Friday, June 5, 2009

Out of the troubles in Northern Ireland have come stories of tragedy and of triumph, stories that appal and stories that inspire. The world was stirred by Gordon Wilson’s words after his daughter was killed in the horrific bombing in Enniskillen on Remembrance Day in 1987. ‘I bear no ill will,’ he said. It was an act that stirred deeper emotions than hate and revenge. Now as Catholics and Protestants learn to put the past behind them another story is emerging that deserves wider recognition.

It is about a man whom the Dalai Lama has called a friend and a hero because ‘when I talk about forgiveness, he lives it’. The Tibetan Buddhist leader even admits that if he had been put in the same situation he could not say whether he would be forgiving or not.

Richard Moore was lying on the ground in Derry, his nose totally flattened, with eyes torn from their sockets and hanging close to his cheeks, his face a mass of blood; he was unrecognizable. He had been struck at a close range by a rubber bullet shot by a British soldier. The bewildered, frightened 10-year-old boy was calling out, ‘I wasn’t doing anything. I wasn’t doing anything.’ He was just running home from school. It was daytime as he lay but everything around him was dark; he didn’t know then that he was blind. It was 4 May 1972.

Richard’s journey of the last 37 years is a saga of faith and extraordinary achievement. His autobiography Can I Give him My Eyes* has just been published. The title comes from words his father spoke when the doctors broke the news that he would never see again. The book is dedicated to his parents for their deep Catholic faith and courage and example of forgiveness and to his wife and two children for the sacrifices they made to allow him to follow his dreams and hopes. His mother had to contend with the fact that her brother was one of those killed only a few months earlier on Bloody Sunday, leaving eight children and a pregnant wife, and yet Richard never heard either parent say an angry word about the soldier who shot him or the British Army. ‘My parents lived their religious beliefs with quiet dignity and preached them without words. Their belief in a loving God and in particular, the example of Jesus on the Cross, convinced them that forgiveness was the key to inner peace.’

There is not space here to describe the extraordinary life experience that has flowed from his being shot and from his immediate acceptance of his fate and without bitterness. ‘In the circumstances, I readily acknowledge that bitterness was an option, but it was one I chose not to take. I went to sleep and next morning I awoke and got on with life.’ We discover what it took for him to learn to live without eyes, to lead a folk group, to become a licensed radio operator, to gain a university degree, to go on to found a charity, ‘Children in Crossfire’, that has helped millions of children and communities throughout the world over the last thirteen years.

And even more, the extraordinary comments which abound in the book: ‘I have never allowed that experience to make me feel bitter or hamper me in any way’, ‘Blindness is not such a terrible thing.’ ‘No one has a franchise on suffering’. As he describes working with children in a village in Africa for the first time – no running water, no electricity, lots of sickness, hunger and yet meeting smiling faces and a jolly atmosphere, he remembers thinking that if being shot meant that he would have the opportunity to work in this area, then it was all worth it. Even if he were to get his eyesight back ‘it would be nothing in comparison to what I have had’. Royalties from the book will go to ‘Children in Crossfire’.

All through the years there was growing in Richard the feeling that he needed to complete the other half of his story, to meet the man who shot him. After a long and eventually fruitful search, and then careful approaches to ensure the soldier didn’t feel threatened, the contact was made.

Richard has travelled widely but the 45 minute flight to Scotland to meet Charles was for him ‘the longest journey of my life’. The two men talked for almost four hours. ‘I was happy in his company. He understands the hurt that I have come through. Once you humanize a situation like mine it is amazing how all the myths evaporate. I didn’t see him any more as a soldier but rather as a grandfather, a father, and a man who had his own difficulties and traumas.’ Richard now regards 14 January 2006 with almost equal significance to 4 May 1972. He has since stayed in their home with the soldier and his wife.

In 2007 the Dalai Lama visited Richard’s home town. He says that he thought of the many material gifts Richard might have presented him ‘but the greatest gift he could give was to introduce me to the man who blinded him’. At a public occasion the Tibetan leader introduced Richard and Charles on stage and a standing ovation was given them both. The Dalai Lama writes in the book’s foreword, ‘As one of the bedrocks of the Peace Process he is an important example to us all in a world where strife and conflict continue to generate pain and anguish.’ Despite Richard’s loss he has found freedom though forgiveness and set an example for international relations for the entire world: ‘This is non-violence in action.’

‘Blindness I regard as a gift,’ says Richard. ‘I have embraced blindness not treated it as an awful affliction. In many ways I have used it to my advantage. I am involved with the children in Africa as a result. My blindness has made me the man that I am. By forgiving the soldier I am not going to get my eyesight back, but forgiveness can change the future, and that’s what happened in my case.’

On the issue of the future of Northern Ireland, he says, ‘I am more and more certain that the orange and green traditions on our island must embrace. Our future lies in shared respect.’ Another Derry man, Nobel Prize winner John Hume, writes in the preface, ‘Like many people I am deeply grateful for the journey that Richard Moore has taken, beyond injustice and personal disability to the strong, inspiring and immensely fruitful life he lives today. He provides us with a vision of hope and open-heartedness well beyond the culture of fear that led to his injury.’ 

In May 2010 Richard Moore and the British soldier, Charles Innis, visited the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, his home city in Northern India They both spoke at an occasion in a local Tibetan school attended by hundreds of children and adults. The two men were seated on either side of His Holiness who was honouring Richard's work. The Tibetan leader said that future generations would draw inspiration from Richard's spirit of forgiveness and compassion: 'It is my hope that the spirit of forgiveness you have revealed can be passed from generation to generation.' He said that Richard should be considered for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Charles spoke of the horror he felt when he realized that he had blinded a child. 'I was appalled and devastated,' he said, and had deeply grieved ever since after the tragic incident. But the kindness showed to him by Richard and his family had helped him come to terms with what had happened.
Richard, thanking the Dalai Lama for the tributes, said, 'One can take away one's sight but one cannot take away one's vision.'
In June after the publication of the Saville Report on Bloody Sunday Richard emailed me: 'Last Tuesday was an incredible day for our city. I was at the Guildhall with almost everyone else in Derry. I think the families of the dead and injured were so dignified. I didn't think I would ever see something like this in my lifetime. It is a great opportunity now for a real healing process to begin.'

* Hachette Books Ireland