Irish Chaplaincy head Eddie Gilmore’s optimistic view of life
Updated: Apr 14
Irish Chaplaincy was born the same year I was (writes Debbie Thrower) in 1957. It was created in response to the widespread emigration to these shores of Irish men and women taking up jobs in the post-war construction industry and service sector. Those same people are now served by the chaplaincy’s ‘seniors project’. Irish Chaplaincy also has a significant ministry in prisons and to the travellers community.
Eddie Gilmore, CEO of Irish Chaplaincy since 2017, spent 28 years working for L’Arche, the worldwide charity Jean Vanier founded, based on the principle of people with and without disabilities living, working and sharing life together in communities where each person is considered to be of unique and sacred value.
Eddie met his Korean wife Yim Soon when she joined his L’Arche home in Canterbury, and since marrying they have raised their family of three (grown-up children now) in Kent. His recently-published paperback, Looking Ahead with Hope: Stories of humanity, wonder and gratitude in a time of uncertainty (Darton Longman and Todd, 2021), ranges far from his home city, though as he is a keen walker and cyclist charting frequent pilgrimages along well-known paths such as El Camino in northern Spain, his visits to his wife’s home country of South Korea and all sorts of retreats and holidays in the UK and various European destinations. Yim Soon’s home country might seem exotic compared with his roots in Newry and in Galway, but then, ‘Korea is the Ireland of Asia’, we are told.
I was given his book as a ‘thank you’ for joining an Irish Chaplaincy webinar to speak about Anna Chaplaincy in February. It is the section of the book where he describes rewarding encounters with older people in their own homes and prisoners in London (in both men and women’s prisons such as HMP Wormwood Scrubs), which really resonate. Gilmore says:
We reach out to people, especially those most on the margins, seeking to be a small sign of a more just and compassionate society; and knowing that a simple act of friendliness or kindness can touch hearts and change lives.
Nearly always he seems to cross thresholds with a guitar in hand. Characteristically, it is one he happened to be given one day by a complete stranger! It’s a long story…
But suffice to say that he is always making new friends, bumping into friends of friends and describing the most extraordinary coincidences. You rapidly draw the conclusion that some things are meant to be… Gilmore is the sort of person who tries to have, ‘an open heart, so that I might receive with gratitude what is given in each moment, in each day, and in each encounter’.
Before you get the impression he is some kind of guitar-strumming ‘saint’ though, he has an endearing line in self-deprecation; not least when detailing just how many times his Lenten abstinence from alcohol has been broken! There are just so many opportunities to enjoy a glass of something when you are invited to the Irish Embassy, for instance, or there’s a birthday to celebrate, or a friend you meet whom you haven’t seen in ages… and, frankly, ‘it would be rude not to’!
Descriptions of musical interludes in prison chapels or around campfires, with the aroma of ubiquitous cabbage, bacon and potatoes in the air, round roaring camp fires on holidays, at jolly lunch clubs for seniors and special St Patrick’s Day church services at St James’ Piccadilly – which have become something of a tradition thanks to his old friend Canon Lucy Winkett, rector of St James’ – make you yearn to get along one of these days and join in all the fun.
Eddie Gilmore emerges as ‘a glass half-full’ kind of fellow, and his book captures some of the essence of chaplaincy despite writing at a time of national lockdowns and increased isolation and ill-health for so many. Yet, despite everything the last two years has thrown at people, a feisty resilience prevails among young and old which speaks of the human capacity for wonder and happiness undimmed by pandemic or incarceration. One first-time prisoner tells him what being an inmate is really like: ‘It’s like spending 23 hours a day in a bathroom.’
One is left in no doubt that chaplaincy in these spheres, whether by paid Irish Chaplains or their volunteers, is making a key difference to people’s lives.
I leave you with one of the best, for me, of many memorable quotes in this cheering book – this one, apparently, a Chinese proverb:
‘If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a month, get married. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help someone else.’