Monday 5 August - Kilaloe to Kilmallock via Limerick, Drumgeely, Kilrush and Kilkee
This summer, VOX magazine editor Ruth Garvey-Williams is travelling around Ireland to hunt down stories of faith, life and reality. Each day, she will share the story of her journey and some of the stories she encounters along the way.
For breakfast, Soo Ling had prepared me a fusion meal of Irish (bread & jam and coffee) with Chinese dumplings (dim sum served with sweet chilli sauce). After breakfast we walk around Soo Ling's garden where she has planted tomatoes, potatoes, chillis, chives and strawberries. As we enjoy the morning sunshine, Soo Ling shares more of her story. Michael, who was born and bred in Killaloe, had been Soo Ling's childhood penpal and when they finally got back in touch with each other after many years, romance blossomed. After their wedding in Malaysia, Soo Ling made the huge adjustment of moving to Ireland. Facing culture shock and the challenges of building relationships in a small rural Irish town, Soo Ling found great comfort in her relationship with God and in the support of other Christian women in her church (some of whom are part of an international women's group that meets in Limerick).
From Killaloe, I drive back into Limerick city. On a bank holiday Monday, the streets are deserted and I'm taken aback to find that all the car parks are closed. Thankfully, I discover that on-street parking is free so there is no problem pulling up outside the Elevate church office in the very heart of the city (just opposite the famous Nancy's Bar). Here I meet a dynamic young Limerick pastor, Dermott O'Mahoney (with his adorable little girl who is busy watching Dora the Explorer) and Dermott's co-worker, Justin, who comes from the US. The two men are part of an exciting new church in the city which currently meets in the Strand Hotel.
"I didn't grow up in church at all and I'm actually grateful for that," Dermott shares. "When I was 13, I went to a Christian camp and for a while I flirted with the idea of church but there was no one else my age so there was a real disconnect. For the next six years, I did every stupid thing on the planet and at the time, I really enjoyed it! But then at 19, I remember waking up in Ennis with absolutely no idea how I got there or even where I was. I remember thinking, 'Is this it? Is this all there is?'"
Dermott decided to check out church again, and although he admits he found it a big turn off at first, increasingly his concern was not so much the style of church but the opportunity to connect with God. When he met and married his wife (who is from America), Dermott ended up living and working with her church back in the US. But while he was impressed by what he saw, he still longed to be back in Limerick and slowly the dream was born to start the kind of church where people like his own brothers would feel at home.
Since arriving back in Ireland, Dermott has built a small team, together with Justin, with a focus on "re-thinking" church. Service is a huge focus for the church, with most people getting involved in volunteering alongside charities and community projects in Limerick. Re-modelling the Rape Crisis Centre, supporting the Spina Bifida Association and helping to organise the city's 4th July festival are just a few of the projects Elevate has taken on. Sunday services are kept short and simple with some worship songs and practical talks on relevant topics ("if you can't use it Monday morning, don't talk about it on Sunday"). An increasingly popular mid-week Bible study provides greater depth for those who want to know more. Through the whole experience, Dermott has discovered that many people are hungry for authentic faith that makes a real difference in their lives and in the community around them.
From Limerick, it was a short trip north to respond to a Facebook message from Elton Good in Shannon. A passionate sportsman, Elton had arranged to run a tea and coffee stand at the annual men's football tournament in Drumgeely. "This is a great event and as we are part of the community our church wants to support it in any way we can," he explained. In fact, it proved so popular that they quickly ran out of cups.
North West from Shannon, I met Mary Hamilton in the small towns of Kilrush and Kilkee. We ended up spending two and a half hours together and I left inspired by the example of a woman who is passionate about God and about her local community. Growing up in a deeply religious community, Mary recalls that most people didn't own a Bible in those days but somehow her father knew and read the Scriptures. He passed on this same love for God's word to his daughter. Married young and soon with seven children, Mary remembers searching for a copy of the Bible and eventually finding one in the bargain basement of Woolworths but it was in old English and she couldn't understand a word of what she was reading.
This was during the days of the charismatic renewal. Mary eagerly attended meetings, desperate to know and experience more of God. "At one of those meetings, I realised that Jesus died for me personally and it blew my mind." When the meetings stopped, local folks still wanted to read the Bible and pray together so they spontaneously began to meet in Mary's home. Eventually so many were coming that they moved out into the old turf shed!
Many years later, the shed was getting too small and the roof began to leak. Just when everything seemed bleak, Mary heard that an old Methodist church in Kilkee was planning to close down. She met with one of the leaders. "I thought we'd be waiting for years for a decision, but we got the church that day," Mary shared.
With a passionate love for history and for the Irish language, Mary has researched key events that have shaped Kilrush and Kilkee. On the site of an ancient Christian community on the nearby island of Scattery, local Christians love to go and pray. "It's a place where people can quickly sense the presence of God," she explains, "a place where Christians feel refreshed and renewed." The church was also involved in supporting the recent Famine Commemoration - a vital step in bringing closure to a tragic and painful chapter of local history.
As I leave, I'm moved to tears as Mary prays a blessing for me in Irish:
Go mbeannaí an Tiarna thú agus go gcumhdaí sé thú.
Tired out now, I retrace my steps back towards LImerick and then south down the N20 to a small village where I've booked a hotel for the night. It's a chance to rest (a little) and catch up with some of the now-mountainous amount of editing and writing that needs to be done. Total mileage has now reached just about 600 miles!