The first 50 years
I was born a war-child at 7.20pm on 29th September 1943 in Johnson House Maternity home in the industrial city of Belfast. While I was but a few years old, Hitler’s Luftwaffe bombed Harland & Wolf’s shipyards and we, according to mum, sat under the dining room table during air-raids although we were some 3-4 miles from the most dangerous zone. Dad was in the home guard and shouldered a rifle to defend the Law Courts in the middle of Belfast, where he worked as an architect. My half-brother Donald, my senior by some seven years, was there part of the time although he was brought up by Aunt Janet in Scotland during his early years. Peter, my younger brother, was born later.
Thornhill Park in East Belfast was well into the middle of the largest Protestant area of the city. In fact I doubt if I even met a Catholic until I was nearing my teens. This is interesting as I seemed to imbibe a mild religious prejudice simply as an accident of birth. My parents never positively told me Catholics were wrong but it seemed to be implied that Protestants were more right.
Air Vice-Marshal Sir David Munro KCB CIE MB ChB FRCSE MA LLD was Director of Medical Services, Royal Air Force, 1921-30, and Rector of St Andrews University, 1938-46. Finally, we Munros are famous for being called mountains! Due to his keen interest in Scottish mountains, Sir Hugh Munro, 4th Baronet (1856–1919) drew up the first list of Munros – defined as any mountain over 3000 feet. Apparently there are 282 of them. I have climbed one, Ben Nevis, the highest.
My own family was a mix of Scottish Celtic and Irish Huguenot stock – a significant injection of Celtic genes. My grandfather on dad’s side was a coal miner in Leven in Fife. His life was hard and rough, resulting in chronic chest problems from the coal-dust, relieved only by drinking. My aunt Janet raised the family, since their mother had died, probably as a result of giving birth to her tenth child. She was devoted to the family and acted as both mother and surrogate father.
Charles Munro, my dad, was born on 23rd November 1903, did well at school and prior to leaving won a dux medal (dux: Latin for leader). He was subsequently articled to an architect in Leven, in April 1919. In 1927 he transferred to another architect in Edinburgh and eventually was admitted as an Associate of the Edinburgh Architectural Association. In June 1929 he left for Belfast where he took up an appointment as chief assistant to the Government Architect of Northern Ireland. He was admitted to RIBA (the Royal Institute of British Architects) on 5th March 1934. At that time he was still in the Belfast Department of Works, remaining there until, as Chief Architect, he retired in November 1968.
While in Scotland he had met and married his first wife, who died from puerperal sepsis after delivering Donald, my half-brother, several years older than me. My younger brother by three years, Peter, is now a retired GP living in Ballyclare. Dad met Marion Cousins, his second wife, in Northern Ireland during the mid-1930s. Mum, Marion, or ‘Marie’ as my father called her, was the only child of William D. and Elizabeth Cousins, first of Coleraine then of Limavady in Co Londonderry.
Vegetarianism and Theosophy were the beliefs and lifestyle that joined these two families. Aunt Janet was involved in the Theosophical Movement in Scotland; she and Dad were both vegetarians. Grandad Cousins had gone into a slaughter house in 1900 and been so appalled by the noise of the animals and the smell of blood that he became an ardent vegetarian immediately, often speaking about meat-eaters as those ‘creophagists’ – those who use flesh for sustenance. My father had also visited a slaughter house and suffered similar horrors impelling him to change his lifestyle.
The merging of these two families resulted in my not eating fish, flesh or fowl for the first 25 years of my life. We were not just lacto-vegetarians, we were also organic. Most of our vegetables came from our own allotment developed during the war years.
Brought up in east Belfast in the 1950s, I would say life was as idyllic as one could have at the time. Mum looked after her boys and there was always a home-cooked meal of wholesome organic food on the table. She was a dutiful house-wife of the ‘50s, never going out to work or learning to drive our little Austin 7.
