I was born a war-child at 7.20pm in Johnson House Maternity home in the industrial city of Belfast. Hitler’s Luftwaffe had bombed Harland & Wolf’s shipyards a couple of years before, and mum told of how she sat under the dining room table during air-raids although living 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 also there. Peter, my younger brother, was born later in ‘46.
Post-war life at 3 Thornhill Park in East Belfast was in the middle of the main Protestant area of the city. I doubt I met a Catholic till I was nearing my teens.
The clan name Munro, which in Gaelic is Rothach or Mac an Rothaich, means Ro – Man or Man from Ro, and supports the traditional origin of the clan in the region of the River Roe. This is particularly interesting as the other side of the family – William D Cousins (grandad) lived in Limavady situated on the river Roe in the County of Londonderry, 16 miles from where we now live.
A series of professors of anatomy at Edinburgh University by the name of Munro, may have received ‘fresh’ bodies for dissection from the notorious grave-robbers Burke & Hare who were found to be relieving their victims of ‘life’ before they died naturally, while also robbing freshly dug graves.
Many mountains in Scotland are called Munros! Due to his keen interest in climbing, Sir Hugh Munro, 4th Baronet (1856–1919) drew up a list of 282 mountains over 3000ft, and they were subsequently called Munros. I have climbed one – Ben Nevis.
My family was a symbiosis of Scottish Celtic and Irish Huguenot stock – a double injection of Celtic genes.
My grandfather, on Dad’s side, was a coal-miner in Fife. His life was hard resulting in severe chest problems from the coal-dust, relieved only by drinking. My aunt Janet raised the family when their mother died, probably in childbirth with the 10th child. Janet was a teacher, and taught the whole primary set, from P-1 to P-7. She taught alone, with little or no assistance. She raised the family acting as both mother and surrogate father. Charles (Dad), born 1903, did well at school and won a dux medal (dux: means leader). He was articled to an architect in Leven in April 1919 and transferred to Edinburgh in 1927. In June 1929 he moved to Belfast where he took up an appointment as chief assistant to the Government Architect of Northern Ireland. After 40 years he retired as Chief Architect, in November 1968. While in Scotland he met and married his first wife, who died with puerperal sepsis after delivering Donald, my elder half-brother by some years. Dad met Marion Cousins in Northern Ireland during the mid-1930s. For his life-long services to architecture he was invested by the Queen with the Imperial Service Order, awarded for long and meritorious service. He was also awarded an honorary MSc in 1969 from Queen’s University, Belfast, which was my Alma Mater.
My mother, Marie, as my father called her, was the only child of William D. and Elizabeth Cousins, living in Limavady. Vegetarianism and Theosophy were the life-styles that joined these two families. Aunt Janet was involved in the Theosophical Movement in Scotland and Dad and she were both vegetarians. Grandad Cousins had gone into a slaughter house in 1900 and, appalled by the noise and smell of the blood, became an ardent vegetarian often speaking of those ‘creophagists’, [those who use flesh for sustenance]. My father suffered similar horrors which changed his life-style.
The merging of these two families resulted in me not eating fish, flesh nor fowl for the first 25 years of my life. We were not just lacto-vegetarians we were organic. Most of our veggies came from our own allotment. Being brought up in east Belfast in the 1950s was as idyllic as one could be at the time. No central heating, no TV till 1953, no computers or mobile phones. What you don’t know you don’t miss. Our first car was an Austin 7 often needing cranked with a starting handle. Mum looked after her boys and there were always home-cooked meals on the table of wholesome organic food. Shirts were ironed and she was a reliable and dutiful house-wife of the ‘50s, never ‘going out to work’ or learning to drive. Cabin Hill, my preparatory school for Campbell College, was only 200 yards away from my bedroom and it was just possible to hear the 8.55am bell ringing for assembly and make it on time by nine o’clock.
Mum went mostly to Knock Presbyterian Church on Sundays. Although her father became President of the Theosophical Society in Northern Ireland she did not seem to have the same interest. Dad on the other hand was well immersed but then became more interested in the teachings of Krishnamurti – whose individual approach, freed of all administration, organisation and rituals, became quite attractive to a young seeker as I had become by then.
