‘There was a time in my life when I was carried by all of you’ | Field notes on the

Phenomenology of Firewalking
Originally posted online on 10 November 2013 at rmchapple.blogspot.com
(http://rmchapple.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/there-was-time-in-my-life-when-i-was.html)
for Simon 1970-2008

Preface | Sunday 10th November 2013 (3 Days After)
I had never intended to be the author of such a ‘confessional’ blog post. Actually, for much of
the gestation of this piece, I hadn’t even intended it to be a blog post – just notes for my own
amusement, to track my mental and physical responses to this task I have set myself. Whatever
its genesis, I think there may be some slight merit in presenting it to public view. I’m reminded
of a colleague – one of my kinder, wittier detractors – who announced to an assembled crew
that my mind was an interesting place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there. Well here’s
your chance to have a short break inside my head – at least you get to go home afterwards! In
so far as it goes, I’ve treated the experience as an archaeological phenomenological research
project in that it is a study of the structures of subjective experience and consciousness when
confronted with a well-defined external objective reality – in this case putting my actual feet
onto real and independently-verifiable fire! As a research strategy, this is
essentially phenomenography. I would hold with this paradigm in my view that the ontological
assumptions of phenomenography are essentially subjectivist, but not limitless. I would argue
that different individuals will apprehend physical reality and react therein in any number of
discrete instances or responses. Some see phenomenology and, by extension,
phenomenography, as an 'anything goes' research pathway that gives credence and validity to
any old thing so long as it is claimed to be genuinely 'felt' and ‘experienced’. Indeed, I would
agree that some of the more ‘zealous’ applications of the approach are ripe for ridicule for just
being silly and relating more to the author's ability to garner research grant money than
provide any realistic data or interpretation. That said, I would argue that the range of human
emotions is relatively small in comparison to the vastness of possibilities of the universe. In
this way, my (actor) experience describes a single data node on an n-dimensional bell-curve
of possible reactions to preparing for and executing a firewalk. That bell curve can encompass
any human emotion from paralysing fear to complete calm and apathy. That seems a pretty
wide range until you reckon that the chances of the observer transmuting into a particularly
beautiful salmon called Gloria and pogoing away from the fire to the tune of The Jags 1979 cult
classic Back of My Hand are ... let’s say … vanishingly small. But maybe I'm not taking this
particularly seriously! I also don't have grant money and/or academic tenure riding on this!
In common with a classic phenomenographical stance, the emphasis here is on description
and record, and within that there is a tacit assumption of value in the act of record itself. In
this way, the firewalk (phenomenon) is not of itself the object of study, but the interplay of
relationships between the actor (me) and that phenomenon. I would argue that my
experiences, though conditioned by geography and culture, are a valid proxy archive or data
set when approaching and analysing the evidence of similar experiences from the
archaeological or ethnographic record. That said, they are but one point within the available
spectrum and I would encourage others to link to records of their own experiences, or they are
welcome to submit them for publication here!


I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world. Photo: Firewalking Ireland

My methodology has been to write these field notes on the day or, failing that, I’ve jotted words
and phrases as reminders on any available paper and written it up afterwards – always within
24 hours. My only editing of this material has been to correct basics like spelling, grammar,
and (occasionally) to change sentence structure to make my meaning clearer. Otherwise, what
I present are my experiences, actions, and reactions in pretty much the way they happened
and in the order they happened. One thing I have failed to change and correct is my wandering
sense of tense. This a gross failing in my writing and, under normal circumstances, I generally
try to eradicate it. However, in this instance, I feel that too much editing would destroy the
immediacy of the record.


