The very first time the name Bahá’í fell upon my ears was when I was a student in Dundalk, County Louth, Ireland. It was the early 1980s and a friend of mine (later to become my sister-in-law) had student lodgings with a Bahá’í family. On a number of occasions after I had walked her home I spotted a black hat in the hallway and assumed this was “something Bahá’ís wear”. At the time I found it extremely amusing to bid her goodnight by saying “Bahá’í, see you tomorrow”. I find it extraordinary to look back now at what must have been a day pretty much like any other day, leaving college to head home, most likely via the Muirhevna Inn (pub) on the Dublin Road, a group of friends chatting and laughing, and then when we came to my friend’s house, her announcement that she was living with people who were Bahá’ís (whatever that was – by all accounts it was a religion). The conversation on the rest of the journey home no doubt focussed on some really important matter like what we could scrape together for dinner, but for the soul, something very extraordinary had happened. In the years since then I have learned some more about the significance of the first time a soul is exposed to the Creative Word or to the Greatest Name, it’s a pivotal moment, the sapling has its first sprinkling of the Divine Bounty – in my case more or less unnoticed. My years at the Regional College in Dundalk were happy times – living away from home, enjoying my studies, experimenting for the first time with alcohol, and on it goes. The nightmare of my primary school years trampled under the boot of an emerging, yet tentative, confidence, and enduring of my secondary school years, cast aside in a wave of new-found friendships and geographical distance. This was living the dream.
I was born in 1963 in the lovely county of Cavan, the county “where there is a lake for every month of the year”. Whether it was lake or river it was the fisherman’s paradise, Germans, Dutch, English – they flocked in year after year. Naturally we knew about ‘the troubles’ but we were spared the horrors experienced by those living just a few miles north. I can still vividly recall the fear of passing though the border checkpoints, the soldiers with blacked out faces, big guns and strange accents. We always felt safe after we had crossed back over south and headed for home. My childhood was not really affected by the hatred running riot, neighbour against neighbour, devoted Christian against devoted Christian in Northern Ireland. However, although my life was not impacted on a day-to-day basis by ‘the troubles’, my world view was certainly being shaped by it. Cavan was 97% Catholic, but we knew a few protestant families. Mrs Reilly and her son Cyril were always happy to see us when we arrived up the lane to collect some freshly laid eggs. As a child I always felt Mrs Reilly shouted rather than spoke, but with her lovey friendly red face, frizzy wild hair, and ever-present wellies and apron, she was the epitome of good wholesome loveliness – and she was a protestant. Dad’s friend from work, Sammy, he was a protestant too. The relationships we had with these people seemed very different from the world of the Irish Republican Army, the Ulster Freedom Fighters, the Ulster Defence Association, or the Provos – yet we were Catholic, Mrs Reilly and Sammy were protestant. I realise that the Northern Irish situation was infinitely more complicated that my childhood appraisals could grasp, but that is another story – a tragic tale, a very tragic tale.
On the 8th of November 1987 a massive Provisional Irish Republican Army bomb exploded, during a Remembrance Day ceremony near the war memorial in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh. I knew Enniskillen well and had shopped there numerous times. Eleven people lost their lives that day and 63 were injured. Among those who died was 20-year-old Marie Wilson who was at the ceremony with her father Gordon. Then something extraordinary happened which set in motion an unstoppable force for peace and reconciliation. Gordon Wilson, within hours of the bombing, had the spotlight of the world media turned on him when he forgave the IRA killers of his daughter and said he bore them no ill will. He then dedicated the rest of his life to the campaign for peace. ”I have lost my daughter and we shall miss her but I bear no ill-will, I bear no grudge,” he said. ”Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life. Don’t ask me, please, for a purpose. I don’t have a purpose. I don’t have an answer. But I know there has to be a plan. If I didn’t think that, I would commit suicide. It’s part of a greater plan and God is good. And we shall meet again”. Gordon Wilson – Peace Campaigner
My view of the world, of the capacity of the human soul, of the power of forgiveness, and of the power of good was changed forever. There would surely be no difficulty that could not be overcome, mankind surely had a bright and glorious future. Anything was possible. I knew nothing at that time of the process of crisis and victory – but my mind had been opened to accepting it.