I first attended Strathern Girls School, which had, at that time, a small preparatory department allowing boys to attend the school. It was there that my earliest traumatic event occurred which began to shape my personality. It was forbidden to ‘go behind the curtain’ in the main hall, where all the gymnastic equipment was kept. My friend, Michael, and I disobeyed. While sitting up on the gym-horse he accidently pushed me while we fooled around and I landed on my left elbow fracturing my humerus. I was carted off to the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children where chloroform was administered as the anaesthetic – the beautiful smell of it still lingers! I was beginning to realise the results of disobedience.
I then moved to Cabin Hill, the preparatory school for Campbell College, which was only 200 yards away from my bedroom in 3 Thornhill Park, and it was just possible to hear the 8.55 am bell ring for assembly and make it to school on time by nine o’clock. Eventually I moved up to Campbell College in 1957 and finally entered Queen’s University in 1961.
Mum went mostly to Knock Presbyterian Church. Although her dad William, became President of the Theosophical Society in Northern Ireland, mum did not seem to have the same interest. Dad, on the other hand, was well immersed but later became more interested in the teachings of Krishnamurti, whose individual approach, freed of all organisation and rituals, became quite attractive to the young seeker I had become.
I was thankful for having been grounded in Presbyterian Sunday School and attending church weekly, as I learned the basics of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Meantime I was reading about the ‘Masters of Wisdom’ living reincarnated lives in the Himalayas. I also read about Catholicism (22 weeks of plain brown envelopes – no questions asked!), Zen Buddhism and Rosicrucianism, as well as Theosophy.
Along the way, it seems God gave me a gift, and, like many spiritual gifts, they can be very painful at times. My childhood, growing up in Belfast close to my schools, was pretty good. What we didn’t have we didn’t miss.
Then suddenly over a period of a few months, I was hit with two traumatic events which profoundly affected me for many years. I was playing with a friend, David Wilkinson, on a building site near his house on Castlehill Road. I was then six or seven years old. The grumpy old watchman did not appear to like children. We were, innocently I might add, dropping glass bottles down a dry well, about 20 feet deep, and listening to them smash. We were happy and doing no one any harm when he suddenly appeared. He grabbed David and upended him, holding him by his ankles, over the well. He was screaming and shouting. I was powerless to act and froze with fright. After what seemed an eternity he replaced him upright, kicked him firmly in the bottom, shouted that he would come and see our parents and chased us off the building site. We ran home and hid under a table. For days I looked out of the window. He never came.
A few weeks later, while my mother was in a shoemaker’s shop in Cherryvalley, I was outside playing when I decided to run across the road. Sadly I did not activate the highway-code. A car screeched to a halt and tumbled me over so that I rolled along the road. I was shocked but not physically injured. Mother was greatly relieved but annoyed. Within weeks I developed a stammer which lasted until my mid-twenties. As a result of my speech impediment I was bullied at school. Nobody likes a stutterer. They think they are stupid. I was often laughed at. I wanted to read poetry or act in plays – but couldn’t. I developed an inferiority complex, today called low self-esteem. Eventually, after the stammer had subsided, my vocabulary was greater than the average and my goal, although scary, was to be interviewed live on TV. That dream was realised many years later, as well as doing local broadcasting in Derry. Years later a thirty-minute documentary was made for Ulster Television (UTV) on the effect of the Bahá’í faith on my career as a doctor. It was viewed as far as Limerick where, I was told, someone came to the Bahá’ís and eventually declared his faith.
