Pádraig Ó Tuama: The Poetry & Politics of Kindness

From Saturday Morning, 11:05 am on 14 March 2020

The threat of Covid-19 invites us to think as communities rather than as individuals, says Irish poet and conflict mediator Pádraig Ó Tuama.

Pádraig Ó Tuama

Pádraig Ó Tuama Photo: Supplied / Trevor Brady

The coronavirus has an important ability to spark our civic and community imagination about what safety might look like for all, he tells Kim Hill.

"To think 'I'll be fine'... that isn't the question. The question is 'who might not be fine by me thinking I'll be fine? Who might be exposed to risk?"

Ó Tuama hosts the podcast Poetry Unbound and has worked as a peacemaker at Corrymeela – a residential education centre in Northern Ireland.

Finding peace between people can be very, very hard, he says.

"'Diversity' and 'difference' are great words these days in common parlance but I regularly see people are unsure of what to do when it becomes difficult to work with each other.

"Peace requires enormous compromise – to stay in a room with people you consider abhorrent. And that is always going to take huge commitment and courage and imagination and the possibility of thinking 'i have something to learn from somebody whom I don't think I have anything to learn'."

Ó Tuama recommends people challenge themselves to say directly to others the things they say about them.

"Let's see what happens then … What have you said about them that you have never imagined questioning?'

"Something very interesting happens when we try to disagree well with each other. It's very painful, it's very confronting, and its much more than shouting about it in a vacuum … let's say things to each other we'd never imagine we had the courage to say. And then listen to the response.

"Eventually, you're going to marry somebody or have a child or be working alongside somebody or whatever whose point of view is going to be different to yours or challenging. And I suppose the question of is - what kind of relationship do you see as possible? Will you just tolerate this or can you have the imagination to say 'let's go beyond this'?"

Ó Tuama, who is gay, didn't come out to his parents until he was 30.

In his late teens, he experienced two years of 'reparative', or conversion, therapy.

Later, Ó Tuama studied theology, intending to be a priest – but refused to lie about being gay.

"I loved the possibility of people gathering together, I loved what could happen in the context of a parish … I'm gay, but I felt deeply called to this … I told the bishop when I was training that I'm gay. I said 'just so you know I'm not going to hide this'. Benedict shortly after made a policy that no man with a homosexual tendency that had lasted for more than two years could be admitted to the priesthood.'"

Storytelling is one of the most powerful ways of bringing people together, Ó Tuama says.

The now-international storytelling night Tenx9 - n which people deliver their own true stories on themes like courage or habit - started off as a suggestion by his partner Paul.....

Tenx9 stories can be about anything, and the organisers encourage their tellers to refrain from defining what they are about.

"This man came up to me once and I have a story I want to tell tonight. He was a very religious man and his parents were both extraordinary mountain climbers ... When he was 15 they had made a catastrophic mistake. His mother fell and broke her femur and his mother broke one or two parts of his arm. There was a lot of blood and they were in North America where there were bears, so everything was going wrong. [The son] was 15 and his father said ' you need to carry your mother the three hours down to the car … you're going to be very frightened and under no circumstances are you allowed to freak out. When you get to the car you can call me any name you want.' … [The man] said 'I've always used this story as a metaphor to talk about my relationship with God. Can I do this at the end?' I said 'give it a go to leave it out and see what happens'. The next day he said 'I've limited that story for so long because I've actually made it about my faith when actually it's about a lot more than my faith.'"

Pádraig Ó Tuama is in New Zealand as Victoria University of Wellington's St John's Visiting Scholar in Religion and will deliver a series of public talks and workshops in Wellington, Dunedin and Auckland.