Our mother passed away from cancer at the age of 33, and my dad was left with three children, aged 6, 4, and 2 – I was 4. Our maternal grandmother, a woman small in stature but mighty in character, a real force to be reckoned with, became a pillar in our lives. The Roman Catholic church was, at that time, very much part of almost every aspect of Irish society. My dad was a questioning, but practising Catholic, our nan was a ‘just do it’ Catholic. She made sure we were up for early morning mass on Sundays, she made sure we never missed confession, lent, the stations of the cross, the daily evening rosary or the angelus. Nowadays back in Cavan the churches are far from full, but back when I was a child, even our very large cathedral could not accommodate all those wishing to attend any one of several Sunday masses and the crowds would spill into the foyer and out onto the steps. It was just what you did, it was what everyone did, there was no need to question – and anyway if you didn’t do it then what would the neighbours think?
We were protected from the gravity of our mother’s illness. In later years my dad told me that I was on my mother’s lap the day he came home from work to the news that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and that it is was terminal. More recently it came to light that myself and my two siblings were playing merrily out on the road on the morning of her funeral and that a neighbour stepped in to support us indoors and into a more discreet form of play. I was painfully shy as a child and starting primary school with no mum was a horror. I hated my primary school years, each and every day, the bullying was constant and the dash for sanctuary in nan’s lovely safe home each day was part and parcel of my life during those years. My sister Eilish and I more or less made nan’s home our home; my older brother, Gene, tended to gravitate to our family home, but the two houses were minutes apart so it was like having two homes! Dad had to employ a live-in nanny to support us. Kathleen, a devoted lover of Jesus, a woman of the utmost simplicity, ‘lovely and plain’, and of the utmost integrity, walked into our lives and lived with us for many years. Although school was hell there was lots of happiness in my childhood – the freedom to roam was a given. During the school holidays and at weekends, mornings were spent roaming the woods, building dens, playing cowboys and Indians, exploring, creating, inventing, until such times as hunger drew us back to the house where Kathleen or nan would have something lovely and wholesome and homemade ready for us to dive into.
Secondary school was a more positive experience with the only drawback being that I did not like football. Children today, whether at school or in their leisure time, have to decide how many out of the 24 hours might be left in the day by the time they have enrolled in all their clubs, but back then a boy not liking football was an issue. The cross-country running team was my salvation, and what was better I was quite good and we as a team did well. What more could one ask for? Running across fields, up and down lanes, through the woods, hot, cold, wet, dry, drenched in sweat or covered in mud – and this was school, and this was wonderful, and this was me experimenting with treading a different path. “You don’t like football; you are a weird one!” I learned at that time that the beautiful rural landscape all around me was where I was really me – this was it, this was the perfect state. I still love running today and have, in more recent years, found it to be, the most profound context in which to meditate. The glorious Teachings of Baha’u’llah say that “worlds, holy and spiritually glorious will be unveiled to your eyes. You are destined by Him in this world and hereafter to partake of their joys and to obtain a portion of their sustaining grace”. When I am out walking on some remote hillside on a chilly but sunny winter’s day, with a ‘moderate’ breeze blowing, then I have, to hand, the metaphor through which I can gain, to a minuscule degree of course, the reality of the Eternal. Unknown to me at the time, but revealed to me later, would be the concept of the two main ways in which spiritual reality is revealed to mankind – the World of Revelation and the World of Creation. The Writings of the Bahá’í Faith, with the emphasis on the use of metaphor to describe spiritual realities, was to be my key, my entry point, to a never-ending journey of discovery. Eternal life would, some years in the future, be described to me as a “sweet-scented stream”, God’s love as a “crystal spring”, God’s joy would become a “fragment breeze”. One of life’s precious experiences for me is to wander and pray, perhaps along the ancient Ridgeway that runs on the high ground to the south of our home in Swindon, or on some rural bridleway, or even in the local park. No need now for the confinement of a particular ‘holy’ place or a particular time – ““within the meadows of Thy nearness, before Thy presence make me able to roam”. And just as I ran through the woods and tasted the freedom as a cross country runner at my secondary school, I could now taste the freedom of a devotional concept that brought to life a newly discovered and much-loved prayer, “Blessed is the spot, and the house, and the place, and the city and the heart and the mountain, and the refuge and the cave and the valley and the land, and the sea and the island, and the meadow, where mention of God hath been made, and His praise glorified” (Bahá’u’lláh).