While still as school (1960-61) I suggested to some friends we start a group helping older people in East Belfast. One of the small Group who formed a committee was Lesley Gibson from Cherryvalley in Belfast. I believe this idea surfaced as a result of being in the Cubs and Scouts during school and taking part in Bob-a-Job weeks every year. We helped old people with gardens, getting firewood, shopping and so on. Working in this group we would discuss broader subjects about religion and philosophy. Then I heard of the Bahá’í Faith and Lesley went off to study speech therapy in Leicester. There she came into contact with the Faith quite separately from me. After I declared in June 1964 I encouraged her to attend a Youth School in Berlin, as I thought it might interest her; there she declared as a Bahá’í. Some years later she would pioneer to Limerick and be part of the greatest period of growth in the history of the Faith in Ireland so far. She and Gillian Phillips were living there when about 120 people, mostly young, came into the Faith very quickly. Sadly there was no support to nurture them, no courses to attend, and many withdrew. Later, Lesley married Adib Taherzadeh, my long-time mentor and subsequently my Counsellor after I was appointed an Auxiliary Board member in 1981.
So, with my speech impediment and my keen interest in searching for ‘The Truth’, I left Campbell College in 1961 and entered Queen’s University, Belfast; by then I was a seeker. Something was impelling me forward in my search. Some philosophy or religion, I felt, was out there which was not just for the few but for the whole of humanity and could help mankind to unite and bring about universal peace.
By June 1963, two years into Medical Studies at Queen’s, and now aged twenty, I wrote my second book. When I say ‘book’, it was basically one bound-copy, called ‘An Individual Philosophy’ by Keith Munro. It was completed in a week or two while staying in a cottage hermit-like in the Mourne Mountains for peace and quiet. The first ‘impression’ (book) was typed in November 1962 and here is the last paragraph:
“Right from the start the veils of illusion are lifted and with the increased directing of energies into useful channels, happiness comes from the beginning. Already after six months I have noticed the great difference with all who are interested. This is why I have written this thesis, though obviously, with passing time, I will have to rewrite it as the philosophy will change with the occurrence of increased awareness and experience.”
By June of 1963 I had met the Faith. In the foreword to the ‘new’ book, now expanded to 97 pages, I wrote:
“Now, progress has been so exciting and experience so increased that I am compelled to rewrite the thesis with many new chapters, elaborations and explanations. This has been prompted by the introduction to some concepts of Yoga and by fellowship with members of the Bahá’í World Faith, both of which have influenced my thinking of late.”
While watching UTV one night in 1962 I had heard an interview with a young Indian girl, Jyoti Munsiff, from England. She spoke of this new religion. While she listed the principles for the interviewer, I was mentally ticking them off in my mind and agreed with all of them. When she named their source and Founder, Bahá’u’lláh, I was suspicious. I had seen how many movements had been led down thorny paths by individuals, deluded, power-hungry or just plain greedy. What clinched it for me was when the interviewer asked her age. She said she was sixteen. I was 20 and not yet ‘sorted’. She was making a lot of sense, quite apart from being a beautiful young lady. That night I attended the Bahá’í Youth Meeting in the International Hotel behind Belfast City hall. Not only did I meet her, I met other young people and adults from the local Bahá’í community. Among them was Lisbeth Greeves who later became my spiritual mentor. Life has never been the same since that fateful night.
Jyoti returned to England and I became involved in the Belfast Bahá’í community as an ardent and annoying inquirer. Apparently I asked a lot of questions. One day about a year later, I told Lisbeth I would have to know absolutely everything about this new Faith before committing myself. She, on her part, smiled sweetly, said nothing, and prayed for me. At that time in 1964 I had laid aside any studies of the Bahá’í Faith in order to focus on 2nd MB exams. Then I took up the faith again and I remember lying sun-bathing alone one afternoon in the back garden of the house at 3 Thornhill Park. I was reading ‘Portals to Freedom’ by Howard Colby Ives. I had come to the story of the Bowery boys in New York and the chocolates that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had sent for when the boys turned up to see Him in His hotel. I saw how He had imparted a profound spiritual lesson on the unity of the human family to a bunch of illiterate boys – without saying a word!
This act of the Master, while He was in America in 1912, penetrated my heart. Any lingering queries about reincarnation and other questions disappeared to the back of my mind. They could be answered later. What came to the fore was the fact that this new Faith, the Bahá’í Faith, was, without a doubt, the latest manifestation of the One religion of the One God. In that moment I saw where Christ, Muhammad, Buddha, Krishna and others all fitted in. The jigsaw was complete. I had arrived in my search.