Grounded in Presbyterian Sunday School and attending Church weekly I was thankful to learn the basics of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Meantime I was reading about the Masters of wisdom living re-incarnated lives in the Himalayas. I also read about Catholicism (22 weeks of plain-brown envelopes – no questions asked!), Zen Buddhism, Rosicrucianism as well as Theosophy. Even the Scientologists tried to get Dad to join their ranks. Something he managed to resist.
Along the way God gave me a gift. This was a very painful one but, like most spiritual gifts. This gift has served me well ever since. My childhood, growing up in Belfast close to my schools was pretty good. Then suddenly over a few months I was hit with two traumatic events which profoundly affected me and left traces up to the present day. I was playing with a friend, David Wilkinson, on a building site near to his house on Castlehill Road. I was then about seven or eight years old. The grumpy old watchman did not appear to like children invading his patch. 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 and grabbed David. He quickly upended him, holding him by his ankles over the well. He was screaming and shouting. I was powerless to act and froze in fright. After what seemed an eternity he replaced him upright, kicked him firmly in the bottom, shouted that he would see our parents, then chased us off the building site. We ran home and hid under a table. For days I kept looking out of the window. He never came.
A few weeks later, while my mother was in a shoemakers in Cherryvalley, I was outside playing when I decided to run across the road to look at a small river. I did not obey the highway-code. A car screeched to a halt and tumbled me over, so that I rolled along the road. I was shocked but was not physically injured. The driver had the bigger shock. Mother was relieved but annoyed.
Within weeks I developed a stammer which lasted till my mid-twenties. As a result I was bullied at school. Nobody likes a stutterer. I was laughed at. I wanted to read poetry or act in plays – but couldn’t. I developed an inferiority complex, now called ‘low self-esteem’ and a bit of PTSD. I was labelled a ‘goodie-goodie’, never doing anything wrong. Mind you the results of doing ‘wrong things’ in the past had not had positive results! Add to this mix, falling off a gym-horse in a forbidden area in my pre-Primary school, and breaking my left arm, and taking my young brother up our park on the back of my fairy cycle which resulted in physical chastisement by mother – all of these events had firmly ingrained in the psyche – don’t disobey the rules! The other emotion laid down was you are inferior to other boys.
Eventually, when the stammer subsided, my vocabulary was greater than the average and my dream, although scary, was to be interviewed live on TV. That dream was fulfilled decades later after doing local broadcasting for the BBC in Derry. This was followed years later by a 30 minute documentary made for UTV on the influence of my Faith on my work as a GP. God gave me a second gift of communication with people and audiences as well as a life-long love of the English language. As a bonus he made me obey the Law at all times and play by the rules. Little did I know that this applied to Baha’i Law as well – which I’d never heard of – yet.
I moved from Cabin Hill Prep in 1957 to Campbell College. I qualified in three A-levels by 1961 and entered Queens University Belfast to study Medicine. By now I had become a seeker for Truth but still agnostic. Something was impelling me forwards in my search. My Presbyterian Minister had paled when I asked why I couldn’t become a Catholic, after all it was the same religion. He had no satisfactory answer.
By June 1963, now two years into Medical Studies and aged 20 years, I wrote my second book. When I say ‘book’ it was basically one single bound copy which I now have lying on the desk in front of me. It was called ‘An Individual Philosophy’ by Keith Munro. It was completed in a week while staying alone in a cottage, hermit-like, in the Mourne Mountains – for peace and quiet. The first ‘impression’ was penned in November 1962 and this new one had been expanded to 97 pages! It is worth quoting from 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 Baha’i Faith. In the forward to the ‘new’ book 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 Baha’i World Faith, both of which have influenced my thinking of late.”
While watching UTV one night I had seen an interview with a young Indian girl called Jyoti Munsiff. She spoke of this new religion. While she listed the principles of this new World Faith I was mentally ticking them in my mind and agreed with all of them. When she named their source and Founder, Baha’u’llah, I was suspicious. I had seen many movements led down thorny paths by self-seeking, greedy individuals, or just deluded. What clinched it was the fact the interviewer asked what age she was. She said “I’m 16 years old.” Now – I was 20 and not ‘sorted’. She was sixteen and making a lot of sense, quite apart from being a beautiful young lady. I attended the Baha’i Youth Meeting that night. Not only did I meet her, I met other young people and adults from the local Baha’i community. Among them was Lisbeth Greeves who later became my first spiritual mentor. Little did I realise, I was reaching the end of my search.