Dad started his career as a mechanic, then went into car sales, then into dealership management at the local Renault dealership. Alongside this he bought and sold cars, so we were kept busy washing and cleaning cars for sale, and driving them too! Dad was very relaxed about taking us out on the road and letting us take the wheel – this was the most exciting of experiences! And then there were the household chores. All three of us were assigned tasks, and responsibility laid firmly at our door if they were missed. My tasks included polishing all the brass door handles, fire fenders, ornaments, candle sticks etc – the smell of Brasso today brings me right back to those times – I did not like this chore. My other task was the tending to nan’s lawn and gardens, which I loved. I had an inclination to the outdoors as a child, and this formed the foundation for a love of nature that has stayed with me right though my life and this to me is a foundational part of what it means to ‘live in the world of the spirit’. Dad married again in 1977. Ann became our wonderful stepmother. It was a very difficult period for my brother but over time we settled into the new family unit and were blessed with two additional brothers, David in 1978 and Stephen in 1980.
Until 2016, when my father passed away, our family home had been a bed-and-breakfast from the late 1970s. It was so exciting that our immediate world suddenly became so thrilling and diverse. Suddenly there were people from all corners of the world strolling around our house day after day. Even after I moved out and went home for weekends, I loved the fact that I was, in some small way, becoming exposed to the rich and beautiful diversity of the human family – conversations taking place in French or German, the hilarious encounter when my dad, having given up all hope of ascertaining what a Chinese couple wanted for breakfast, took to hunkering down and making the sound of a hen instead – to find out if they wanted eggs or not, of course.
On reflection I would not describe myself as a strong Catholic in those childhood and teenage years, but the foundations laid had an impact and when I had my ‘freedom’ and as a young man I still attended weekly mass, and said my prayers, morning and evening. There are few things more beautiful than heading off to midnight mass in the pitch darkness on Christmas eve and catching the unique smell of church incense as you stepped in out of the cold – belonging, community, support, kindness, love, joy! Every now and then I still catch that unique scent and those “everything will be ok” reassuring feelings wash over me. When I was growing up in Cavan the priest had such a central role in community life and commanded such respect – the only time nan ever got flustered was when she was expecting a visit from Father whoever-it-might- be! It was also important to ensure your ‘Sunday best’ clothes were ready. Of any occasion you might have to attend, the most important was the Sunday mass, spotlessly clean, shoes well-polished. Humanity is today guided to a new way of religious life, one where ritual is minimal, and of course this is perfect for our stage of development, but looking back, there was a beauty to the Catholic rituals. However, over time I began to feel that I was an observer, a looker on, and the audible sound of congregational worship became that of an ‘absent minded hum’. Mass happened for an hour on Sunday, and life happened for the rest of the week. I did not have the power of expression back then, but on reflection I really wanted no compartments, no different ‘me’s’ for different situations. The parables of Jesus were beautiful, easy to access intellectually and full of wisdom, but, from my rudimentary reckoning, they were left in the audible vibrations of the lofty cathedral building ‘till next time’. The mass always finished with the priest saying “The mass is ended, go in peace to love and serve the Lord” to which the congregation responded “Thanks be to God”. As the years passed by I began to realise my “Thanks be to God” was more in response to the first part of the priests proclamation than the second!
I spent several years working in Dublin, then Jersey (Channel Islands) and eventually London. I was managing a large pub and entertainment venue in London in 1988 when a young lady from Northern Ireland came in enquiring about part time work to supplement her income at Thames Television. I was delighted to find out that we had grown up not very far from each other in Ireland, me just south of the border and she just across the border in the north. This was the second time the word Bahá’í fell upon my ears. This lady, Fidelma, had studied in Coleraine University where she had been taught the Faith by Omid Djalili. We embarked on the journey of investigation together. My work took me, via Leicester for a year, to the beautiful village of Attleborough in Warwickshire, where I had the leasehold of a traditional English village pub The Royal Oak. Fidelma and I were married in 1993 and on our honeymoon in Ireland she called upon the Bahá’í National Centre in Burlington Road in Dublin to announce to a surprised Keith Munro who opened the door to us, “I want to be a Bahá’í”.