Friday 25th October 2013 (14 days to go)
I’ve made jokes about treating this fire walk as form of extreme archaeological or
anthropological research. I’ve been trying to imagine what it would be like to be a member of
a past society who got the quiet word to say ‘next time it’s your turn, mate’. From my limited
reading on the subject (Wikipedia & references therein) it appears that the fire walking has
been used as a “… rite of passage, as a test of an individual's strength and courage, or in religion
as a test of one's faith.” As something of an outsider all of my life, I can keenly appreciate how
much an individual can crave the acceptance of the larger group. In Western society, where
such social markers are rare, I can understand the rekindling (excuse the pun!) of firewalking
from the 20th century as a means of making this form of societal display – look at me, I’m a
proper man! I’m a valuable part of my community. Admittedly, the modern revival of
firewalking has had a corporate team-building focus that has been widely mocked, and not
wholly unfairly. REM’s 1987 lyric in ‘Exhuming McCarthy’ from the Document album sums it
up rather well: ‘You're sharpening stones, walking on coals to improve your business acumen’.
Look at me I’m a good manager! … I am the very model of the modern middle manager!

Yes, I realise I’m mocking this. But it’s a coping mechanism - the reality is that I’m scared. I’ve
undergone a number of ‘rite of passage’ rituals over the years, in various spheres of social,
religious, and fraternal. Many have been pleasant and highly anticipated (first alcoholic drink;
first kiss), others have been fraught with fear (also first kiss). But none – not even one – have
ever involved fire! My First Holy Communion would have been a very different affair if it had
included the distinct possibility of death by immolation. For all our sophistication, civilization,
and technological advances, we’re still savannah-dwelling monkeys that at a very baseline level
know that fire is dangerous – it can hurt, it can destroy, and it can kill. But if we could just
conquer it – even for a little while – we can become Prometheus the Titan. Stealing fire from
the gods doesn’t just possess the idea of making us masters of our own human fate – it allows
us to feel like gods too. In the midst of the fire we are unburnt and immortal – we are cut off
from such pesky human frailties as pain, age, disease, and death. Humans can’t survive inside
the fire, therefore, if you walk unhurt on the fire you are not human – you’re a god. Wow! I’m
totally over-thinking this, aren’t I?

I’m sitting in my room in the Glasshouse hotel in Sligo on an overcast Friday afternoon. I’m
here for the Archaeology of Gatherings conference, hosted by the Archaeology Department
at IT Sligo. Pre-conference drinks and meet up won’t start until later this evening, but I got
into town before midday. Partly this is because I’m incredibly excited about this conference –
the topic is hugely fascinating to me – but I also wanted to renew my acquaintance with some
of the historic buildings of the town. I’ve not been in Sligo since the early 1990s and I have
fond memories of wandering around Sligo Abbey [also: here] and St John the Baptist
Cathedral. No less than my expectation of meeting up with old friends and former colleagues,
I wished to renew my acquaintance with these historic sites. Unfortunately, the Abbey appears
to have been locked up for the season, and St. John’s isn’t open to visitors on a Friday.
Moreover, the ruined Friary church is locked and inaccessible. Even the County Museum is
closed for renovations until February of next year. Right now, after tramping all across the
town, I’m soothing my rather sore Hobbit feet, contemplating what foot-related pain my near
future holds.

While I keep telling myself that I’m engaged in archaeological research, I’m becoming acutely
aware that I lack the theoretical framework and linguistic toolkit to properly analyse my
experiences and emotions. Stuart Rathbone (of Campaign for Sensible Archaeology fame) has
suggested that I carry thermometers while I walk, but I don’t think that’s an option. In the face
of this, I’m very much tempted to keep these notes private and unpublished as they must
represent the ruminations of an anthropological subject, rather than the overarching vision of
the paternalistic and all-seeing social scientist-observer. I’m over-thinking this again, aren’t I?

Well, if these are going to be field notes, let them be the field notes of the self-assessing subject.
The first thing I’ve got to establish is what’s my buy-in to all this? Where’s my centre of belief
in this process? As I’ve stated in a recent blog post, I honestly and fully believe that the PIPS
charity [Website | Facebook | Twitter] do good work and should be funded. If it takes me –
literally and figuratively – walking across hot coals to prove that, then that’s what I’ve signed
up to do. I’m putting my money where my mouth is … except with money from donations …
and my feet instead of my mouth … but you know what I mean!

