Shadowing Pádraig Ó Tuama: The Importance and Insufficiency of Names
This is part of an ongoing series on my month shadowing Pádraig Ó Tuama, poet, theologian, and leader of The Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland. To read the introduction to the series, click here. To read the rest of the series, click here.
Once in 2012, when I was living in Belfast for my graduate program in conflict resolution and reconciliation, I sat across from a kind woman with gray hair on the train from Dublin to Belfast. She asked me if I was enjoying my time there.
“Oh yes,” I said, “I never imagined I get to live in Northern Ireland.”
She smiled and said, “Well, here we call it the North of Ireland.”
Ireland. Northern Ireland. The North of Ireland. The six counties. Ulster. The UK.
Israel. Palestine. Judea and Samaria. The West Bank. The Palestinian Territories. The Occupied Territories. The Administered Territories.
Illegal alien. Undocumented immigrant. New American.
Ex-felon. Returning citizen. Former prisoner.
These names matter. Each one carries stories, history, pain, and hope; each one reveals politics and prejudices; each one welcomes some and alienates others. In Belfast, the question, “What do you call here?” matters. It’s a way people decide whether they can feel safe around you. And it’s a way of beginning to ask a deeper question: “Is there room for me and my here in the place we both live?”
What’s also interesting is that sometimes the name doesn’t matter all that much. Many times while traveling with Pádraig, I heard him talk about the Troubles—the name most commonly given to the decades of murder and mayhem that devastated and terrorized (primarily) Northern Ireland in the second half of the 20th century. He referenced a comedian he once heard who made a joke about how silly the name “Troubles” is for a war.
Pádraig said, on the one hand, a foreigner need be careful when coming in to a place of pain and belittling the attempts of the locals to process and talk about that pain. On the other hand, Pádraig says that for him, it doesn’t matter really what you call the Troubles. “I’ll call it whatever anyone here wants me to call it,” he’d say, “because no name can hold the horror of what happened.” How do you find a name that can hold all those bombings, bereavements, funerals, terrors, nightmares, fires, bullets, emigrations, explanations, cries, marches, murders, lonely nights, and…?
Pádraig helped open this up for me—the importance and insufficiency of names. At once, it does not matter what names we use—because no name can actually hold what it tries to name; and also, it matters entirely what names we use—because our words create and break worlds.