IRISH RAMBLINGS #14: “Turned Away at the Church Doors” (a Story Colin Durlin Told Me in Belfast) (from- ‘MY IRISH DIARIES: Travels Through Ireland North & South’)

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My second of 10 sojourns to Ireland was a summer-long storytelling tour of the island that was certainly one of the highlights of my life. I kept copious journals recording my remarkable experiences. When I read them in 1996, I realized there was a book in it. So I wrote one. Took about a year and a half, but it was time well spent. I am a much better writer as a result, and let’s face it: anyone can begin writing a book. It’s an achievement to FINISH writing a book. I never attempted to publish, as travel writing is like milk: it has an expiration date. The Ireland I describe in this book no longer exists. Little more than a decade later, it is almost an historical document. But it’s good. I like it. It’s fun to read. That is enough. It would be even better if people would read it. Books like having readers. It makes them happy.

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. The first afternoon of the Belfast Storytellers Festival brought a performance of the ‘Two Chairs Theatre Company’, visiting from Dublin.  One chair was occupied by a woman who retold old folk myths, while in the other chair, a musician accompanied her on the flute.  Afterward, while chatting with Liz, I felt an unexpected tug on my elbow.  It was a woman I’d never met, though I suppose I’d seen her amid the crowd.  “Rachel” suggested I join her for a brief stroll of the Cultra grounds.  Amenable to the suggestion, I consented.  My new acquaintance was half-a-head taller than me- plain, pleasant, inoffensive.  Together, we ambled through the Irish mist, into a beautiful meadow, brushed with delicate wildflowers.  As we strolled, Rachel bombarded me with questions.  Her grilling gave me the unsettling impression that I was being auditioned for something against my will.  I couldn’t fathom her interest in me.  She seemed like a conservative schoolmarm to my wild, ne’er-do-well.  As we returned for the final session, Rachel took my elbow, as if to signal that she had somehow ‘claimed’ me.  It was a little creepy.

. Last on the weekend’s agenda was a final trio of round-robin sessions.  This time, the cottages being used were so remote, that we were instructed to form into carpools for the shuttle trip.  The closing session had been canceled without explanation, so we were instructed to retrieve our gear from the dormitory before we left.  I ended up with Amy, the British storyteller and her male friend “Colin Durling”, snuggled amid the chaos in the back of his unpleasantly vaporous VW van, clutching my borrowed sleeping bag as we jostled crazily over the ill-maintained backroads of the Cultra Folk Park.  Colin seemed to recognize something in me, treating me from the start as though we were members of a secret club.  The guy was a refreshing throwback to the rarefied, optimistic days of San Francisco’s ‘summer of love’, only transplanted across the Atlantic, and projected forward in time.  Colin was ‘Joe Hippie’ incarnate, circa 1967: a one-man time-capsule come to life, reborn like Rip Van Winkle into the 1990’s.

. When we arrived at the remote parking lot, they again split us into groups, to rotate between three cottages and as many storytellers.  Inexplicably, I was elected captain and navigator for my ‘tribe’, and presented with a poorly-Xeroxed map, purporting to delineate how to navigate from venue to venue.  But the guide was indecipherable!  How was I going to lead anyone anywhere, when I had no idea where I was going?  I felt anything but up to the task, so I was thankful when Liz suddenly arrived, and summarily relieved me of my leadership duties.

. All three venues were small, cozy country cottages.  Though milieu was plain, luxuries were few and the chairs, sometimes hard and unforgiving, every location featured a blazing hearth, making each room toasty and comforting, and always- the earthy perfume of smoldering peat hung ripe in the air.  Finding our way from one locale to the next was enough of a challenge to become part of the fun.  At the third and final stop, who should our storyteller turn out to be, but universal hippie Colin Durling.  From beginning to end, Colin directed every word of his final story straight to me, with an intensity that was a touch uncomfortable.  Gradually it dawned on me that this subject was tailored for the occasion, in response to a sad tale I told during our rough ride from the Parish Hall:  At one point during the anarchy of the previous night, I was affronted and disgusted, when blunderful Andy lurched mindlessly into a loud, rude and overtly racist story, I would not care to remember or repeat.  Outraged that none of his countrymen dared call him on it, I stormed out of the verbal session, to stop myself from making yet another scene, in a land where I was the guest.  Happily, Colin’s story served as an upbeat antidote to Andy’s thoughtlessly racist insult:

. It seems a good, God-fearing black man, by circumstances of fate and economics, found his family uprooted from their homeland in the American south, and transplanted into an almost all-white northern suburb.  After establishing his new household, the pious mans’ first priority was to locate a church where his family could worship God.

. Finding the nearest church of his faith, he entered, telling the priest happily, that he and his kin would soon be joining the congregation.  The horrified clergyman coughed and wheezed and hemmed and hawed, clearing his throat and stammering: “Perhaps another church- one further on the edge of town might better suit your spiritual needs…”.  Greatly saddened, but resolved, our man tipped his hat to the unfriendly man of the cloth and turned away, looking for another house of worship.

. Again, he found a church and talked to the priest only to be coldly rebuked and turned away.

. On the third occasion, before the priest could even find the words to speak, our fellow tells the mortified ecclesiastic that he can see his obvious difficulty, so he’ll do what he usually does when confronted with a thorny conundrum: he’ll go home and ask God what to do.

. Kneeing before God, as he did every night, the devout layman prayed and asked the Almighty: “Oh lord, what shall I do?  Sunday is fast approaching, and I’ve no house of worship to take my family to.  I stopped into three churches today, and though none of them would say it, they all turned me away simply because of the color of my skin…”

. Came God’s reply:

“I wouldn’t worry to much about, that my earthbound friend.  They won’t let me into those churches either!”

. Thus ended our extended weekend gathering of hardcore word worshippers.  It was time for good-byes: handshakes all around and a nice hug from Tricia the friendly feminist, and then Rachel, my curious suitor.  I had intended to walk the short distance to the train station, but in steady succession, each passing car, crept along side me, tooted their horns and offered me a ride.  By the third entreaty, I decided to accept my role as reluctant hitchhiker, thanking them and crawling into the beak seat, for a ride all the way back into the city, in a luxury car full of silver-haired retirees reeking of expensive perfume that made me nauseous and dizzy.

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© Kevin Paul Keelan and lastcre8iveiconoclast, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kevin Paul Keelan and lastcre8iveiconoclast with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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About KPKeelan

Fool, Philosopher, Lover & Dreamer, Benign TROUBLEMAKER, King and Jester of KPKworld, an online portal to visual and linguistic mystery, befuddlement and delight.
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