We spent many happy years at The Royal Oak. As patrons of the village pub we became very integrated into the life of the local community. Fidelma was also becoming involved in the life of the local Bahá’í Community and I was being attracted by the love and friendship experienced and the deepenings and the firesides. I was still quite shy as an adult, but I loved attending the Bahá’í events, mainly firesides – especially if Steve Day turned up with his guitar, his beautiful voice, his soul stirring songs, and his elevated, yet so very open to all, exposition of the Faith. I loved the Nuneaton and Bedworth Bahá’ís. I am reluctant to single out any as they were all the most special of souls, but meeting Karen O’Donoghue (Yazdi) and Shahram Yazdi was of unique significance; there being a Persian man and a Coventry lady of Irish Catholic descent was of special significance. Fidelma and I spent so many precious evenings at their home on Farriers Way – there was the devotion, the exploration of spiritual realities, but there was also the laughter, the fun, the wanting the laughing to stop as the physical pain was becoming overwhelming. I had a new sister and a new brother! At this time I was becoming aware that running licenced premises, as well as my personal fondness for winding down each evening with a few ‘pints’ was likely to become an issue on this spiritual journey on which I found myself. However, I was welcomed with open arms by the Nuneaton and Bedworth Bahá’ís and when we had a Bahá’í gathering in our upstairs function room, the local Bahá’ís would make their way through the crowded pub to shake my hand across the counter before heading upstairs for the event. I remember being outside the pub one evening and overhearing a conversation between two local Bahá’ís as they approached the front doors “When we go in please don’t do the Allah’u’Abha greetings as Padraig may find it all a bit strange”. This was truly such a welcoming and open-to-all Bahá’í Community. Wherever you were on your journey, there were open arms. There was no question of its being an issue when, in 1997 I declared my Faith in Bahá’u’lláh while still running the pub. Those were the days when we used paper flyers, and so ‘19 Day Feast in The Royal Oak in Attleborough’ was not an unusual concept. On one such evening the Bahá’í friends spilled out into the pub garden after the Feast and a mingling with the locals took place that ended with singing and dancing in the warm evening sun – some intoxicated with alcohol, some intoxicated with the power of the Spirit, but all one, and all singing and all dancing, and no demarcation.
For many years before declaring as a Bahá’í, and for a while afterwards too, Catholic mass remained a part of my life. In fact in our search into spiritual reality, Fidelma and I often spent long evenings over a few drinks and in front of a roaring fire in deep and meaningful conversation with the local priest Father Terry at The Weston Hall Hotel in Bulkington. After selling the lease of the pub in December 1997, we bought a house in the area and settled into a new way of life. The alcohol was an issue for me, a big issue. It was ok, I convinced myself, Bahá’u’lláh was born into an Eastern culture where alcohol was not part of the culture, it’s different for Bahá’ís here in the West. I also convinced myself that it was natural that the individual will come across laws that he or she will not be able to apply to their lives, and after all, going out to meet friends and have a few drinks was what I did – it was a very big part of who I was. Over time a new thought came to my mind – this ‘no alcohol’ ruling is a Law of Bahá’u’lláh, it is perfect and not to be questioned and what has to change is my understanding of this Law. This new way of thinking had what I can only describe as a miraculous outcome for me. I went to the fridge one evening and got myself a can of beer, I poured it and sat down to watch a movie. I had no idea that I would never actually drink it and that a habit of my adult life, for many years a six-evenings-a-week pursuit, tied up in my culture and central to my idea of what it was to socialise, and infinitely helpful in my struggles with shyness, would disappear out of my life from that evening onwards. No planning, no gradual reduction in consumption, no new year’s resolution, it just happened and I ‘observed’ this dramatic change in my life as opposed to feeling I was instigating it!
