February 24, 2017
Helen Kelly gave a different kind of talk at the launch of the People4Soil campaign. Speaking about healing, wellness, and her childhood in Donegal, Helen shared her story about recovery from cancer and the deep rooted cultural connection the Irish people have to the soil.Sign the People4Soil petition here
She spoke about remembering, and belonging to the land, walking barefoot and ways of reconnecting to the earth. Far removed from talk about chemical processes, EPA studies and carbon sequestration, Helen spoke from the heart about rediscovering a kind of spiritual connection to the soil.
The memory, of a more direct relationship to the land and to the soil, came back to Helen in a retreat some 18 or 19 years ago in Galway. During the retreat Helen and her peers, all recovering from life-threatening illnesses, began by engaging with the soil. Every morning they would go out into the gardens and fields and pick the food they would cook and eat that day. Late in May one day, during fine weather Helen began walking barefoot in the gardens. She had an epiphany, a feeling of being reconnected to the earth again, and she knew that rediscovering a direct connection to the earth was her healing, and that she was on the road to a full recovery.
In my childhood I played in the fields, and I ran barefoot, and I loved the sand, and I jumped into the ocean, I was a part of the earth in my childhood but I had disengaged from that, not knowingly, not willingly, and not consciously, but life had moved.
(…) I forgot… well I didn’t forget, I just didn’t remember… but in Galway I remembered.
Helen spoke about losing touch with the land in her training to become a nun. In her training as a nun Helen’s relationship to ‘the eternal’ became a straight line up, it was academics and theology. Her life was intellectual and she disengaged from the land and the joy it brought her in her childhood years. The visceral relationship to the soil, the feeling of being part of the earth came back to her barefoot, in a garden, in late spring, in Galway.
She described the moment vividly:
I felt the earth, not just beneath my feet, I felt the soil move through my veins, and at that point I knew, for sure, that my real healing had begun and that I was moving through it. That was wonderful.
Helen’s talk felt a lot like a guided meditation, the silence in the auditorium during pauses was palpable. Clearly the story struck a chord with people, resonating with a old-fashioned way of living off the land that is very deeply rooted in the Irish spirit or what we might describe as the Irish soul. New Age isn’t so new in the Irish context, Irish people have been living ‘sustainably’ off the land for centuries and even if the mostly Dublin-based audience didn’t necessarily grow up like Helen did, ‘To School through the Fields’ their grandparents or great grandparents probably did. This reference to Alice Taylor’s iconic memoir is very apt, here. First published in 1989, Taylor’s memoir of growing up in the heart of rural Ireland struck a chord and her first radio interview and television appearance in that same year set audience ratings records for RTE. Reading through the memoir in an ebook form I searched it for the term ‘soil’ and found one result – a brief and simple poem called ‘Earth Woman’
She was as real
As the dark brown
Band of tiered turf
With the promise
Of warmer days.
She was as solid
As a great oak,
The winds that blow.
She was as strong
As the hard rocks
That weather the
Her core had
The luxuriant glow
Of the black, rich,
Quoted from ‘To School through the Fields’ by Alice Taylor
The poem was inspired by Mrs. Casey who lived “two fields away” from Alice Taylor as a child. She embodies the richness of the rural Irish people which unlike urbane elites, see soil not as ‘dirt’ but earth, the giving, living skin of the earth, and the people that tend to it not as ‘dirt poor’ but rich, glowing, sensuous people. In short the Irish soul.