Jyoti returned to England and I became involved in the Belfast community as an ardent inquirer. Apparently I asked a lot of questions! I said to Lisbeth one day, about a year later that I would have to know absolutely everything about this new Faith before committing myself. She, on her part, smiled sweetly, said nothing, but prayed for me. At that time in 1964 I had laid aside any studies of the Baha’i Faith in order to focus on 2nd MB exams. After the exams I took up my investigation again and was lying sun-bathing, alone, in the back garden of 3 Thornhill Park, reading ‘Portals to Freedom’ by Howard Colby Ives. I had reached the story of the street-boys in New York. Abdu’l-Baha had sent for a very large box of chocolates, after many of the urchins turned up to see Him at His hotel. I noted with amazement how He imparted a profound spiritual lesson about the oneness of the human family to a bunch of illiterate boys – without saying a word! He had spied one little black boy on the periphery of the bunch. He brought him up and picked out the blackest chocolate in the box. He then placed it against the little black cheek, looking around the white boys as He did so. They all made the connection. Black chocolate – NICE! Little black boy – also NICE! This act of the Master, while He was in America in 1912, penetrated my heart. Any lingering queries about reincarnation and other matters went to the back of my mind. What came to the fore was the fact that this new Faith, the Baha’i Faith, was, without a doubt, the latest manifestation of the One religion created by 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. My search was over. Now the journey could really began, but in the right direction and on firm ground.
I was shaking violently with excitement from the toes up. Then I 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!” This was 7th June 1964. It was three o’clock in the afternoon and I was a Baha’i! In the true sense of the word I was converted to the Baha’i Faith. And by a very special Man, ‘Abdu’l-Baha, who had passed away 43 years previous.
As I write this, more than 52 years later, I reflect that the journey has been long and very painful at times. The blessings that have come from those painful times are profound and everlasting. What excites me is that my faith today is much deeper than it was on that day more than five decades ago. I am now ready to leave this world with joy and excitement and no fear. Each day is a bounty and it is awesome to have witnessed the latest manifestation of God’s One Faith growing out of all recognition bringing hope and assurance for the long-term future of the human race.
Integration into the Belfast Baha’i community was rapid. Lisbeth made sure I read and developed spiritually. I met and got to know other spiritual giants of that time such as Charles Macdonald, Jane Villiers-Stuart, Richard (Dick) Backwell, Behnam Khosravi and many others. These were the founding fathers/mothers of the Northern Ireland community. Adib Taherzadeh, living in Dublin since 1950, entered my life at that time and was to play a major role in my spiritual life, as friend, mentor and teacher. Even closer ties were to emerge when I was one of the first to introduce the Faith to Lesley Gibson in Belfast. She initially seemed lukewarm, but saw a picture of ‘Abdu’l-Baha in a window in Bristol. Finally she declared her belief at a Youth School in Berlin. While still at school she and I, with others, set up E.B.Y.P.A.G which, for all we know is still running today! That stood for the East Belfast Young Peoples’ Aid Group. We helped people with ‘things’, mainly old people with gardens and shopping and so on. I suppose today we would call it social welfare. Many years later Lesley pioneered to Limerick with Gillian Phillips from Wales. Those two became the centre of a sudden mass entry of some 120 new Baha’is. Also during that period Lesley met and later married Adib Taherzadeh.
All the Persian lads – Behnam, Rustam, Qudrat & Hushang – who arrived in Northern Ireland in the mid and late 1950’s had eventually married local lasses. Each, in their own time, declared their faith and that group became the very backbone of the NI Community. A number of nurses in the Royal Victoria Hospital, where Beman, Rustam and myself trained, became Baha’is, amongst them Christine Leatham. She subsequently declared her faith to Thelma Batchelor while on a boat together in 1965.