Now the journey really began, but in the right direction!
I was shaking violently but excitedly from the toes up and began to laugh, deeply, uncontrollably, with tears streaming down my face. I was uttering the words: “It’s true; it’s true; it’s true!” The date was 7th June 1964, three o’clock in the afternoon, and I was a Bahá’í.
As I write this, more than 51 years later, I reflect that the subsequent journey has been long and at times very painful. The blessings that have come from those painful times are profound and everlasting. What continually excites me is that my faith is now broader, deeper and more profound than it was on that day more than five decades ago. Every day I am now ready to leave this world, with joy and excitement and with no fear. Each day is now a bounty and it is awesome to have witnessed the Faith grow in depth and stature world-wide and to have been part of that.
My integration into the life of the Belfast Bahá’í community was rapid. Lisbeth made sure I read and developed spiritually. I met and got to know other spiritual giants of the time such as Charles Macdonald, Jane Villiers-Stuart, Richard (Dick) Backwell, Beman Khosravi and many others. These were the founding fathers and mothers of the Northern Ireland community. Adib Taherzadeh, then living in the south, came into my life at that time and was to play a major role in my spiritual life, as a friend, mentor, inspiration and teacher.
All the Persian lads who arrived in Northern Ireland in the mid and late 1950s had eventually married local lasses. Each in their own time declared their faith, and that group became the very backbone of the NI Community virtually to the present day. In 1966 I was elected to the Spiritual Assembly of Belfast, qualified as a doctor in June 1967, and pioneered to Derry where I began working at Altnagelvin Hospital starting on 1st August.
A number of nurses in the Royal Victoria Hospital, where we trained, became Bahá’ís, amongst them Christine Leatham.
Before pioneering to Derry, I had the experience of meeting Hand of the Cause Mr Samandarí in 1965 at the home of Charles and Yvonne Macdonald. The appreciation of spiritual events in the Faith only falls into perspective as the years pass. I did not fully appreciate the significance of that meeting, but did have the opportunity of giving Mr Samandarí a big hug! Later I was told he was the last one alive to have been in the presence of Bahá’u’lláh.
Once in Belfast, Adib Taherzadeh was coming into a hotel as speaker at a public meeting. It was during the ‘Troubles’ and security doormen were always present to frisk all-comers. Adib, unaware of this ritual, thought that when a man comes forward with his hands outstretched he must be a Bahá’í so he hugged him. Humour and a stumbling explanation defused the situation – and the annals of our Faith had yet another story.
The Derry community
Life as a doctor in Altnagelvin was hyper-busy. A Houseman’s salary for the first year was about £800 and we sometimes worked 120 hours a week! Initially it left little time for establishing the Faith but, over the next few years, some nurses declared and Bahá’ís visited, including a very successful visit from a young film starlet, Linda Marshall, who charmed everyone with her American innocence and her beauty. She went to homes in the Bogside, and many years later, people still spoke of her visit, which had coincided with an exhibition on the Faith held in the Guildhall.
The story of the first native Derry Bahá’í is worth telling.
The National Spiritual Assembly had a teaching-project at the time. The ‘mantra’ was Pray-Search and Travel. In 1968-69 I moved to take up psychiatry and was living in a flat in Gransha Mental Hospital. I was not a patient but a psychiatrist. I prayed and the answer came “get the book back!” I’d lent a book about the Faith to a local Presbyterian Minister – Desmond Shaw. I saw this as guidance and called up to see him on the pretext of asking for it back. During our conversation he said he was going down to the church for the coming of Santa Claus. My inner voice said, “Stick with him!” He was delighted and when I went into the hall the big Santa was already doing ‘her’ stuff. When she had finished I got talking to Santa (aka Carol Strawbridge) and our spiritual conversation resulted in her being very keen to hear more. I had, at that time, the great bounty of owning a copy of the recording of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s voice. I had never played it to someone not yet a Bahá’í but felt impelled to share it with Carol. That was when she declared.
