Perspective from Jim Deeds who led the day and wondered as he wandered ……

Today we had our ‘Wonderful Wander’ as part of the 4 Corners Festival. In advance of the wander I bought myself new boots- big, strong, black boots. I got them about half an hour before setting off to go on our wander. We’ve all bought new shoes or boots. And we’ve all had the experience of how they feel at first- they are not so comfortable. They seem to have edges- corners- that feel unusual to us. They take a bit of time getting used to. Many of us go through a period of thinking if it was a good idea or not to walk in these new shoes. But after a while and a bit of discomfort the new shoes begin to feel as comfortable as an old pair of shoes- and there’s nothing as comfortable as an old pair of shoes, isn’t that right? As I was to learn walking in these new shoes today and into new corners of this city, our Wonderful Wander was to be like a new pair of shoes for most of us who set out today.

The idea behind the wander is actually the same idea behind the whole festival- to promote peace, understanding and reconciliation through inviting people to explore themselves and others in often unexplored corners of our city. And so, we arranged an event that would see us walk from Clonard Monastery on the Falls Road across to Woodvale Methodist Church at the top of the Shankill Road, stopping off along the way to meet interesting people at interesting places. And we kept the theme of our festival close to our hearts as well; Our Wounded and Wonderful City.  

Most folks who came- and there was a whopping 70 or so who came- had been to some of the places we walked to, but not all of them. In this way, there was something new for us all. In fact, the most common comment I heard today was, ‘I’ve never been here before’. A day of discovery indeed. 

We met and set off from the beautiful Clonard Monastery where we heard Fr Ciaran O’Callaghan of the Redemptorist Community tell us of the history of the monastery and its pivotal role in laying the ground work for the peace process. We heard that there had been many a midnight meeting between politicians who would never had met before; and all within the safety and confidentiality of this holy place. I read a poem encouraging us to step across unfamiliar bridges (a good image for our walk today I hope) before we had a group photo taken outside. We set off walking.

Now we must have been a quare sight as we walked down from Clonard and onto the Falls Road. We were Catholic and Methodist, Presbyterian and Anglican, Buddhist and Muslim, man and woman, ordained and lay, young and…. more experienced! We took up 50 yards of the footpath as we went. Thankfully, the officers from West Belfast PSNI Community Team were on hand to help us negotiate roads and traffic and to join with us on our walk as well. 

Our next stop was at the convent of the Sisters of Adoration . There we squeezed into the small Chapel in the convent and heard Sister Delores tell us of the oasis of silent prayer that the convent has been since opening its doors on 1981. All through the last years of our Troubles, people came here to pray and to grieve. They came to feel despair and to hope once more. It was truly a blessed visit. But there were many more miles to go and we said goodbye to the Sisters and set off. 

Onwards down the Falls and we found ourselves at Conway Mill; one of the many mills that would have punctuated the city in days gone by. Most of them demolished or fallen into disrepair, Conway Mill though has been resurrected and restored. It now stands as home to creative types- artists, craftspeople and photographers. And it was to a photographer’s studio that we wandered. John Mallon is a man who has seen the wounds of mental ill health and suicide. He shared this story powerfully today. He told us of a journey from desolation to the ability to see the beauty on our doorstep through his love of photography and through the help of inspirational counsellors. He shares his wonderful photographs from his stall in the Kennedy Centre on the Andersonstown Road. He was a real inspiration for us today. 

Any journey from one place to another involves as crossing over. And so it was for us today. Fr as we neared the bottom of the Falls Road, it was time to cross to the Shankill Road. In order to do so , we had to pass though the ‘No Man’s Land’ that is the beginning Northumberland Street. We paused here to hear some poetry from (I read my poem entitled ‘No Man’s Land’ and Nirmal Munir ‘s, ‘I am Belfast’). We had a chance to hear from Nirmal, who is from Pakistan. She is studying here and is a Muslim. She told us of seeing a Belfast that is alive and at peace with itself- certainly in comparison with her homeland. What an interesting perspective. She also recounted that she had suffered none of the discrimination that she had been warned of before coming. We all had a chance to show her that she is welcome her and that we love her. 


On to the Shankill! After stopping at a mural (or Muriel as we call them in these parts!) honouring the wonderful artist William Conor, we moved up the bustling road to the Shankill Memorial Garden. Here, Glenn Bradley (a son of the Shankill) told us of some of the history of this place in relation to those who served in the World Wars. We heard tales of courage and of loss as well. Glenn read us some of his wonderful poetry before the Rev David Clawson drew our memories back to the horror that was the Shankill bombing and the rebuilding that has had to take place in the local community. He encouraged us to see each person we meet as someone full of glory and full of potential- not just a label. He spoke with passion and love for his flock on the Shankill Road. 

The next two stops on the Shankill Road took us to a mural honouring High Smyth a local politician and uncle of Glenn our poet and on to the ancient graveyard just beyond Lanark Way. Glenn read us more poetry and spoke about his youth in the streets all around this graveyard. He recounted some of the story of his life- from a young boy caught up in an IRA bomb, to serving in the British Army, to becoming a ‘warrior at peace for peace’. Riveting stuff!

A short distance from the graveyard lies the street where the politician Hugh Smyth lived. It was also where Glenn grew up and we paused here for more poetry and more of Glenn’s life story. Here we were brought up to date with modern politics and with some of the more recent difficulties we’ve seen in this place. However, Glenn also read us a poem encouraging all to reject any sort of ‘eye for an eye’ politics or a standpoint in life that declares that in order to defeat the bully we must become like the bully. It was a stirring and hope-filled stop off point on our walk.

Back to my new shoes. By now, my feet were sore. We’d walked and talked for three hours. We were making new friends and we were visiting the city like never before. But we were tired! Thankfully, the Rev Colin Duncan’s Woodvale Methodist Church was across the road and he had arranged for us to finish our walk there with a cup of tea and coffee. 70 weary but happy wanderers traipsed into the Church to drink hot drinks and eat a welcome piece of pancake. Finishing, I read a poem about the city we live in learning to breathe again. The poem goes,

‘Beginning to breathe
Involves a certain effort
To teach the muscles how to heave
To teach the lungs how to convert
Breathe now
Breathe with humility, love and grace.’

70 wanderers put on new shoes today. They walked into the unknown parts. They found new friends there. They found inspiration there. They found new corners of this city. They prayed for a city that could learn to breathe again. And to breathe with humility, love and grace.