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Man whose faith provided ray of hope for a new generation

Ray Davey, founder of the Corrymeela community, was profoundly affected by the Allied bombing of Dresden in 1945, when he was a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany. His experiences have formed the basis of a new play by Philip Orr

In the autumn of 2009, I travelled to Lisburn in order to meet a man I had been longing to visit. His name was Ray Davey and when I shook his frail hand I knew I was in the presence of history. Although Ray was no longer able to speak about his years as a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany, his daughter showed me the faded exercise books in which he had kept a wartime diary.

When I read these diaries, I vowed that I must write something about Ray.

Not only did he survive the war, but he returned to become one of Northern Ireland most respected peacemakers.

In 1965, he founded the Corrymeela Community, which would become a beacon of hope all through the Troubles, situated on the beautiful Antrim coast, overlooking the Atlantic.

As a young man in the 1930s, Ray trained for the Presbyterian ministry in Belfast. Then Hitler marched into Poland in 1939 and Britain went to war for six long years against the Nazis.

Ray wanted to serve in some meaningful way and so he joined the YMCA, which provided spiritual and practical support to British forces in overseas locations. He was stationed in North Africa when the German Army captured Tobruk in 1941, and that is how he became a prisoner of war.

Like many Allied prisoners, Ray was shunted around several camps. By 1944, he was in Saxony, in south-east Germany. As a chaplain to his fellow prisoners, he was allowed to travel to several locations throughout Saxony. He conducted Christian services, accompanied by a guard. His "home" was a castle in the village of Hohnstein - a stark, impressive building not unlike the more famous prison known as Colditz.

As the war went on, the tide turned against Hitler. The Soviet army moved closer to Saxony, which had so far been spared the worst of the war. The beautiful city of Dresden was close to Hohnstein and it had not received much attention from Allied bombers.

That was all about to change in a dramatic fashion and Ray would witness the tragic results.

The Allied bombing campaign over Germany is still controversial. No one seriously doubts that the Nazis had to be defeated. Nobody questions the bravery of the men in Bomber Command who suffered terrible losses in doing their duty.

Yet the statistics of destruction tell a shocking story. Over half-a-million German civilians perished as bombs rained down on their homes in urban areas where the population was densely packed.

The most controversial raid took place in February 1945, just a few weeks before the war in Europe came to an end. And the target was Dresden. As hundreds of British and American planes circled overhead, dropping thousands of bombs on the city, a massive firestorm developed. This inferno engulfed everything in its path.

For many days afterwards, the city was a smouldering wasteland. Among the thousands of Germans who died were refugees who had taken shelter in the city, terrified of the Red Army which was approaching swiftly from the east.

The young Ray Davey visited the empty streets of the broken city. He pondered on his own good fortune - he had originally planned to be on duty at a hospital in Dresden on the night of the raid. But, above all else, he was shocked by the vista of utter destruction and by the piles of burnt bodies that were receiving mass-burial.

He had already been asking questions about the nature of war. These questions started to surface again with fresh intensity.

The biggest question centred on one fact - European nations, which shared a history of Christian civilisation, had engaged in a war of unprecedented ferocity. Even those who fought to liberate Europe were creating indiscriminate mayhem.

What lessons had he to learn, as a Christian minister, from this disturbing fact?

Answering this question was especially important to Ray, because he had developed friendships with villagers in Hohnstein. This was possible because, as a chaplain, he was allowed the privilege of occasional exits from the castle.

He became friends with one lady who was the village dentist and a faithful Lutheran. She played the organ and helped with the choir in her church.

But then, in the last few days of the war, Ray escaped across the border to Czechoslovakia. In a sense, he became one of the millions of refugees who had been displaced by this long and bloody conflict. They were all trying to find their way back home.

Ray did find his way back to Ulster, where his beloved parents were waiting in their house in Dunmurry, on the outskirts of Belfast.

However, forsaking the villagers of Hohnstein behind was hard. To make things worse, in the post-war years, an Iron Curtain arose all across Europe. Saxony was on the other side of that barrier, in East Germany. It was impossible to find out what had happened to the inhabitants of the village Ray left behind. He often wondered about his Lutheran friends and the traumatised survivors of Dresden.