The Derry community developed and reached Assembly status by 1972.
I met Anne, my wife to be, in the National Bahá’í Centre in Rutland Gate in 1971. She was reading quietly in the Parvin room when I appeared in front of her, having been told that she was the voice who recorded Bahá’í books for the Blind Committee. Apparently my first words were, “You’re Anne Thorne! I’m Keith Munro.” We still argue over the tone of my words at the time. However her answer seems to tell the truth. Her first words to me were “So what!” We were married on 7th October 1972. Bob and Margaret Watkins had kindly opened their home to us in Reading so the Bahá’í ceremony took place there, followed by a reception held in their garden. After the civil ceremony in the Town Hall my mother-in-law wondered why Anne went off in one direction to do some late shopping and I went off to a garage to see about something concerning the car! We had to explain that although married in the eyes of the law, we felt that we were not ‘properly’ married until the Bahá’í ceremony had taken place in the afternoon. Towards evening we drove up the M1 to the Railway Hotel, Leeds, for our first night as a married couple. Very romantic!
National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the UK
In 1976 I was suddenly catapulted onto the NSA, together with Ridvan Moqbel and Enayat Rawhani. We were the new boys! It was quite a shock and difficult to settle in with long-serving and experienced members such as Betty Goode, John Long and the great Philip Hainsworth. Others I got to know well were Ted Cardell and Mary Hardy. However the experience during those five years, until Adib, then a Counsellor, invited me to become an Auxiliary Board member, was exciting yet humbling. We were able to take part in the election of the Universal House of Justice in 1978, which included the dedication of the Seat, then only a concrete structure without the magnificent marble outer covering. I will never forget Rúhíyyih Khánum climbing up the temporary steps clasping a silver casket, containing sweepings of the dust from the Shrines of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh, and placing them in a niche above what was to become the Council Chamber for the Universal House of Justice.
Auxiliary Board member
After I became ‘retired’ from the National Assembly in 1981, my work as an Auxiliary Board member in Ireland was very different. Working on an NSA is structured. You convene every month, which in my case meant flying from Belfast, and you read and study all the papers. If you can put in extra visits around the country, that is a bonus. On the other hand, serving as an ABm, i.e. on the appointed arm, is a ‘bottomless pit.’ Adib, my Counsellor, trusted his ABms to get on with the job, which made it worse, not better. My conscience worked overtime feeling that I had never, ever, done enough for the community.
In the mid-1980s I requested to step down for personal reasons and later was appointed an Assistant. Today I am treasurer of the new group in Park, a few miles south east of Derry, which means I will have served on one or other of the Arms of the Administration for 50 years at Ridván 2016. During all those years I could not have done it without the constant support of Anne. We used to call spouses of NSA members ‘forced sacrificers’, as they had not chosen to be elected and had to put up with all the ‘time away’. They were all ‘martyrs’ to the Cause.
Visits to the Bahá’í World Centre
In 1968 I was able to travel with the British contingent to Palermo, Sicily, for the Commemoration of the arrival of Bahá’u’lláh in Akka. That Mediterranean conference was held in a very large agricultural hall only recently finished and able to accommodate the almost 3,000 present. Generally it never rains in August in Sicily but in the midst of a speech by one of the Hands of the Cause a hailstorm hit the corrugated iron roof and was like continuous thunder for two or three minutes. The whole conference came to a stand-still. It was impossible to speak. The Hand stood there till the hail stopped hailing. If my memory serves there was then applause from the audience who seemed to have picked up on the occurrence as a confirmation from God.