So … let’s talk about feelings … well … now … this is difficult! … as a confirmed straight white
guy, this is not coming easily to me! OK … time to man up and talk about those feelings! Fear!
… that’s the first word that came to mind – I’m scared. In the first instance I’m scared of getting
physically hurt. I’m also scared of ‘wussing out’ and not being able to meet this challenge – I’m
scared of not being able to live up to the promise I’ve made. I’m feeling like a bit of a fraud.
People believe in me and trusted me when I said I’d do this – they believe in me to the tune of
over £500. If I don’t do this, I may not be expected to give back the money, but I’d better not
go looking for charitable donations any time soon! For all this fear, it’s not omnipresent – it’s
a background level of terror that I can deal with. Admittedly, there are spikes of fear, panic,
and alarm. For example, when I search YouTube for ‘firewalk’ and find that the most popular
videos are all of firewalks going disastrously wrong! Friends and colleagues finding wellsprings
of humour and jest in my predicament comes a close second – thanks guys! For the most part,
I’d describe what I’m experiencing as ‘anticipation’ … I’d maybe coin a phrase of ‘strong
anticipation’. There is fear, but it is tempered with firmly-held notions that what I’m doing is
right.

I’m also finding great comfort in other people who have committed to this project. Two guys
who sit near me have also volunteered to do this. Up until this point, I can’t say I’ve known
either of them particularly well. We’re not anonymous to each other - we’d normally say ‘hi’
and have brief chats about the usual range of things: kids, coffee breaks and ‘isn’t today just
dragging/flying?’ In this we’re not too different from other passing acquaintances in a large
group. But that’s beginning to change. It’s not like we’re hanging out all the time, or inviting
each other round to our houses after work, but there is a perceptible difference in our
relationships. My conversations with each of these guys appear to be slightly more frequent
than before and about topics deeper than usual. At the simplest level, we’ve been talking about
how we feel about the impending firewalk. It’s negotiated through humour, but there is an
edge of gravity to the discourse that is lacking in similar conversations with other friends and
colleagues. These are simple, one-to-one discussions where our fears are acknowledged and
some degree of mutual support is offered. Outside of this I’ve found much unexpected comfort
in contact I’ve had with other people who have not done a similar firewalk, but who share a
‘buy-in’ to the topic of mental health. At its simplest level, a number of people have responded
to my appeal for donations for a suicide and mental health charity by also confiding in me
about their own experiences – either family or personal – with these issues. I don’t know how
analogous this aspect of my experience is with my imagined individual in a traditional society,
contemplating their own rite of passage ceremony. All I can report is that, while some of these
stories have been heartbreaking and incredibly difficult for me to come to terms with, I have
felt extremely honoured that people have chosen to relate them to me. Some people have told
me that they feel better after speaking or writing to me. I genuinely hope that there has been
some healing for those that have needed it. For me, I feel that I have received a gift more
valuable than any donations – inspiration. I’ve had my resolve strengthened – what I am doing
is a good thing. I’ve not met the majority of these people – they’re Facebook friends, Twitter
followers, +Google acquaintances – yet their trust in me and in the charity I support has
created a sense of a shared goal – even an odd sense of community. As I walk I will carry these
stories with me – I’m no longer walking just for myself or for the more nebulous idea of the
PIPS charity organisation – I’m walking for real people with real problems, hoping to provide
real help. ‘Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil’ … ok …
it’s all turning biblical, so best to end my field note here and get ready to have some drinks
with the conference delegates.