By 1966 I was elected to the local Assembly of Belfast. That membership was cut-short when I pioneered to Derry having qualified in June 1967. I had been offered a place in Altnagelvin Hospital starting on 1st August.
Before pioneering to Derry, where Ethel De Coster had moved in 1965 together with her husband Richard, I had the experience of meeting Hand of the Cause Mr Samandari in the same year at the home of Charles and Yvonne Macdonald at 3 Mount Charles.
The appreciation of special events in our spiritual journey in this world only falls into perspective as the years pass. I did not fully appreciate it at the time. Only later was I told that he was the last one alive to have been in the presence of Baha’u’llah.
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. However, over the next few years, a few nurses entered the Faith and Baha’is visited including a very successful visit from a young American film starlet – Linda Marshall – who charmed everyone with her American innocence and beauty. She visited homes in the Bogside and, many years later, people still spoke of that visit, which had coincided with an exhibition on the Faith held in the Guildhall.
The story of the first native Derry Baha’i is worth telling.
The National Assembly had a teaching-project at the time. The ‘mantra’ was Pray-Search &Travel. I was living in a flat in Gransha Mental Hospital, not as a patient but as a psychiatrist in 1968-9. I prayed and the answer came “get the book back!” I’d lent a book on the Faith to a local Presbyterian Minister – Desmond Shaw. I saw this as guidance and called him on the pretext of asking for it back. During our conversation he said he was going 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’d finished I got talking to Santa (aka: Carol Strawbridge) and our spiritual conversation resulted in her being very keen to hear more. Suffice to say that some weeks later she declared and became a very active member of the community. Later she married a British soldier, Steve Wierzbicki and they eventually moved to Wales where they still reside. At that time I had in my possession a recording of Abdu’l-Baha’s voice. I had never played it to anyone, but felt impelled to share it with Carole. That was when she declared her Faith. The Derry community developed and reached Assembly status by 1972.
The Palin family joined us from Scotland in the late 70s. Many others have come and gone. Numbers have fallen since the split into Londonderry & Park communities further to electoral boundary changes.
I met Anne, my wife to be, in the National Baha’i Centre in Rutland Gate in ’71 and we were married in the home of Bob and Margaret Watkins in Reading on October 7th 1972, before driving up the M1 to the Railway Hotel Leeds for our first night as a married couple. Very romantic! Our meeting prior to marriage was somewhat unusual. Anne had just returned from three months in Jersey and was exhausted. 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 Baha’i books for the Blind Committee. I had heard her previously and liked it a lot. 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!”
National Assembly of the UK, Auxiliary Board work and visits to the Bahá’í World Centre
At the National Convention of the UK in 1976 I was suddenly catapulted onto the National Assembly together with Ridvan Moqbel and Enayat Rawhani. We were the new boys on the ‘block’! It was quite a shock and difficult to settle-in with such long-serving and experienced members such as Betty Goode, John Long and Philip Hainsworth. Others I got to know well were Ted Cardell, Joe Foster, Barbara Lewis and Mary Hardy. This National Assembly took part in the election of the House of Justice in 1978, which included the dedication of the Seat, then only a concrete structure without its magnificent marble skin. I will never forget Amatu’l-Baha Ruhiyyih Khanum climbing up the temporary steps clasping a silver casket, containing sweepings of the dust from the Shrines of the Bab and Baha’u’llah, and placing it in a niche above what was to become the Council Chamber for the Universal House of Justice.
Auxiliary Board member
Into the 1980s and Counsellor Adib Taherzadeh invited me to serve as an Auxiliary Board member. Once ‘retired’ from the National Assembly my work as a Board member in Ireland was very different. Working on a National Assembly is structured. Serving for the Appointed Arm is a ‘bottomless pit.’ Adib, my Counsellor, trusted his ABms to get on with the job. This made it worse not better. Ones’ conscience worked over-time feeling that I had never, ever, done enough for the community – which indeed of course one hadn’t.
Then, in the mid-1980s I requested to step down for personal reasons. Today, for my sins, I’m treasurer of the new Group in Park. This means I have been on one or other Arms of the administration for 50 years.