We then travelled via Rome to Tel Aviv and on to Haifa where we were the first group to be permitted to ascend the steps in front of the Shrine called the Avenue of the Kings. It was the first time it had been opened to the friends. Then to find oneself sitting with 3000 others, representing the whole human race, under the trees at Bahji precisely at 4 pm on 31st August 1968, is a memory I can never forget. Exactly at the moment when Bahá’u’lláh stepped ashore and was conducted through the sea-gate in Akka with his family, Hand of the Cause Mr Faizi arose, turned to the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh and chanted the Tablet of Visitation. I was riveted to the spot and overcome with the import and emotion of this historic moment. Even the intense heat had declined by 15 degrees, triggering puzzlement from local taxi-drivers. It seemed Baha’u’llah had gifted us with a balmy afternoon.
Later, in 1974, Anne and I went on our first pilgrimage. I remember looking up at the Shrine of the Báb for the very first time in real life with tears in my eyes, saying, “I’ve come home”.
There followed several 3-day visits and then the one with the UK National Assembly in 1978 for the election of the Universal House of Justice.
After our adopted daughter Rebecca came to us at five days old (born 26th March 1974) we enlisted the support of the mother of a school friend of mine to care for her while Anne and I went on our first pilgrimage. We had gone for adoption as it had seemed we could not have children. We continued to attend an infertility clinic and, guess what? Second daughter Sarah was born on 9th June 1975, and is currently serving for a couple of years in the International Teaching Centre Building at the World Centre. Simon, our doctor son, arrived on 16th December 1977 and is now happily married to Lindsay Bentley, a third generation Bahá’í from Atlanta. Their first child, Ayla Maeve Munro, was born on 1st May 2015. Our youngest, Andrew Ross, came along on 16th May 1982. Our first grandchild, Farrah, daughter of Rebecca, was born on 4th August 1995.
General practitioner and forensic medical officer
– my career in Derry from 1967
After my houseman’s year I was accepted as a Senior House Officer in Psychiatry and went to live in Gransha Hospital. The wards were bare and the psychogeriatric wards, at least for the men, stank of urine. The space between adjacent beds was about two feet. I was often responsible for administering ECT (Electroconvulsive therapy). We also looked after the ladies’ psychogeriatric ward. The patients were in limbo, not being aware either of this world or the next. I referred to them as ‘ladies in waiting’.
In 1970 while quietly writing up notes on a patient, suddenly, out of the blue, I had a strong urge to change my job. It was not a voice in my head, though working in a mental hospital that was an option! The urge was persistent and strong. I had had no thoughts of this and wondered how to act on the ‘inner insistence’. A few minutes later a colleague knocked on the door and said “Would you be interested in a job in general practice? Dr Shields is on the phone and looking for a new partner.” I said, “Tell him I’ll take it!” Thus began my 33 years in General Practice and a total change in life-style. What I didn’t know, when I joined Clarendon Medical, was that it was the ‘Police Practice’. My education in forensic medicine consisted of, ‘go and examine prisoners in Victoria Barracks’. Thus began a career as a Police Surgeon lasting 45 years. In the middle of ‘The Troubles’, we changed our name to Forensic Medical Officers (FMOs), to show independence from the Royal Ulster Constabulary. After all we were neither police nor surgeons. The RUC changed their name subsequently to PSNI, the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Throughout the years, I was a target of the IRA and subsequently the Dissident IRA, after the Belfast Peace Agreement.
I was only yards away from the first bomb that was exploded in Derry when a group of Bahá’ís were at the cinema in Strand Road. Next door was the Army Information Centre which was the target. No one was seriously injured but I still jump when approached silently from behind.
One day a gunman tried to hijack my car. When he looked at me more intently he waived me on. At another time gunmen came to the house in Limavady Road, but we think they were looking for money. We were all held up. My brave wife decided the gun pointing at her was not real, lifted the phone in front of her and dialled 999. When they ran off down the road with £80 which I had given them, I hoped they would be caught as I also recognised a voice behind a mask, but they were never apprehended. Anne was driving up the road a hundred yards from our house one day when a massive car-bomb exploded in a side street. Her van was pushed forward by the explosive shock wave, though she did not hear the explosion. When she turned into our driveway she noticed that part of the car had arced 100 yards and smashed the front side-window of the house.