Pre-firewalk motivation of breaking boards and expectations. Photo: Jacqui Boyd


Tuesday 29th October 2013 (10 days to go)
I’m back home in Belfast. The conference was wonderful – a great range of speakers and topics
– and I hope to write a synopsis of it for my blog before too long. Today I received an email
from the HR department inviting all the volunteers to a ‘Firewalk pre event’. This will comprise
a meal and photography session. The invitation explicitly states that the purpose of the
exercise is to ‘provide us all with the opportunity to get to know each other’. We will also learn
more about the structure of the evening ahead of us and we will travel together to the PEC
building at Queen’s University. In the terms of what I’ve learned from Dr Jonathan Lanman’s
(Institute of Cognition and Culture, QUB) lecture (Ritual and Divergent Modes of Cohesion)
at the weekend, this can be broken down into Dysphoria, Synchrony, and Signalling. Signalling
is the showing of allegiance to the group – turning up for the meal, listening to the instruction.
Synchrony is the unison of movement – the organisation of lifts and shared cars bringing us
from the office building to the location of the fire pit. Then there’s the Dysphoria … the pain,
fear, and anxiety. Through these shared experiences, we will – I hope – develop some form of
‘group identification’. I’m going to leave these thoughts of pain and anxiety for a lyric from
Bob Dylan’s 1986 album Knocked Out Loaded. The album, as a whole, is almost unrelentingly
terrible, but the rambling epic ‘Brownsville Girl’ is among the finest pieces he’s ever written:
‘Strange how people who suffer together have stronger connections than people who are most
content’.


Wednesday 30th October 2013 (8 days to go)
It turns out that one of the chaps whom I believed had signed up for the firewalk isn’t coming
with us. He’d talked about it. He’d intended to sign up … but between one thing and another,
it just never happened. He’s wished me well, but he’ll not be there on the night. Part of me
thinks that I should feel outraged and betrayed by this but, surprisingly, I’m not. I’ve been
trying to think why this should be … perhaps it is that this endeavour is still embedded in my
mind as a solitary undertaking, and not yet a group activity. Realistically, I think that the
answer may lie somewhere in the realms that all my ponderings about bonds of mutual
support are mental hot air. I’m just surrounded by some really good people who are full of
kindness and compassion. At a deeper level, I’m intrigued that I appear to have construed
greater bonds between myself and these guys that may actually exist. Is this a deep-seated
psychological need to forge relationships as coping mechanisms … or am I just an over-
analysing loon? I fear that the answer is a hearty yes … to both. However, I refuse to be put off
by this and I now realise that I simply cannot complete these field notes without quoting the
Band of Brothers speech from Henry V … so I may as well get it out of my system now!

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
Shakespeare | Henry V | Act 4, Scene 3 | Text | Kenny | Larry


Thursday 31st October 2013 (7 days to go)
The big day is only one week away! I’ve emailed one of the organisers to ask about appropriate
clothing for the event … I wanted to get some ideas on whether I should be clad in a T-shirt
and rolled-up jeans or if I should see about digging out a pair of my old shorts and seeing if I
can still fit into them … it may not be a pretty sight! Somehow I’m reminded of Flann O’Brien’s
description of Finn Mac Cool in At Swim Two Birds: “Three fifties of fosterlings could engage
with handball against the wideness of his backside, which was large enough to halt the march
of men through a mountain-pass.” I’m really torn … there’s part of my mind that’s bathing this
in multiple layers of the sweetest ‘ritual’ and mentally oohing and aahing at the significance of
everything: ‘I’m even approaching the selection of garments in a ritualised manner … wow!’
Thankfully, a larger part of my mind is overruling this as nonsense and telling me that I need
to get out more. I’d already planned to get a haircut this weekend – because I need one, not
because it’s a ritual preparation/cleansing, or any form of symbolic act. For all that, I’m
intrigued by how much this sort of nonsense is occupying me! Obviously it’s a form of
displacement activity to keep my tiny monkey brain occupied and not thinking about what’s
bothering me. Under normal circumstances, I’d say it was the impending firewalk – I may
have mentioned it before! Though today I’m not so sure … I appear to have gotten lyrics
from Duran Duran’s 1985 ‘View to a Kill’ stuck in my head and they just wont leave me alone!:
‘Until we dance into the fire | That fatal kiss is all we need | Dance into the fire | To fatal sounds
of broken dreams | Dance into the fire | That fatal kiss is all we need | Dance into the fire’.

You’re welcome!


Saturday November 2nd 2013 (5 days to go)
This is obviously biting deep into my subconscious. The dreams have started. Last night I saw
myself on the edge of the fire pit. Everything was quiet and still and I was just waiting for the
right moment to step forward. I had no fear even though there were flames leaping as high as
I am tall. In the dream I didn’t see myself walking across, but I knew it was all going to be
alright. It was at this point I woke up. All was quiet in the house and I could hear the cat snoring
gently on the bed as he attempted to syphon off my warmth. I was filled with lightness and joy
– such positive feelings that everything was going to go well. I turned over and went back to
sleep, filled with positivity and contemplating the powerful symbolic and healing properties of
dreams.