During all those years I could not have served without the constant support of Anne. We used to call spouses of NSA members – ‘enforced sacrificers’ as they had not been elected or chosen and had to put up with the many absences from the family. They were all ‘martyrs’ to the Cause.
Visits to the Bahá’í World Centre
The bounties of visiting the World Centre became legion over the years.
In 1968 I was able to travel with the British contingent to Palermo for the Commemoration of the arrival of Baha’u’llah in Akka. That Mediterranean conference was held in a very large agricultural hall and able to accommodate the almost 3000 delegates. 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.
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 humanity, under the trees at Bahji precisely at 4pm on 31st August 1968, is a memory that cannot ever be forgotten. Exactly at the moment when Baha’u’llah stepped ashore and He and His family were conducted through the sea-gate in Akka, Hand of the Cause Mr Faizi arose and turned to the Shrine and chanted the Tablet of Visitation. I was riveted to the spot and overcome with the import and emotion of this deeply historic moment. Even the temperature had fallen by 15 degrees and was more bearable for that time of year.
In 1974 Anne and I went on our first pilgrimage.
There followed several 3-day visits and then coming with the National Assembly in 1978 for the election of the House of Justice.
Another pilgrimage came in the early 1990s followed by several more 3-day visits. One of them turned into a 5-day visit! Anne and I decide to do the three-country-cruise starting from Cyprus. We sailed to Egypt and stayed a few days before heading for Haifa. On cruise ship from Egypt I became quite ill with the Cairo-Belly! Anne sent for the Egyptian doctor who had worked for a time in Northern Ireland. He said that I should not travel to Jerusalem with the Tour but must stay in Haifa. Once we landed the Tour Bus drove off to Jerusalem. We rang Lesley, who had kindly invited us to stay. When Adib learned of our predicament the 3-day visit was extended to a 5-day visit with permission from the House. Surprise, surprise the tummy-bug cleared rapidly.
General Practitioner and Forensic Medical Officer
After my medical Houseman’s year in 1967 I was accepted as a Senior House Officer in Psychiatry and went to live in Gransha Psychiatric Hospital. The wards were bare and the psycho-geriatric wards, at least for the men, stank of urine. There was about 2ft between the beds. I was often responsible for administering the ECT on Saturday morning. That was placing pads over the sides of the head and releasing an electric shock causing an artificial epileptic convulsion to the patient. Strangely it did help some patients and is still used in highly selected cases. We looked after the ladies psychogeriatric ward as well. The patients were in limbo, not aware either of this world or the next. I referred to them as ‘my ladies in waiting’.
Then in 1970, while quietly writing up notes on a patient, I suddenly out-of-the-blue, had a strong urge to change my job. It was not a voice in my head, though working in a mental hospital this was always an option! The urge was persistent and strong. I had had no thoughts if this and wondered how to act on the ‘inner insistence’. A colleague of mine knocked on the door a few minutes later 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 33 years in General Practice and a total change in life-style. What I didn’t know, when I joined Clarendon Medical, was that this Practice 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 46 years so far. In the middle of the ‘Troubles’, as they were called, our name was changed 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 we were all legitimate targets for the IRA.
I was only yards away from the first bomb that was exploded in Derry when a group of Baha’is 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 pointed a gun in the window of the car I had to remind him that I was his doctor! Having glanced at me more intently – he waived me on. At another time a gunman came to the house at 13 Limavady Road – but we think he was looking for money. We were all held up. My brave wife decided it wasn’t a real gun pointing at her and lifted the phone and rang 999. When they ran off down the road with £80 I hoped they would catch them as I also recognised the voice behind the mask. They were never caught. Anne was coming up the road a hundred yards from our house one day when a massive car-bomb exploded in a side street killing two people. Her van was surged forward by the explosive shock wave though she did not actually hear the explosion. When she turned into our driveway she noticed that part of the car had arched 100 yards and smashed our front side-window.