In September 2011 the Real IRA (Dissidents) left a ‘viable device’, as it was called, in the corner of our garden in Ballyrory House, Claudy. It was a bomb but did not explode. Another one planted that same night at the home of a PSNI Officer did explode but he was not injured. The positive response of the public and leaders was massive in their condemnation. The reaction in the press was also enormous and even UTV came to interview me in the front garden. I was able to mention being a Bahá’í as well as a Trustee of the Foyle Hospice. Right throughout The Troubles, targeting a doctor was taboo but these extremists had ignored it. The Northern Ireland Office offered to move us. We politely declined – we had experienced worse during the active Troubles – so they made the house more secure.
Trustee and founding member of the Foyle Hospice
I was Vice-chairman of the Trustees until into the twenty-first century, then chairman for a couple of years. I stood down in September 2013 to take up the unpaid post of Chief Executive Officer. I was, for a while, running a budget of nearly £3 million and overseeing 90 paid staff and 300 volunteers for the 10-bedded unit. Then, unable as I was to continue the pressures of two full-time jobs, the Board agreed in the middle of 2014 to invest in a fully-paid CEO who started work on September 29th 2014. I remember it well as it was my birthday!
I have since reverted to being a Trustee and will always take a keen interest in one of the most worthwhile socio-economic projects the City has ever seen. I will always be proud to have worked with Dr McGinley, who founded the Foyle Hospice. On the opening day in 1991 he had mentioned in his speech that he and I stood looking at the field where we wished to build the hospice, knowing it was owned by the Orange Order. He was an Irish speaking Roman Catholic. How could he approach the Protestant Loyal Orange Order? I said, well, why not go as a Christian. After all it is the same religion. He knew I was a Bahá’í and told the audience, “I said to Keith ‘Are you a Protestant Bahá’í or a Catholic Bahá’í?” In a community riven by strife between two religious communities it was, perhaps, helpful to have a Bahá’í involved. I was also able to share the concepts of consultation and respect for everyone’s point-of-view.
When the children were very young we determined to give them the wonderful experience of Bahá’í summer school as often as possible. Thus began an annual pilgrimage to Waterford and other venues over the next 47 years. Only one or two years were we unable to attend.
Every year we looked forward to hearing a Hand of the Cause speak. It was unusual for one not to turn up, indeed in earlier years we occasionally had two and even three at one time in England. Now they are all gone – but we have the legacy of their lives and in some cases their voices. Indeed in 1968 I began tape-recording (reel-to-reel) each talk at summer schools. Then I began to collect as many talks as possible. Today I have about 210 talks by Hands and other prominent Bahá’ís. When the news got around that I was collecting recordings, others were sent. Currently I have the voices of 14 Hands of the Cause, the earliest being 1953. LearmountPublishing.com was set up many years later with all these recordings and more at the heart of it.
Even before getting married I began to realise that some of the smaller communities, especially those on islands, rarely, if ever had travel teachers coming through. I decided to try and visit as many as possible. I was able to visit, sometimes with members of my family, the Outer and Inner Hebrides, Skye, Mull, and the Orkneys. Later, when the children were quite young I took them to camp on the Shetlands for a month, giving Anne a welcome break. Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales, passed by our tent on their way to open the Sullom Voe Oil Terminal. In later years I was fortunate to visit the Faroe Islands, twice, and Iceland a number of times. The last time was when I travelled there with Sarah. The situation of the rarity of visitors was hammered home to me when visiting Husavik, one of the most Northern communities, and finding that no one had been there since our previous visit some years before. Jane Stephens, a nurse, had pioneered from Scotland and married an Icelander.
