Shadow, service, and community: A weekend at Barretstown

Author: Ryan McNelis

Shadow Service Dublin Story

Ryan McNelis ‘21 currently serves as the campus minister at the Dublin Global Gateway. He writes about his experience abroad in Dublin as an undergraduate and how a call to service led him back to Ireland.

Since studying in Dublin during the fall of my junior year and joining O’Connell House as Campus Minister, I have spent quite a bit of time reckoning with the motto of the Dublin Global Gateway. The Irish language proverb has always been difficult for me to translate or explain – to say nothing of pronouncing it. My language skills are miserable (I was one of the very few students not to come away from our introductory Irish language class with an A during my semester abroad), and the best Google translate can make of the phrase is the clunky, “People live in each other's shadow.” Other members of the staff have often told me that the saying is about authentic community. But even as I have struggled to understand it, the phrase has seemed somehow central to what we try to achieve behind O’Connell House’s blue door. It seems important. Foundational.

This past weekend was the Global Gateway’s “Giving Back to Ireland Service Weekend,” an opportunity for us as Notre Dame to invest back into the place and people that have so generously welcomed us to Ireland. I accompanied twenty Notre Dame students to Barretstown, a charity that gives children facing serious health challenges and their families the chance to attend camps and participate in thoughtfully tailored programming. We knew the general outline of what our weekend of service would entail – we’d be divided into groups of two and three, and each group would accompany a family through their Saturday of Barretstown activities (for most of us, archery, arts and crafts, drama, and the deeply intriguing “superhero training” were on the docket). We received our assignments and the descriptions of our families on Friday night. Some of us began gathering our energy for a day spent with a trio of toddlers, while others wrangled their hands over the prospect of connecting with a teenager over arts and crafts.

On Saturday morning, each group of “cairde” (Irish for friends) walked to the camp’s miniature village of cottages to meet our families. What struck me most was the immediate intimacy of those initial encounters. Children and their parents peered expectantly out of windows as we approached. Doors swung open to reveal kids – some sticking shyly by their parents’ sides, others bundles of friendly energy – wrapped in layers against a typically chilly and damp Irish November day. The eight-year-old boy in my family quickly broke any awkwardness between us and his family with an expertly delivered joke. Around the corner, a younger child wordlessly greeted his cairde with a well-rehearsed dance from his favorite video game. Through a dozen of these little rituals, we were each initiated – at least for a day – into a new family unit.

In many ways, our experience of Saturday was simply spending our day as members of our families. We cheered on parents and kids on the archery range, watched with anxious pride as our new little siblings faced down heights and the unknown on the climbing wall, and donned the most ridiculous costumes we could find as we performed alongside our families in impromptu skits and movies. One mother commented to a student that she would love to adopt her trio of cairde. On Saturday, I think all of us felt a deep sense of gratitude at being welcomed, even for a day, into an adoptive family.

Sunday morning found us gathered in front of the castle at the center of Barretstown to send the families off. As music blared, we received careful instructions to dance and wave until each car was out of sight (one camp staffer gave the helpful tip to alternate which hand we waved with, a preventative measure against fatigue). One student pensively remarked on his surprise that the kids from every family waved right back until each car turned around the bend out of camp and the sound of parents zealously laying on their horns had faded.

As we tidied up the now-quiet camp and prepared to return to Dublin, we pieced together stories of our families. In many ways, nothing dramatic or unexpected had taken place. But something did seem different in our group. In some strange way, each of us seemed more like ourselves.

Is ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine.

We spent Saturday living in each other’s shadows. Our experience of Barretstown revolved around each of us being welcomed into the most intimate of communities – a family – and being invited to offer as much of ourselves as possible in return. What is incredible about a Barretstown camp is that every aspect of an individual person is welcome in the community. Every person casts a shadow, and each of us carries some amount of darkness. At Barretstown, the particular shadows of illness and sorrow are never ignored. Instead, those areas of darkness are the very spaces others are invited into.

A student shared a story about working on a craft alongside a child who was in a wheelchair, with very limited motor function. He tentatively asked if he could serve as the child’s hands for the craft. Under his careful instruction, he painted a soccer jersey with the child’s name on the back. Leaving the camp on Sunday morning, he shared that he had been worried about drawing attention to the fact that the child wasn’t able to participate in the craft in the same way as the rest of his family. In a way he was right – his two brothers did notice the cara painting the jersey. They both asked him to paint jerseys for them too, just like their brother’s.

That cara’s story is the best explanation I have ever received of what the Irish proverb painted in the hallway of O’Connell House might mean. Authentic community is the place where we are welcome to offer our whole selves – shadows and all. Here, we can become familiar with – and even befriend – our shadows because of the friends who are willing to live in our darkness with us.