My family back in Ireland took the announcement that I had become a Bahá’í in their stride; the fact that I had given up alcohol was a challenge for them. What of the heart-to-heart chats in the local pub during my visits home, what of the drinking and singing that was part of the fabric of the family home? My beloved father and my beloved wife Fidelma had the most beautiful and joyous of relationships, the bond between them was really tender, open, honest – brim full of side-splitting humour and tear-inducing laughter. “Do you believe in God?” my dad asked of Fidelma. He was satisfied with the reply. There was never an opportunity to do any real intensive teaching work with my dad, but there certainly were continuous conversations over the years and he joined in a Bahá’í devotional when visiting us. The bond between himself and Fidelma continued after his passing in February 2016 when he sent a message, of no meaning to Fidelma but full of meaning to the immediate family, in a dream she had the night after he passed away. Dad was a wonderful man – he was an independent thinker by nature. When, in the late 50s, his older sister Maria, now living in Birmingham UK, announced that she was to be married to Winston, a Jamaican, it ripped the family apart and the rift was to last a generation. When Maria mentioned that she and Winston were planning to move to Ireland it caused the most cataclysmic commotion in the family – but not for dad. He took Winston with him to Smiths Garage (where he was working at the time) and secured him a job there. When my dad’s parents and his brothers and sisters moved to Wales (where the streets were, allegedly, paved with gold) in the early 60s, dad made the decision to stay behind and took up residence with his grandfather.
I have observed over the years that when people come across something new, something different, all sorts of bizarre and often hilarious assumptions arise. By way of example, at one point many years ago, Fidelma and I realised that we had not watched anything on TV for well over a year so we got rid of it. In later years our son Macauli said he would like a TV so we re-introduced one to our home. A colleague at work said to me “I am confused, I thought Bahá’ís didn’t watch TV”! Following my declaration, it emerged that dad had actually met some local Cavan Bahá’ís a few years before and a few of the famous ‘assumptions and generalisations’ had emerged. Dad described having sold a car to a Bahá’í man in a local village many years previously and all he remembered was that “Bahá’ís don’t listen to music”. It appears the car had a problem with the radio which dad was arranging to have repaired but was advised by the buyer that they would have no use for it. My step mum had concerns too when she read in The Anglo Celt (the local Cavan paper) that local Bahá’ís were about to start their 19 Day Fast – she hoped that I would not be stopping eating for 19 whole days!
It was very early on in my investigation of the Faith that I became attracted to the principles of the Faith, the oneness of God, of religion and of mankind, the equality of men and women, the harmony of science and religion, the elimination of all forms of prejudice, the abolition of the extremes of wealth and poverty, and the independent investigation of truth. I heard mention of the concept of a journey from the head to the heart, and gradually became aware that this process was taking place in my life. The beauty of ‘The Hidden Words’, the story of The Bab, the life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. That familiar proclamation of the priests over the years was now Christ has come again! HAS come again! Fidelma was my primary teacher, and I could ask the questions of her that perhaps I would not ask of anyone else. We were on a journey together, she a few paces in front, and I benefitting from her insights from just around the next corner, while perhaps sharing a new angle on the pathway on which I was walking. I often wonder how I would have managed without Fidelma on that path. I firmly believe we were destined to walk it together. Had it not been so I feel I might have still encountered some beautiful streams, some mysterious woodlands, some inviting grassy verges – but would I have kept going? Would I have let the beauty all around me distract me from the unseen and unknown beauty that lay far far ahead?
I had been a Bahá’í for two years when I first visited the Holy Land – Fidelma and I went on a three-day visit with the wonderful Javid Vossough and his daughters. In 2006 Fidelma and I went on a nine-day Pilgrimage. We were met on the first morning outside the old pilgrim house by a member of the International Teaching Centre who reminded us that Pilgrimage is a very personal journey and each person’s response to Pilgrimage is unique. It was a glorious 9 days. One afternoon, when the terraces were open to the public, a group of American tourists made their way around the Shrine of The Báb, one lady, breaking away momentarily from the group, had a peep through the door and announced to her co-visitors, “there is nothing in there”. There were moments during Pilgrimage when I found myself in one of those Blessed Shrines when a fleeting thought passed through my mind, the “there is nothing out there”. I really wish I could hold on to those precious and, in my case, momentary conceptions of reality – not of course just in connection with the physical space of the Shrine but of spiritual reality in general. However, this brings to mind one of the turning points in my journey of investigation into the Faith, something that has remained foundational ever since, that joy and pain are two indispensable sides of one coin, that tests and trials are in essence the ladder of progress and that every day, every moment of every day, we have opportunities to develop a virtue in preparation for a life when the coat of physical existence will have been cast aside for the warmer climes of the Eternal World.
