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Saturday, January 11, 2014

The 'Stubborn Gladness' of Garvin Kerr

by Sarah Matz

Garvin as he recounts his memory of Bloody Sunday
In the late Sunday afternoon of January 30, 1972—just weeks after Garvin Kerr’s 14th birthday—his family received word that several people were violently killed by British solders near the bogside area of ‘Free Derry’. Fear flooded Garvin’s home and permeated throughout his tiny community of Creggan, a predominately Catholic-Nationalist neighborhood in the hills of Derry, Northern Ireland.

Rumors rippled throughout town about who was involved, who was hurt, and what exactly happened following the day’s planned civil rights demonstration. Sadly and unexpectedly, the Kerr family phone rang and tragic news was relayed—a family member was dead as a result of the troubled and fierce exchange. Garvin’s mother sobbed and fell to her knees in prayer. Garvin’s throat swelled as his heart sank and the memory of Bloody Sunday permanently fixed itself in the young man’s soul.

The walls surround Derry, an ancient 17th century city
Today, Garvin is a well-respected and widely known gentleman who spends his days trudging the walls of Derry and introducing tourists to the city. As an official tour guide, he brings 25 years of former Royal Post experience to his job. He knows every street in Derry and tells stories of days gone and hopes for a more peaceful future in Northern Ireland. As he takes visitors through town and recounts its history, he does not shy away from the city’s harrowing past. Instead, he finds ways to weave in tales of better times to give a more complete picture of life during the ‘Troubles’. Garvin, insisting on finding pleasure and wonder in even the darkest moments of the human experience, often says, “If we don’t laugh, we’ll cry.”

The sun sets on the city of Derry
When speaking, Garvin’s words come from the heart. They are full of maturity and almost biblical in scope and wisdom. He says people often ask how he managed to survive the Troubles. Garvin first credits his parents for raising him as well his brothers and sisters from a place of respect for everyone. He adds that when he finds it difficult to understand something, his approach is to go back to basics. “Draw a flat line,” he says, “and work your way back up.” To illustrate his point, he declares, “That sun is going to go down tonight and me or you are not going to stop it. So get up and get on with it. Tomorrow is going to come irrespective of what we do.” He says people must make the best of their lifetime and reiterates his point by saying, “I have to be ready for tomorrow if God gives it to me.”

Through the stories he tells on his Derry city tours, he hopes he leaves visitors feeling life was not all bad during the Troubles. When asked about his favorite memory, Garvin pauses as he mentally sifts through a lifetime of experience and stories. With a soft smile and twinkle in his eye, he affectionately says he loved the excitement of being young and falling in love with his wife, Marie. At age 15, Garvin met young Marie and by age 18, they were married. He says they knew immediately they were right for each other. They were excited to be a young married couple and looked forward to starting a life and family together.
From right: Garvin, Karen, Brendan, Marie, Emmett & Garvin

Today, Garvin and Marie have been married for 37 years and they have three grown children, Karen, Garvin, and Emmett. In his stories he conveys moments of wonder and a sense of extraordinariness about life, and how even in darkness it seems to be worth it, after all. Poet Jack Gilbert once wrote, “We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure, but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.”

Young Garvin sitting on his father's lap
Garvin exemplifies this sentiment and believes in his heart of hearts that love conquers all, especially at life’s bleakest moments. And while the future of Northern Ireland is bright, Garvin knows there is still work to be done. He hopes sharing stories of the good and bad will help pave the way for peace and bliss. “I’m going nowhere,” he says, “I have so many people left in my life to touch and to make happy.”

Even still, people have a hard time understanding Garvin’s love of life in spite of the Troubles. From his perspective those people face a false division. To him, they see the world divided into realists who say the world is terrible, or naïve optimists who say the world is wonderful. Garvin’s approach is somewhere in the middle. He sees the world as terrible and wonderful and his obligation is to joy. 

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