The joy of travel teaching was in my blood and I would say to Adib, upon return, “Why don’t more people visit these places?” He looked at me wistfully and said, “They have not tasted it!”
Many are the exciting stories related to those years; one is of travelling on a bus to Eskifjordur, driven by a drunken bus-driver, along winding roads with sheer drops down to fjords. The ‘Remover of difficulties’ was repeated at high speed for the entire trip. Then again, the pilot of the small Icelandair Piper aircraft who seemingly misunderstood me to say that I had a pilot’s licence. I had been referring to my brother. He allowed me to fly the plane all the way from Isafjordur to Akureyeri. He even asked me to land it but I declined, thinking more of the safety of the passengers than my excitement at piloting a plane for the first and probably the last time ever. By the way it was a previous training aircraft bought from England, and had dual controls!
Back in 1976, at the North Atlantic Conference in Reykavik, Iceland’s Great Geysir made an appearance for us when it was not scheduled for the next three years. The Bahá’ís were headline news the next day. “GREAT GEYSIR WORKS for the Bahá’ís.” Our guide that day was a young red-haired student doing a holiday job. She later became President of Iceland. She was the one who had assured us, in no uncertain terms, that the geyser would not work that day.
The Indian connection – my relative, the suffragette
In the 1990s, as a result of a pamphlet that Janak Palta-McGilligan sent from India, a whole new chapter of family history opened up, leading to three trips to India during that decade. My great-aunt Gretta was born Margaret Gillespie in Boyle, Rosscommon, in about 1883. She became an ardent suffragette, and as a Theosophist was invited to live in India by one of the founders of the Theosophical movement, Annie Besant. Gretta, with others, then founded the Women’s Indian Association in Madras, which blossomed quickly into the AIWC (All India Women’s Conference).
She met the famous Bahá’í Mrs Shirin Fozdar (1905-1992) who originally was from India but with her husband, was a pioneer in Singapore from 1950 until her passing. Gretta also met Hand of the Cause Martha Root at a conference on women’s rights and, while on her way back to India, was invited to stay overnight in Haifa in 1932 and there met the young Shoghi Effendi. As a result of all of this, Anne and I toured India three times, the last trip being on the 75th anniversary of the founding of the AIWC.
While in India with Anne I spoke in more than 12 cities about the history of AIWC’s Founder and we tried to act as a catalyst, bringing members of her organisation and Bahá’í ladies together in each city. We were also able on two occasions to visit the Barli Institute for the Development of Rural Women, in Indore, founded by Janak and Jimmy McGilligan (from Northern Ireland). There, girls from the villages are trained in various practical skills. This inspiring Institute comes under the auspices of the National Spiritual Assembly of India.
Family and the future
Our children are now scattered but keep in touch. Rebecca, however, is still living in Londonderry. At 41 she does not enjoy good health, having inherited a neurological condition which greatly restricts her life. However she seems to have inherited the youthful gene, as she looks about half her age. She has had a life-long passion for animals, especially horses and German Shepherd dogs.
Andrew, 33, is in Salford. After qualifying in Sound Engineering and Design with 2nd Class Honours (2013) he is still struggling to find suitable work in his field. Evidence of his skill can be heard/seen by Googling Boy in a Tree, a 12-minute short film, listed for the BAFTAS; Andrew put all the sound onto this very moving little film.
Sarah, as previously mentioned, is now in Haifa. She has been the traveller and pioneer. She spent some six to seven years in China before taking a year in Dublin to hone her skills in directing. She qualified in a Course on Directing from University College Dublin and finished up by directing Othello. Finally I understand Shakespeare!
Anne and I are now part of a new Group of seven in the electoral area of Park, working to establish our first Assembly.
O SON OF BOUNTY!
Out of the wastes of nothingness, with the clay of My command I made thee to appear, and have ordained for thy training every atom in existence and the essence of all created things.
So very many atoms still to look at and investigate.
Then there are the other worlds. Time enough!
Northern Ireland, January 2016