‘I embraced uncertainty in a land whose place names stirred vague memories from religion classes’

Ursula McDermott moved from ‘mild-mannered life in Ireland to a fiery Middle Eastern reality’

When I say that I am from Ireland, very often the response is “Oh! Inisfree?” It conjures up images of freedom for them rather than the real meaning of the word Inish Fraoigh, which in Irish means island of heather. Both images are lovely.

I grew up in Yeats’s county – Sligo – and have lived for many years in Israel.

After completing studies in medical science and, while working in the haematology lab at Letterkenny hospital, I saw an ad in The Irish Times. An expedition was inviting candidates to trek in the Annapurna foothills of the Himalayas.

After the required physical training, off I went, with an eclectic group of 12 new friends and a great guide named Anne Marie. My appetite for travel was whet.


I took leave of absence from the North Western Health Board (NWHB) to travel in Europe and across Asia. Finally, I hopped on a ferry from Athens to Haifa.

Palm trees lined the highway from Haifa to Tel Aviv. The energy of this place felt strangely homey and very exotic. Israel inexplicably spoke to a spiritual identity in me which had long felt exiled.

At the end of the Gulf war, I closed my contract with the NWHB and packed my bags for Israel. I embraced uncertainty and also Hebrew and academic studies in a land whose placenames stirred vague memories from even more vague religion classes.

Still a newbie in Israel, I was accepted to a lab position in a Tel Aviv maternity hospital. While there, news spread of an abandoned newborn with Treacher Collins – a syndrome that severely disfigures the face. During his year living in the hospital, I accompanied Amit, in loco parentis, for corrective plastic surgeries and later, together with the chief obstetrician, featured on a Late Late Show-style TV show in the hope of finding Amit an adoptive family.

We did.

Amit was a heart-filling highlight that nurtured my transition from mild-mannered life in Ireland to a fiery Middle Eastern reality.

I settled in Jerusalem. Much later, I realised that the five letters at the centre of the city name are a permutation of my own name – Ursula!

I completed a graduate degree in education and was contracted to teach for three years in the US. Later, I sought out courses that qualified me to work in a therapeutic capacity rather than in classroom settings. I learned craniosacral therapy, which is a gentle hands-on technique that uses a light touch to examine membranes and movement of the fluids in and around the central nervous system, and completed another MA with a clinical internship in mental health counselling.

Lockdown came and turned life and world upside down. I moved to a seaside village, in western Galilee, close to the Lebanese border. That’s where I live today and treat women and children in person and via Zoom.

Old maps show Jerusalem at the centre of a flattened world which looks like three petals. Jerusalem was a trading route and magnetic core of an ancient world. Today, it still feels like the hub of a sacred and a secular tech world. Despite honed dialogical tools, elusive peace is hard to maintain.

Conflict is as old as Cain and Abel, woven into the fabric of our world. It triggers an internal bullied or bully – a Cain or an Abel response – inside each of us, depending on our own personal history.

From inside conflict situations, though, the sought-after, external, impartial, compassionate, peace-supporting, non-side-taking, voice of discernment is often absent. Within conflict situations, “bystander” citizens of both sides desire nothing more than to live in freedom and peace. And despite considerable so-called evolution, we humans have not yet managed peace.

Rather than look at reported differences, I will mention similarities between Israel and Ireland.

Both lands bear significant legacy burdens: they are small countries with ongoing peace journeys; they are historically scholarly, rich in literary and musical talent.

Hearsay suggests that the prophet Jeremiah is buried in Co Meath. The Irish-born son of Rabbi Herzog, Ireland’s first chief Rabbi, was a recent president of Israel. His grandson is the current President Herzog.

Interestingly, the word God inserts into every casual greeting in Gaeilge, Hebrew and Arabic.

Argentinian J L Borges wrote: “Was it you that killed me or did I kill you? Abel answered, I don’t remember any more, here we are together, like before. Now, I know that you have truly forgiven me, Cain says, because forgetting is forgiving. I, too, will try to forget. Yes, said Abel slowly, so long as remorse lasts, guilt lasts.”

It remains to be seen, everywhere in our world, how as brothers, we will succeed to forgive each other this long trans-generational sibling rivalry?

Israel’s first Nobel laureate S Y Agnon wrote: “Every man is destined in life to meet who he meets, at the specific time he meets him and for a very specific reason.”

It remains to be seen, too, whether a physical return to Ireland – to Inishfree ­– will bring my personal narrative full-circle.

  • Ursula McDermott works as a therapist in northwest Israel where she lives in a seaside village in western Galilee
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