And then there was Portals to Freedom. In this most phenomenal of books Howard Colby Ives describes his meetings with ‘Abdul-Bahá in New York (1912) and, on page after page, relays accounts of the transformative influence the Master had on his very soul.
“Under the influence of such a tremendous thought as these I one day asked ‘Abdu’l-Baha how it would ever be possible for me, deep in the mass of weal and selfish humanity, ever hope to attain when the goal was so high and great. He said that it is to be accomplished little by little, little by little. And I thought to myself, I have all eternity for this journey from self to God. The thing to do is to get it started”. Howard Colby Ives – Portals to Freedom, p.63.
One day, many years after the events recalled above, I was walking in beautiful Co Antrim with Fidelma, our son Macauli, and Fidelma’s brother and his partner. Along the path we came to a massive puddle, Macauli’s uncle made it across and stood on the other side while I held Macauli to steady him as he stretched his leg out as far as he could. As he moved his body forward his uncle was able to grab hold of his other arm while simultaneously, I let go. On the walk that day, once Macauli was firmly on the other side, I stepped over too, and the walk continued. Navigating across the puddle needed to happen, but in reality, our journey was one of continuation, not an ending and a new beginning. As I mentioned before, I was not really a strong Catholic, but as is often the way in such matters there is a tendency to cling on to the familiar, once a new, and unfamiliar option appears. Whether it be in ‘Some Answered Questions’, ‘Paris Talks’, or in ‘The Promulgation of Universal Peace’, the precious Writings and wisdom of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá on the subject of the life and Teachings of Jesus meant that for me there was no ending, or new beginning, but a continuation – yes there was a puddle to be jumped across, a leap of Faith so to speak, but I knew that when I landed on the other side that it felt more like home.
“His foundation was the oneness of humanity. Only a few were attracted to Him. They were not the kings and rulers of His time. They were not rich and important people. Some of them were catchers of fish. Most of them were ignorant men not trained in the knowledge of this world”
“With this small army, Christ conquered the world of the East and the West. Kings and nations arose against Him. Philosophers and the greatest men of learning assailed and blasphemed His Cause. All were defeated and overcome, their tongues silenced, their lamps extinguished, their hatred quenched, no trace of them now remains. They have become as non-existent, while His Kingdom is triumphant and eternal”.
“The brilliant star of His Cause has ascended to the zenith, while night has enveloped and eclipsed His enemies. His name, beloved and adored by a few disciples, now commands the reverence of kings and nations of the world. His power is eternal; His sovereignty will continue forever, while those who oppose Him are sleeping in the dust, their very names unknown, forgotten. The little army of disciples has become a mighty cohort of millions. The Heavenly Host, the Supreme Concourse are His legions; the Word of God is His sword; the power of God is His victory”,
I heard a lovely story related by an elderly Bahá’í one day as he recounted memories of growing up as a Bahá’í child and going to children’s classes. The story went that he attended classes for many years but when he looks back one thing stands out in his mind. One day he turned up for class with his shoes wet and his feet frozen. Before starting that class, the teacher lovingly removed his shoes and warmed his feet in her hands – and that is the enduring memory, one of the lasting legacies of that wonderful teacher. Becoming, and living as a Bahá’í is like that too – sometimes it’s just that ‘feeling’. For me it could be the Swindon Winter Schools at Legge House in Wroughton back in the early 2000s with Viv and Rita Bartlett – two bright Welsh orbs, two gentle yet powerful souls who captivated the heart with their exposition of the fundamental verities of the Faith and stimulated the mind with compelling food for thought. It was impossible to be in their company without being touched by the heat of the flame burning in their hearts. I don’t recall that they ever warmed my feet, but the environment they created at those schools certainly warmed my heart. Many years have passed now since those days of initial investigation, eventual declaration, and gingerly trodden first steps – but that is another story.