I awake several hours later. I’ve been dreaming that giant pizzas have been falling from the sky
and landing in random East Belfast gardens. The PSNI arrive at each scene and cordon each
one of ‘for safety reasons’, but I’ve a nagging suspicion that they’re only doing it so other people
can’t get free sky-falling pizza. The officers in my dream appear happy and particularly well-
fed. Obviously, I am no longer convinced about the importance of dreams in this process.

To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
Shakespeare | Hamlet | Act 3, Scene 1 | Text | Kenny | Larry | Mell | Dave | Dicky | Chris


Monday November 4th 2013 (3 days to go)
Leaving the office this evening I saw someone waiting for the lift, carrying a small bale of T-
shirts. It took a second to recognise the ‘feet within feet’ logo in black on a white background
(as opposed to seeing it every day on the posters, where it is done in appropriate flame-like
shades of yellows, reds, and oranges). Suddenly this seems much ‘realer’ than it had before –
no fear, only exuberance and enthusiasm!


No problem! Photo: Geoff McHugh

Tuesday November 5th 2013 (2 days to go)
Well, the numbers of emails are certainly increasing! It had started as a trickle, but it’s
becoming a flood – when & where we’ll meet, what we’ll eat, what to wear (trousers that can
be rolled up are best, apparently … though it’s not like I had my heart set on sauntering across
the coals in a tight cocktail dress (think: Melanie Griffith in Working Girl), where to bring our
sponsorship money, timing of our walks – all the important minutia – all making the event,
which had up until now seemed quite ‘theoretical’ and somehow ephemeral, a more concrete
and physical reality.

All this this thinking of Melanie Griffith reminds me of the theme song from the movie:

We're coming to the edge | Running on the water
Carly Simon | Let the River Run


It’s Tuesday evening and I’ve just finished tucking my children into bed. My eldest son, Bertie,
has gotten over his disappointment that his Thursday swimming lesson has been cancelled to
facilitate me doing this firewalk. He’s obviously been thinking about this and asked me
numerous questions, including if my trousers will get burnt (I’ll roll up the legs), if my shoes
will get burnt (I won’t be wearing shoes), if my socks will get burnt. It was only with the last
one that the realisation set in: Bertie: ‘But Dada! You’ll be in bare feet! Won’t you get burnt?’
I had a choice to make – be honest or go with ‘I’m magic’. Even though I’d have preferred him
to slope of quietly to sleep, I felt that he needed some reassurance on this matter. I bit the
bullet and went the truthful route – I may have used the word ‘physics’ a trifle too often, but I
held back and only used ‘thermal conductivity’ once, and ‘Leidenfrost effect’ not at all. I ended
by saying ‘I promise you – the Physics is robust – I’m not going to get hurt!’ He looked totally
awed and asked if he could come and watch the event. For a child who’s, at times, not
desperately keen to leave the house or look up from his iDevice, this was a huge win for me.


Here we go again! Photo: Geoff McHugh


I’ve wondered about the actual value of keeping these field notes as my experiences and
thought patterns as a 21st century Western European, must differ from my hypothetical
acolyte in a traditional society. The block characterisation of all people about to engage in this
form of rite of passage as some form of homogenised, stylised, and stereotypical ‘other’ is, of
course, a fabrication that reveals more about my cultural biases, than it reflects on any external
reality. In the face of this, what degree of commonality can we expect across the centuries? Is
there any real connection or parallel between me today in Belfast and anyone, anywhere,
anywhen, who has confronted any upcoming rite of passage type event – whether or not fire
is involved? It’s not like there were ever too many !Kung bushmen scanning YouTube for
instructional videos before they stepped into the fire. I’ve been leaning towards the idea that
broad feelings of anxiety, fear, and anticipation must translate across time, culture, and
geography. Now I know that there has to be more that transcends the ages – as I looked into
my son’s eyes, filled with awe and wonder at the thoughts of this magical task that his
otherwise boring and ordinary father was going to perform – I felt connected to every other
parent who (no matter how fleetingly) was regarded as a little like a god by their children. I’ve
glimpsed it before as I’ve made a small toy or piece of chocolate appear from behind an
apparently unencumbered ear. But this was different – bigger, louder, more powerful, and it
filled me with belief. The differences in time, place, and culture are such that we will all have
differing personal responses to that. For me, as I turned off the light and told my son how
much I love him, this was this song that was running through my head as I shadow-boxed my
way down the stairs:

