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'The health service fixes people, the arts are about healing them'

By Bernie Mullan

Published 22/12/2015

Book lover: Marian Cinnamond has a passion for the written word
Book lover: Marian Cinnamond has a passion for the written word
Close family: Marian and Jo with their children (from left) John, Mary Ellen and Judith, around 1984
Happy childhood: Marian (left) with her mum, sisters and Great Uncle Albert Ruddick

Marian Cinnamond was taught to read by a great uncle who'd fought in the Boer War. Now, thanks to the brilliant Reading Rooms project in Belfast, she's sharing her love of books with older people with dementia and a dads and lads group.

Marian Cinnamond is certainly well read and her background in health, education and literacy makes her the perfect fit for her pivotal new role co-ordinating the Verbal Arts Centre's Reading Rooms programme in Belfast.

A native of Westmorland in England, Marian made her home in Northern Ireland 40 years ago after initially only intending to stay for six months back in 1974.

She recalls: "I came here in October 1974 to work for six months as a volunteer with International Voluntary Service. I had a whirlwind romance, married a man from here in January 1975 and my home has been in the province ever since."

Sadly, Marian's husband Jo passed away in 1991, and when she lists the many writers whose work she most admires, the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas holds a special place as his words helped to sustain her during her loss.

A mother of three, Marian worked in educational guidance for several years, and in 2004 she volunteered in Pakistan for a year, working with teachers of women's literacy. She also worked in learning and development in social services in an inner London borough for a couple of years and "came home to Northern Ireland" in 2007.

She was advocacy manager with the Alzheimer's Society for seven years, and for the last year was seconded to work on a project to co-ordinate the writing of a Code of Practice and a Standards Framework for Independent Advocacy in Northern Ireland.

Reading Rooms is volunteer-delivered and its new Belfast officer says she has always had a commitment to volunteering, which, of course, is what brought her here in the first place.

Marian, whose first degree was in information studies (a library qualification), followed by a postgraduate diploma in guidance and counselling and a Master of Education degree, explains: "My new role entails organising the Reading Rooms in Belfast and will include me facilitating some Reading Rooms myself. I love meeting the volunteers and have been moved by the Reading Rooms I have visited. I have also been overwhelmed by the wealth of creativity, talent and commitment in the Verbal team.

"There are around 15 volunteers currently in Belfast. Their role is to bring Reading Rooms to groups of people who might not otherwise engage with reading and stories, or who might not get the chance to come together to talk about the stories. Examples include groups of older people, including people with dementia; young people deemed to be at risk; adults with learning difficulties; people recovering from a stroke; a Dads and Lads group and people experiencing mental ill-health."

Marian, who has extensive experience in facilitating groups and a love of literature, adds: "I want to be able to create a nourishing environment in which people can discover the wonder of the written word for themselves, particularly people who may find reading, and especially poetry, alien.

"One of the strengths of Reading Rooms is that people can engage with the stories and poems in a way that is meaningful for them as individuals. There is no agenda to follow and no pressure to focus on any particular aspect. Stories evoke different memories and emotions in all of us. This makes them relevant for everyone.

"For people with dementia it can be particularly important because they live with the frustration of an unreliable short term memory but, in Reading Rooms that does not matter. The stories can link to other memories and to times in the past that were meaningful to that person. The repetition of the familiar from childhood, such as a poem learned at school, can be particularly comforting."

As well as the Reading Rooms which take place in a variety of community and healthcare settings across the province, there are also plans for the Reading Rooms bus to be at the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast next year. The bus, which was launched earlier this year thanks to funding by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, can also be booked for taster sessions.

Marian strongly believes that the arts play a vital role in aiding people's wellbeing. "I always think of the health service as being about fixing people and it is the arts that are about healing people. If ever a country could benefit from healing it is surely Northern Ireland."

Marian has fond memories of her own early childhood introduction to reading. "I learned to read before I started primary school because my great uncle Albert lived with us and took the time.

"He was bedridden and I have memories of crawling in beside him and reading books and stories. I can honestly say I was taught to read by someone who fought in the Boer War."

An insatiable reader for nearly 60 years, it's no surprise that Marian is torn when asked to select a few of her personal favourite novelists and poets, and their work.

"One of my favourite books is Pereira Maintains, by Antonio Tabucchi. I am also a fan of Thomas Hardy and find his work moving without being sentimental. I read all the time and my book choices are wide-ranging.

"My favourite poetry varies, too. I am particularly fond of Billy Collins but also like to read a range of more classical poets including Keats and Tennyson.

"As a teenager I was drawn to poetry after seeing Roger McGough and Adrian Henri perform live and I still take any opportunity I can to see performance poets including John Hegley. I think being able to identify with the poet's experience is important and that can be particularly true of modern or local poets.

"I love Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf but had to read it out loud with the rhythms and intonations of a Northern Ireland accent to get into it. Lastly, I want to mention Dylan Thomas, whose words sustained me after my husband died: 'Though lovers are lost, love is not. And death shall have no dominion'."

Asked about her main inspirations in life, Marian reveals: "I am inspired by friends and colleagues in many different ways. I also find the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh very inspiring and my two Mindfulness teachers, Padraig O'Morain and Caroline Stewart."

Marian also teaches counselling and independent advocacy part-time, and is an associate trainer with voluntary sector organisations, which keeps her week fully occupied, but she still makes time for things other than work.

"I practice mindfulness every day and find it helps to keep me grounded and focussed. Last year, I moved into a bungalow in a village by the sea and I love to walk my whippets on the beach. I spend a lot of time with my four grandchildren. I love the music, drama and spectacle of opera and, of course, I always have a book on the go."

  • For further information about Reading Rooms, contact Marian Cinnamond by email at: or call the Verbal Arts Centre, tel: 028 7126 6946

Belfast Telegraph

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