful of farms, a handful of families.

On Sunday they faced Kilmacud Crokes of Dublin in the Leinster club final. It was a novel pairing, Longford’s first ever representative in the provincial final against the 2009 All-Ireland champions.

Whereas Mullinalaghta has a population of around 440, the Kilmacud Crokes club has a membership of around ten times that, and is widely regarded as one of the biggest clubs in Dublin and Ireland.

One of the smallest, against one of the biggest, and the small guy came out on top in one of the GAA upsets of the century.

It was 15 players against 15 on the field for an hour, but in every other respect there was a chasm between these two.

That chasm was bridged by strength of mind and strength of body and strength of spirit.

Someone once said, the size of the dog in the fight is not nearly as important as the size of the fight in the dog.

Someone else once said, whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.

Dr. Phil Hammond’s definition of health

Dr. Phil Hammond was on Channel 4’s Countdown a couple of weeks back. (I’ve been getting back into Countdown recently. As anyone who watched my TEDx talk will know, me and Countdown go way back…)

I confess that I didn’t know much about Dr. Phil Hammond before those couple of days in Dictionary Corner. At first, I thought the UK’s Dr. Phil and the USA’s Dr. Phil were one and the same.

You’re right, I need to get out more.

The UK’s Dr. Phil is listed on his Wikipedia as a physician, broadcaster, comedian and commentator on health issues in the UK. His appearances on Countdown were a decent opportunity for him to get in some early canvassing for his forthcoming general election bid, whenever that takes place.

But it’s hard to disagree with much he’s saying, and I found his thoughts on health, and in particular the definition of health, very interesting.

He said:

We spend trillions on this planet on health and very rarely do we define it.

The National Health Service has its own constitution that doesn’t define “health”. So we spend £120 billion a year serving something that isn’t defined, which seems to be ridiculous to me.

If you go back to 1948 and the start of the NHS, the World Health Organisation, which was formed roughly around that time, came up with their definition of health, and that wasn’t just the complete absence of disease and disability, but a complete state of physical, psychological and social wellbeing (which one famous doctor said you only ever achieve fleetingly through opium and orgasm).

[The WHO definition] set the bar very high. If you were to say we all had to be completely rid of disease and disability, and we have to have a complete state of physical, psychological and social wellbeing, that means none of us are ever going to be healthy.

So we clearly need a definition that’s better than that. And the definition that I particularly like is “health is your freedom to live a life that you have reason to value“.

Now that requires a bit of self-work. You have to think about your values, and what matters to you. But it also means that you can have any number of diseases and still be healthy, if you have a life you have reason to value.

I talk about a chap called Miles Hilton-Barber, who it’s been my great privilege to meet. He was born with a hereditary condition and he knew fairly early on he was going to turn completely blind. And he went through a period of feeling really sorry for himself. And then he said, “No, I’m going to make the most of my one world and precious life.”

He says the only limits are the limits of your imagination. He does quite extraordinary stuff. He skydives, he goes up and down mountains, his calling card is him pushing his mate, who I think was hurt in Bosnia and has no legs. And he’s pushing him a wheelchair across the floor of the Dead Sea wearing aqualungs. They do this really really extraordinary stuff.

So I think it’s very important that we don’t judge what other people’s health is.

Think about the social determinants of health and think particularly that health is living a life that you have reason to value.

[In health, what are aim should be is] more people living lives that they have reason to value.


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