Rising up, back on the street
Did my time, took my chances
Went the distance, now I'm back on my feet
Just a man and his will to survive

Survivor | Eye of the Tiger


Wednesday November 6th 2013 (1 day to go)
Obviously we’re all preparing for this differently. I’m, it can be safely established, am obsessing
and over thinking. Everyone else I speak to seems quietly confident. One person – who’s either
a lying toad of the most chilled man in the world – tells me that until he saw a couple of us
discussing car parking arrangements and looking at Google Maps to plot the best route to the
event site he hadn’t given the whole firewalking thing much thought. I think he may be the
most relaxed man I’ve ever met!

That aside, there’s nothing much to report – I’ve been trying to orchestrate a final push to
secure donations raised quite a few extra pounds over the course of the evening. Despite my
two sons doing a chant of ‘Dada’s going to die in the fire’ (words were had!), I had a very
pleasant, peaceful, and clam evening. I had a rather nice glass of wine and an early night. No
firewalking (or pizza falling) dreams to relate.


Thursday November 7th 2013 (Firewalk Day)
Morning
I’m initially surprised at how calm and relaxed I feel.

Lunchtime
I volunteered to stand at the entrance to my building and hold a collection bucket. The last
time I did anything like this was in the 1990s … it was a World Cup year and I had volunteered
to help out doing a charity collection through several Galway pubs in the half-time interval
and after the Ireland vs. Mexico game (I think). The Irish side lost and I received more moans
and bitter recriminations than cash. I’m as guilty as the next person of passing by a street
collector and looking busy or distracted … or just happen to be checking my phone and failed
to notice them. What I’ve never felt is the degree of invisibility that the person holding the
bucket experiences, seeing this hundreds or thousands of times in a day. I’ve reached the firm
conclusion that, should I ever need to flee the attentions of the police, I won’t try get on a boat,
sneak on to a plane, or even head for the border using only back roads. I’m going to grab a
bucket and help out my nearest charity – they’ll never catch me! Seriously though – I’m
exceptionally grateful to everyone who has contributed either directly to my collection page,
or into the bucket in the foyer!

Outside of this, my preparation has been listening to The Beach Boys classic 1966 album Pet
Sounds on repeat for most of the day. I know of no other album that brings me such sustained
peace and calm with each and every listen. It has seen me through some seriously bad times –
for me it’s just ‘music than makes things better’ - it is music that heals. I remember reading a
story about how Brian Wilson meditated before recording the track God Only Knows,
visualising a bright halo of light above his head as he sang. Maybe there’s something in it – I
certainly feel peace and light as I listen to that song in particular.

4pm
All the walkers are invited to the canteen for a pizza and salad dinner. I don’t particularly know
anyone here, so I’m initially standing alone, observing, though I can feel that my heart rate is
considerably elevated. Once we’re offered food, I feel quite a bit of the tension break. We find
seats, introduce ourselves and make some polite conversation. There is a well-attested bond
created in the ‘breaking of bread’ that stretches from the religious sphere right down to the
physical and prosaic act of sharing a bite to eat together. You could see this process in action
as we ate, drank and relaxed. For me, this feeling of unity and camaraderie broke down
somewhat as we divvied up the cars – who needed lifts and who would travel with whom. I’d
already arranged to meet my support club – my wife and sons – outside the building and we’d
all travel down there together. As we made our way through the rush hour traffic we were
frequently alongside (but more often slightly behind) one of my colleagues who had elected to
walk to the site. Despite the physical distance – and the fact that she was not aware we were
keeping pace with her – it engendered in me a feeling of togetherness and being part of a team
that were going to undertake this task. Even in spite of the numpty who pulled out into the
traffic directly in front of me, this feeling of community – and the very calm and positive effects
of having my family with me – allowed me to get to the fire site with my personal calm and
peace (largely) intact.

