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Interview: Eddie Gilmore CEO, Irish Chaplaincy

31 December 2021

‘One prisoner was delighted with our book. He said it was the first hardback he’d ever held’

The Irish Catholic bishops sent nine missionary priests to England in 1957 to look after the many thousands of Irish people coming to find work, like my own parents. Just over half of the income of the charity today comes from the Irish government’s Emigrant Support Programme. The rest is a variety of grants, plus donations, and we’re a team of 11.

We’re based in London,
and our work with Irish elders plus our general outreach is largely London-based, although our work in prisons is country-wide. A visiting and advocacy service is provided to Irish and Irish Traveller people in prison, and their families; and visits and phone calls are made to elderly Irish people in London, either living alone or in care homes.

Having been part of L’Arche in Canterbury for 28 years,
I needed a change, and I saw this job advertised in 2016. It seemed to be just the right thing at the right time; so I started in the charity’s 60th-anniversary year. My mum came to England in probably the very month that the chaplaincy had been founded for people like her and dad; so it felt as if something had come full circle.

At L’Arche, I was sharing life with interesting and diverse characters,
and that’s also what I enjoy about the Irish Chaplaincy. There, I was responsible for the house and ten others, five of whom had learning disabilities.

Although we’re Catholic in origin and ethos,
we reach out to people of all faiths and none. I’ve developed relationships with our local Church of England church in Camden, and St James’s, Piccadilly. Lucy Winkett, the Rector, came to my house in L’Arche for six months in 1992 before going to theological college. She sang at my wedding, and I brought some of my house to her ordination, and then her installation as a Canon at St Paul’s. Recently, we got together again, and the chaplaincy gave two concerts at St James’s, Piccadilly. The next one is on 5 February: a celebration of Irish music and dancing in the week of St Brigid.

I’ve loads of stories about the characters I’ve met.
My book, Looking Ahead with Hope, is full of them. At the heart of the book is a Spanish saying I learnt on the Camino after meeting a Spanish man who was married to a woman from Newry who knew my Uncle Pat: “El mundo es un pañuelo” — the world is a handkerchief. We’re all so connected; and the sharing of food and music, like at our prison events, draws us together in our common humanity especially profoundly. This is one of many threads that link my life at the Irish Chaplaincy to L’Arche.

During the pandemic, when face-to-face visits were not possible,
we provided people in prison with in-cell resources. Many Travellers had bad experiences of education; so we’ve developed our own easy-readers on themes like horses, boxing, and fights. One of the books that’s had good feedback is a pocket history of Ireland. One man was delighted because he said it was the first hardback book he’d ever held.

A CD we give is by a singer, Thomas McCarthy — an Irish Traveller, who won Storyteller of the Year Award in 2019.
Like many performers, he really struggled during Covid; so it was lovely to support him. We’re also giving prisoners a mindfulness CD by an Irishman who has just served a 15-year prison sentence, though he protested his innocence. After a dream of yoga sequences, he learned yoga, and became a master. Seniors were given pre-programmed tablets with which they could access mass, or their favourite Irish radio station, or have a face-to-face conversation with one of the team.

Thankfully, prejudice in Britain towards Irish people seems to be a thing of the past
— although it’s no doubt moved on to other groups. The younger Irish coming over today tend to be highly qualified and are thriving in all of the professions. Many of those who arrived decades ago did well, and so did their offspring. A lot of those we encounter through our Seniors Project didn’t do so well, and some of those we support are in material hardship, and feel increasingly culturally alienated as they come to the end of their life.

I grew up in a very warm and loving family home in Coventry,
with mum and dad and my sister. The daily meal around the table was central to our life, and so, too, was faith. Today, it’s my wife Yim Soon and I, with our three children having left home. We eat together in the evening, and then often watch the latest Korean drama. Saturday evenings have been Strictly in front of a roaring log fire.

We spent 1999 to 2000 in Korea.
I got quite good at the language, and my children were completely bilingual; but we forgot a lot, so we all did online courses this year. I’ve just finished level six, and I’m reasonably good again.

Food and hospitality are the same in Ireland and Korea.
My wife does something my mum used to do: she’ll ask you if you want more food and put it on your plate anyway.

My first experience of prayer was my mum,
after tucking me into bed at night, saying the Hail Mary. Prayer has therefore always been associated for me with intimacy.

In my teens, I added an Our Father to the daily Hail Mary.
Later I began to sing the Psalms at different times in the day, following a bit the monastic rhythm, and include periods of silence. I’ve always had an especially strong sense of the presence of God in nature, probably through music, too.

A simple contentment comes to me with that monastic rhythm of work, rest, prayer, recreation, and meals.
Also, good connections with other people and the sharing of intimacy. I love having a good laugh, as well. I’m very satisfied when I do something creative. Physical activity makes me feel good, too.

I want to walk the Camino again, all in one go this time,
and maybe write a book about that. I’d like to do more travelling, and maybe spend more time in Korea. I’m also looking forward to being a grandfather.

My anger comes from little niggles coming together,
and then some additional frustration or stress. And maybe there was something I’d been annoyed about, and didn’t acknowledge or express, or maybe I’m trying to do too many things at once and don’t feel sufficiently appreciated. And then, suddenly, I explode.

The last two years taught me that each day is a gift,
and so is each person and encounter. Also, the importance of saying thank you every day and for all that is given.

I like the sound of birdsong, especially at dawn or dusk,
the sound of rain pattering on the window — as long as I’m inside and warm; the kind of reverential hush that’s created when snow is on the ground. And the Northern Irish accent: my mother tongue.

I must have hope for the future,
having written a book called Looking Ahead with Hope. I believe that people are essentially good at heart. There is so much beauty in the world. Babies continue to be born and to bring delight to their parents and others. The sun continues to rise in the morning, even after the darkest night. Spring flowers bloom, even after the bleakest winter. People continue to respond with compassion and creativity to situations of apparent hopelessness.

I pray for family members and those I work with, and their families.
I add people or circumstances according to need. I also pray that the Irish Chaplaincy will receive sufficient funding.

Maybe I’d choose to be locked in a church with Thomas Merton.
He’s an interesting guy, and would be great company. Apparently, he used to laugh a lot, too.

Eddie Gilmore was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Looking Ahead with Hope: Stories of humanity, wonder and gratitude in a time of uncertainty is published by Darton, Longman & Todd at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.99) 978-1-91365-742-0.

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