I was born in Northern Ireland during the dark days of the second world war; the only child of a rural schoolmaster. The teacher’s residence in which I spent my childhood was surrounded by a patchwork of green fields whose hedgerows sheltered numerous birds’ nests. A new generation of lambs would appear each spring to gambol on their lush pasture. From my bedroom window at the rear of the house, I had a “picture postcard” view of a river valley with snow-clad peaks rising behind it.
Of course, like everyone in the district we didn’t have electricity, running water or a sewage system. We were fortunate, though, to have access to a reliable well from which we could pump water as necessary. Without electricity, there was, of course, no television or other electrical appliances. Despite the often inclement weather, I spent a lot of time outdoors. I enjoyed fishing in the nearby lake, looking for birds’ nests in the hedgerows and taking my dog into the fields to chase rabbits. In the evening, I would read by the light of a kerosene lamp or listen to our battery radio. Sometimes my mother would play the piano and sing.
Few people had cars in those austere post-war days, and we were no exception. So, I walked to school and church, rain, hail or shine. There was a rural bus service which we occasionally used to go to town. Such excursions were, however, infrequent as consumer goods were rationed and, like other families, we had little money available for discretionary spending.
Like most people in the local community, we attended our local Presbyterian Church without fail every Sunday. I arrived around 10 am for Sunday School, where we did a lot of rote learning. For a start off, there was the Catechism which contained at least one hundred items. We also learned to recite portions of scripture, known as “Golden Texts”. Even today, I find myself quoting some of these “Golden Texts” written in the evocative language of the King James Bible.
After Sunday School, my parents arrived for Morning Service. We all squeezed into our own wooden pew, which for some reason had a little door which remained closed during the service. Like many rural Presbyterian churches in those days, ours lacked any kind religious icon or adornment. The Morning Service was an extended worship experience. Every so often, the Minister would lead us in prayer. He also delivered the children’s address, followed by bible readings from the old and new testaments. We sang a variety of hymns, paraphrases and metric psalms.
As there was no instrumental accompaniment, our vocal performance was at times cringeworthy. Then came the announcements followed by the sermon.
The Minister knew that there would be complaints if the sermon was brief so he would often “pad out” his performance by monotonously reciting poetry. By this time, many of the children would have become extremely bored and fidgety. My parents would often bribe me to keep quiet by discretely giving me peppermints or toffees. I soon learned how to manage this to maximise the number of sweets I received. Too much fidgeting, however, risked subsequent punishment
Looking back on these childhood years, I realise how simple and predictable our lifestyle was. Yet I don’t recall ever feeling deprived, dissatisfied or bored. Indeed I often wish I could re-create the contentment that I enjoyed during those uncomplicated days. The Presbyterian worship of those days now seems overly puritanical. However, the Ten Commandments provided people with a moral compass, and the church community gave its members a sense of connectedness and hope for the future.
Starting my secondary education at Friends School in Lisburn proved to be a significant turning point in my life. In this new environment, I met pupils from diverse backgrounds. Some, like me, were unsophisticated country kids: others from urban backgrounds were much more worldly-wise. To my surprise, some came from wealthy families. I was an unmotivated and at times, a disruptive student. I excelled neither in the classroom or on the sporting field. Despite my lack of enthusiasm in class, some of my teachers encouraged me and found me extra-curricular activities which engaged me and boosted my flagging self-esteem. At the end of my final year at Friends School, I qualified for admission to the University in Belfast.
Relatively few of the pupils and a minority of the teachers at Friends School were actually Quakers. The headmaster, who was a Quaker, was a quiet, thoughtful man was widely respected by the pupils. It was said that, earlier in his career, he had taught in an English “Approved School” for young offenders. This, no doubt, influenced his decision to enrol some students with special needs due to physical disability or behavioural problems. Connecting with these “different” kids made a lasting impression on me.
During our religious education classes, we learned about major world religions. There was no attempt to prescribe any particular beliefs and certainly no attempt to convert us to “Quakerism”. This was the first time in my life that I had been allowed to actually think about religion.
Going to University was the next major turning point in my life: but not in the way that I expected. During my first term, I was overcome by severe symptoms of anxiety and depression. For a time, it looked as if this would mean the end of my chance for a University education. Fortunately, my parents were very supportive, ensuring that I received first-class professional treatment. The University authorities agreed that I could re-commence my first-year studies. Eventually, I finished my degree and a post-graduate diploma in Applied Social Studies and started a career in Social Work.
I spent several years working at the front line of the civil disturbances in Northern Ireland. Then, I took my wife and young children to start a new life in Brisbane and established a career with the Queensland Government. We eventually built a comfortable family home on a rural acreage with enough room for poultry and goats. This was a welcome opportunity to enjoy some of the simplicity that I had experienced as a child.
As I was to learn, mental health problems have a way of returning when you least expect it. Now with a happy home life, a professional career and a comfortable acreage lifestyle, I was ambushed by depression. To make matters worse, as a result of foolish attempts to self-medicate, I had become dependent on alcohol. At times I would feel that life had lost any sense of meaning or purpose, and I was pessimistic about the future. Fortunately, my professional training had taught me how to place boundaries around my personal life so that it would not compromise my professional activities. Again I sought professional help and, after a few weeks’ sick-leave, I was able to continue working and support my family. I began to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to obtain support in my struggle with alcohol.
There was to be no quick resolution to these problems. Each period of improvement was followed by a disappointing relapse. The AA program emphasises that one of the pre-requisites for recovery is a willingness to believe in a Higher Power – a God of one’s own understanding. Some years previously I had finally abandoned any kind of religious practice or spiritual belief and was content to label myself as an atheist. Thus, I was sceptical of this notion of a Higher Power. However, I had met several AA members who asserted that their recovery was being assisted by this mysterious Higher Power. Perhaps there could be something in it.
Some years later, a colleague asked me to assist her with running a training program. I was surprised to discover that the Brisbane Quaker Meeting House in Kelvin Grove had been booked as the venue. It seemed unusual that this place of worship would be available for rental for clearly secular purposes At the end of the workshop, I happened to meet the Caretaker of the Meeting House. It transpired that he was both a fellow Irishman and a qualified Social Worker. We had a lot to talk about as we walked around the rainforest gardens adjoining the Meeting House. As I departed, I remarked that I might turn up at a Quaker Meeting sometime. In fact, I attended a meeting for worship the next Sunday and soon I had become a regular attender. I found that participation in Quaker gatherings brought me a new sense of serenity and would prove to be a critical point in my recovery from depression and alcohol dependency. I would begin to find some meaning in life, optimism and hope for the future.
While most of the Friends that I met seemed to accept the existence of a God/Higher Power, they recognised it as something to be experienced rather than described. Although acknowledging the society’s Christian roots, there was little pressure to wrestle with complexities and inherent contradictions of the Bible. Having witnessed sectarian hatred, discrimination and violence in Northern Ireland, the Quaker focus on peace and justice strongly resonated with me. I was comfortable with the idea of faith in action.
From time to time, during my Social Work career, I had met people whose vision, self-sacrifice and courage had inspired me. I would often remark that these were people who had “restored my faith in humanity”. Perhaps what I had perceived had been the inner light that is within all of us.
I remember discussing the possibility of joining Quakers with one of the members who assured me that sainthood was not a pre-requisite! So, I applied and was accepted as a member of Queensland Regional Meeting. Over the years, I have attempted to serve the meeting in various capacities. This has been an enlightening experience for me. I discovered that the Quaker approach to business and administration is radically different from practices and procedures of the hierarchical workplaces and organisations with which I have been involved. I am getting used to the idea that the journey may often be just as important as the destination.