6pm
After arriving at the PEC complex at Queen’s University we meet up with a fellow walker and
her husband – old friends of our family – and we wander about looking for where we’re meant
to go. After Candace Weddle’s (Anderson University South Carolina, USA) presentation to the
Archaeology of Gatherings conference (Blood, Fire and Feasting: The Sensory Experience of
Greco-Roman Sacrifice) I’m particularly attuned to recording the ephemeral, and easily
ignored, aural and olfactory experiences of the event. Coming to it from a distance, there is a
slight, but increasing, scent of wood smoke. At first it is very faint and intermittent and when
I eventually make the connection ‘this is for us!’ it injects a noticeable frisson of excitement
and I feel my heart rate soar.

After spotting a few (now) familiar faces hanging about the foyer of the PEC building, we
congregate for a bit and start to form a crowd. A man from the PIPS charity greets us and gets
us moving towards one of the meeting rooms on the fourth floor. At first this seems to be quite
a ‘corporate’ experience – we’re told to line up, sign up, and take a number. This will be our
ticket for when it’s our turn to firewalk. I’m immediately struck by the thought that any
‘indigenous’ firewalker today wouldn’t be approaching it in this way and my hypothetical
‘ancient acolyte’ would certainly not see the point in this regimented procedure. Eventually
the guy from Firewalking Ireland [Website | Blog | Facebook | Twitter] comes in to talk to us.
He seems to be an amiable chap – very enthusiastic and slightly sooty. He gives us ‘The Talk’.
The fire is real | This is potentially very dangerous | You still have the opportunity to back out
now | You can get hurt. There is no soft-sell here – only harsh truths – and it’s sobering. The
embers will be between 400°C and 600°C (752-1112°F). To put this in context: Every Ray
Bradbury fan knows that the flashpoint of normal cellulose-based paper is 451°F (233°C) and
even lead melts at 621.5°F (327.5°C). A couple of mental calculations along this line are enough
to give pause to even the most enthusiastic. Our guy asks us to demonstrate our eagerness for
the firewalk by either remaining seated (Not sure I want to do this now) to standing on your
chair (Can’t wait! Let’s go!). A couple of hardy souls were up on those chairs in the blink of an
eye and some were firmly seated. One person who has stayed seated told me later that, if truth
be told, she’d have crawled under her chair to demonstrate her lack of willingness at that point.
Just for the record – I was found in a hunched position, hovering a couple of inches above the
chair. While the guy from PIPS had us queue up along the edge of two large tables to sign, the
Firewalking Ireland instructor passes out pre-cut boards (roughly 18x10 inches) of quarter-
inch chipboard to use as rests so we could read, sign, and witness our declarations that we had
been told the dangers, we were doing this willingly, and (most importantly) we’d not hold them
liable for any physical or mental trauma suffered. You could feel the temperature in the room
and the rumble of chit chat just drop as people got on with the job of reading, coupled with the
realisation of what we were letting ourselves in for. I’ll not give all the guy’s patter and
approach away, but we each wound up taking our boards up to the top of the room, placing
the edges between the two tables, visualising our goals, and breaking that bugger in two with
a single well-aimed thump. Some of us had difficulties, but for me I can tell you that I saw my
goal and shattered that board. By the time I left that room I was ready for anything. Most
especially, I was convinced that I was going to do the firewalk – I would succeed. The blood
was pumping in my veins and I was psyched!