Then in September 2011, long after the Belfast Agreement, the Real IRA (Dissidents) left a ‘viable package’ in the corner of our garden beyond Claudy where we had moved to. It was a bomb but didn’t explode. Another planted that night at the home of a PSNI Officer did explode, but he was away at the time. The positive response of the public and leaders was massive in their condemnation. The reaction in the Press was also massive and even UTV came to interview us in the front garden. I mentioned being a Baha’i as well as a Trustee of the Foyle Hospice. Targeting a doctor was taboo right throughout the Troubles. Now these extremists decided it wasn’t! The Northern Ireland Office offered to move us. We politely declined. So they offered to make the house more secure. Now – we have bullet-proof front and back doors, a safe room as well as ten cameras around the house. The only alerts we have on a regular basis are when Molly, our three-legged cat, comes home!
Trustee and founding member of the Foyle Hospice
While a houseman in 1967 I was appalled by the lack of treatment for terminally ill patients. One day, while doing a round with my surgical Consultant I heard him say “We don’t need to see that man. He’s dying of cancer and there’s nothing we can do for him!” This stayed with me and during the next decade or so I looked after many dying patients unable to fully ease their last days. Then in the early 1980s I joined forces with Dr Tom McGinley who had already started raising money to begin a home-care service for the terminally ill. This speciality then became known as palliative care. The history of the formation and running of the Foyle Hospice is recorded in my book Building Bridges published in 2009.
I was Vice-Chairman of the Trustees till well into the 21st century then Chairman for a couple of years. I then stood down to take up the unpaid post of Chief Executive Officer. I was, for a while, running a budget of £2.8 million and overseeing 80 paid staff and 300 volunteers for the 10-bedded unit. Then, unable to continue the pressures of two full-time jobs, the Board agreed to invest in a fully-paid CEO who started work on September 29th 2014 (on my birthday!). I reverted to being a Trustee and will always take a keen interest in one of the most worthwhile social-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 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 Baha’i and told the audience, “I asked Keith was he a Protestant Baha’i or a Catholic Baha’i (laughter).”
When the children were very young we determined to give them the wonderful experience of Summer School as often as possible. Thus began an annual pilgrimage to Waterford and other venues over many decades. Within a year of marriage we attended summer school at Carbisdale Castle in Scotland.
Every year we looked forward to hearing a Hand of the Cause speak. It was unusual for one not to turn up. Pre-1970 we occasionally had two and even three Hands at one school in England. Now they are all gone. In 1968 I began recording (reel-to-reel) each talk at summer schools. Then I began to collect as many talks as possible. Today there is a collection of some 210 talks by Hands and other prominent Baha’is. Currently I have the voices of 20 Hands of the Cause, the earliest being 1932, the voice of Martha Root. Eventually LearmountPublishing.com was set up. Apart from CDs of talks Learmount Publishing had its first book published and launched in 2008 in the Edinburgh Baha’i Centre. On Wings of Joy was the record of Lou Turner’s international travels and fulfilled a long-cherished dream. Lou, who was quite ill at the time of writing and publishing the book, lived until just before midnight on Friday 10th January 2014 when she took her flight to her Beloved.
Years before getting married I began to realise that some of the smaller communities, especially those on islands, rarely, if ever had visits from travel teachers. I decided to try and visit as many as possible. Thus began a period in which I was able to visit, sometimes with members of my family, the Outer and Inner Hebrides, Skye, Mull, the Orkneys. We even camped on the Shetlands for a month when the children were small. In later years I was fortunate to visit the Faroe Islands, twice, and Iceland a number of times. The last time, our daughter Sarah and I travelled to Iceland in 2004. The situation of ‘seldom visitors’ was hammered home to me while visiting Husavik, one of the most Northern communities in Iceland, and realising that no one had visited since my previous visit several years before. Jane Stephens, a nurse, had pioneered there from Scotland and married an Icelander.
The joy of travel teaching was in my blood and I would say to Adib “Why do more people not visit these places?” He looked at me wistfully and said, “They have not tasted it!”
Many are the exciting stories that occurred during those years. Travelling on a bus to Eskifjordur, driven by a drunken bus-driver, along windy roads with sheer drops down fjords. Removers of Difficulties repeated at a high speed for the entire trip. Then again, the pilot of the small Icelandair Piper aircraft who seemingly misunderstood that I had a pilots-licence and not my brother. He allowed me to fly the plane all the way from Isafjordur to Akureyeri.