When Ray became the Presbyterian chaplain at Queen's University in Belfast, it was an opportunity to influence the thinking of a new generation. He took students on trips to Europe, to let them see how other faith communities were responding to the challenges of reconstruction.

But such visits were not enough. Northern Ireland needed its own model of community, inspired by faith.

The approach would have to be humble, practical and inclusive. Northern Ireland must not repeat the mistakes that had turned the whole of Europe into a battleground in the world war.

In 1965, a disused building became available on a scenic stretch of the north coast near Ballycastle. Ray and his students began to renovate the building. But, by 1969, a bleak summer of riots and shooting heralded the start of the Troubles.

Sadly, Northern Ireland would become Ray's new battleground. The founder of Corrymeela and survivor of Dresden was well placed to lead his centre towards an important task.

For many decades, Corrymeela offered a refuge for those who needed love and support. It provided a safe space for dialogue, education and debate. Volunteers came to work at the centre from all over the world.

It is still an important place, offering a venue for conversation and personal renewal, for Northern Ireland still struggles with reconciliation and many people here still feel profoundly hurt.

And so I began to write. I was guided by the facts of Ray's wartime story, but drama is a different creature from biography. A play should tell the truth and offer no lies, but drama captures its audience in a different way from a history book.

So, I created a fictional character called Tom, who had founded the "Community of the Rock". He is Ray in disguise, of course, but the fictional mode allowed me to create scenes, characters and dialogue that would communicate the story in a legitimate but more vivid way.

There was another important issue. Theatre thrives on conflict and unresolved problems - look at any soap opera for proof of that. So, I knew that if my play painted a rosy picture of Ray as a hero and Corrymeela as a grand success, my play would not work as "drama".

So, I imagined what it would feel like if as an old man, Ray (or Tom) were to face a young woman, who told him bluntly: "I was at your community and the lessons you tried to teach me just didn't help. I tried reconciliation and it just didn't work. I tried to find out the truth about my brother's killers and the truth never came. Love and peace in Northern Ireland is an absolute and utter farce."

Could Ray (or Tom) take her on one side and tell her his wartime story in way that helped this young woman in her distress? Would she listen? Would that story help? Or would his story, for all its power, prove ineffectual? That is for the audience to find out.

Ray Davey died in 2012. I hope he would have approved of my play, with regards to its intentions if not necessarily its quality. I think he would have been perturbed by the impasse at which we have arrived in the aftermath of the Troubles, but maybe he would not have been unduly surprised.

Ray had seen war at first-hand and that made him a realist as well as a person of hope. He had seen the hurt caused even by those who were sincerely fighting against tyranny. Then in the post-war years he had been unable to recover the facts about his wartime friends in Hohnstein.

Thinking back to the ashes of Dresden, I believe Ray recognised that nothing could be more difficult than reconciliation, yet he had heard the call to settle for nothing less.

Philip Orr is a writer and community activist. He is interested in the capacity of drama to explore challenging issues in our local context and has written a number of studies of the First World War, including books about the Battle of the Somme and Gallipoli

Rising above the hatred

  • Rev Dr Ray Davey was ordained for field work with the YMCA War Service in North Africa in 1940. While here, he helped to establish a multi-faith centre in Tobruk to provide a sanctuary for the social, physical and spiritual needs of those involved in desert warfare
  • As prisoner of war in 1942, he witnessed the devastating allied bombing of Dresden, and was later imprisoned in France and Germany
  • He took an appointment as the first Presbyterian Chaplain and Dean of Residences at Queen's University, Belfast in 1946
  • During his Queen's tenure, he established a Community Centre which was the forerunner to the Corrymeela Community which began in 1965 at premises on the North Coast
  •  Pastor Tullio Vinay, founder of the Agape Community who was a one of Davey's greatest inspirations, opened the new centre
  •  Davey was a Presbyterian minister who was educated at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, Queen's University Belfast, Union Theological College and New College, Edinburgh

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