Back in 1976, at the North Atlantic Conference in Reykavik the great geyser worked for us when it was not scheduled for the next three years or so. The Baha’is were headline news the next day. “GREAT GEYSER WORKS for the Baha’is.” 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 assured us, in no uncertain terms, that the geyser would not work that day.
The Indian Connection – Great Aunt Gretta, the Suffragette
In the 1990s, as a result of a pamphlet that Janak Palta-Magilligan sent from India, a whole new chapter of family history opened up. This led Anne & myself on three trips to India during that decade. My great-aunt Gretta was born Margaret Gillespie in Boyle in Roscommon around 1883. She met and married James Cousins in Dublin in 1905. He was my grandad’s only brother. He was quite a famous Irish Poet, a contemporary and friend of William Yeats. She became an ardent and somewhat militant suffragette and founded, with a few others, THE WOMEN’S IRISH FRANCHISE LEAGUE in 1910. She spent three periods in prison for damaging public property. She was invited to live in India in 1915 by one of the Founders of the Theosophical Movement, Annie Besant. Gretta, with others, founded the Women’s Indian Association in Madras which blossomed quickly into the All India Women’s Conference. They managed to secure votes-for-women in every State of India by 1929. She herself died in 1954 but the AIWC still thrives today throughout India. She was honoured by becoming the first Woman Magistrate in India. Both she & her husband knew Mohandas Ghandi. Indeed she visited him in the Yerwada Jail in Pune and also supported his wife on the beach in Madras where she held a very large rally.
She met the famous Shirin Fozdar, as well as 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. She stayed in ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s house and next morning met ‘the young Shoghi Effendi.”
Our last visit to India was for the 75th Anniversary of the founding of the AIWC in 2001. While on our Indian Trips Anne and I always tried to act as a catalyst, bringing members of the AIWC organisation and Baha’i ladies together in each city. We were also able twice to visit the Barli Institute in Indore, founded by Janak & Jimmy Magilligan. 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.
The trips in India were not without incident. I asked a stewardess in Lucknow airport why they had been late arriving to be offered an apology and the explanation that they could not get the door closed! At the same time I asked what those men were doing at the front of the aircraft to be told they were fixing a puncture. The scariest incident was prior to take-off in Indore when it was announced that we would not be stopping in Bhopal as we were late and would fly direct to Delhi. This did not suit the 30 passengers who were from Bhopal. They rushed the cockpit and for a moment it looked as though they would high-jack the plane until promised free trips.
Family and the Future
There is still much to be done before moving to other worlds.
There are many ‘waiting souls’ to be discovered, willing to serve the future of the human race and raised its spiritual capacity.
Our children are now scattered.
Rebecca, our adopted first child, is still living in Londonderry. Although stunningly beautiful at 42 she does not keep well, having inherited a neurological condition from her genetic parents.
Farrah our first grandchild, now 21, is about to graduate from university in Salford, where she is studying Art & Design. Her good friend Stefan (pictured here with Farrah) is also at Uni, doing computer studies.
Simon and Lindsay (4th generation Bahá’í from Atlanta) live in Black Mountain, North Carolina. Si, as he affectionately called, met Linds, as she is affectionately called, “when their eyes met across a crowded room” in Ireland.
Ayla Maeve is now eighteen months old and baby Shepherd (Shep) was born in January 2017.
Andrew is also in Salford, qualified in Sound Engineering and Design 2nd Class Honours (2013) but finding it difficult to get work suitable to his talents. Evidence of his great skills can be seen by googling Boy in a Tree.
Sarah was always the traveller and spent some six to seven years in China before taking a year in Dublin to hone her skills in Directing Plays. She qualified from UCD and finished by directing Othello. At last I understand Shakespeare! She is now serving in the World Centre for two and a half years in the International Teaching Centre. She is currently training to become a Pilgrim Guide.
Anne & I – well – we are now part of a new Baha’i Group of seven in the electoral ward of Park, outside Londonderry, and 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 many, many atoms still to study as well as the essence.
After that there are the many, many other worlds.
Ready – when called!