Really getting to like this! Photo: Geoff McHugh

7pm
A short walk later and I was out in the cold back car park of the PEC. I was still going to do
this, but I was also pretty convinced that I was going to do it once and go home. As we had
walked towards the fire pit the smell of the smoke increased in strength. Right up close you
could feel the heat and every so often – when the breeze changed direction – my eyes stung
from the smoke. Again our instructor reminded us that it wasn’t too late to walk away and that
the coals would be in the range from 400-600°C. A voice behind me, in a low, mournful sigh
muttered ‘would you ever stop saying that?’ After just a few minutes of preparation we found
ourselves shimmying out of shoes, socks, coats, and hats and lining up in a bit of a scrum to
take our turn to go across – all thoughts of an orderly, numbered, and ticketed crossing was
long forgotten. I’m pretty short and was situated in the middle of the group, so I couldn’t see
the first few people walk across, only hearing the pulsing cheers of the crowd as each walker
took their turn. Soon enough I was at the top of the list and about to take my first step. The
cheering crowd seemed oppressively loud and the heat and smoke seemed to choke me.

I waited.

Over the last few weeks I had attempted to visualise what this moment would feel like and had
imagined two things. First was going to be the signature Hitchcock dolly counter zoom (as
seen in Vertigo, but arguably better known from Spielberg’s Jaws). The second thing I
expected was for everything to go slow-mo (think: the explosions in Swordfish or The Hurt
Locker where normal reality slows down at moments of trauma and distress). I had chided
myself that these were cinematic conceits and this was real life – the two don’t match up. On
the other side, I have wondered if the reason these are frequently-used techniques is actually
tied to their being the nearest visual representations of real life experiences in traumatic
situations. I don’t know how long I waited – it was probably only a couple of seconds. After
one deep breath to steady myself, I put out a foot and went for it.

I walked.

I’m finding it difficult to put my experience at this point into words. The fire pit was 4m long
and takes approximately five seconds to cross. Depending on the person, it equates to between
four and six steps – from the video footage, it appears to have taken me either four or five
steps. I clearly remember my surroundings at the moment I took that first step – the heat, the
noise, the smells, even the feel of the damp grass beneath my feet. But as soon as I stepped
into the fire all that changed. It wasn’t quite the cinematic dolly shot, but I was immediately
aware of being in a blurry bubble. From that point on I have no memory of smell and neither
sight nor sound outside my bubble. I could not see the massed supporters – everything was
concentrated on the area inside my personal globe of quiet, still calm. I was no longer part of
a team – I was just one little fat man on his own inside the fire. Even my sense of touch was
reduced down to the soles of my feet – I was aware that I was standing on something hot, but
that was it. The classic slow-mo time slowing to a crawl thing both did and didn’t happen for
me – and this is what I’m having difficulty finding the words to explain. It’s like there were
two simultaneous realities that started off together and ended together, but in the middle
created a wide divergence. In one the walk was over in a millisecond and I was standing on the
cool damp grass on the far side of the fire pit just after having taken my first step. In the other
reality time slowed down to a trickle and I had the opportunity to look about and experience
each slow, ponderous footfall as I made my way across at glacial speed. I could see each
individual glowing ember and I could distinctly hear my feet hiss with every step I took. I
looked down and in that moment I was suddenly flooded by all the stories that had brought
me to this place – all those who donated money, or wished me well – but most of all I thought
of all those who had shared their own personal stories of loss and heartbreak. Reading back
over my earlier notes, I see that I used the phrase ‘As I walk I will carry these stories with me’.
That was how I thought it would be. I was wrong. In that moment I was the one being carried
– the faith and trust placed in me to receive these stories was sustaining me, motivating me,
and moving me. I felt something truly powerful right there and I let out an involuntary scream
as I punched the air with the classic ‘metal devil horns’ hand signal – it wasn’t a scream of pain
or alarm, it was a shout of joy – it was a yell of ecstasy – it was my barbaric yawp sounding
across the roofs of the world – I had faced my fears and now here I was standing inside the fire
– unburnt and unhurt. For a fleeting second I felt almost god-like.

It felt like a punch. But only if the punch came from a giant jelly fist that hit my entire body all
at once. I was standing on the other side of the fire pit, almost not sure how I got there. I’d
been in the fire for no time and for ages simultaneously. The feeling of being punched was the
two divergent timelines snapping back together with an angry crack at having been so rudely
interrupted. Suddenly the roar of the crowd was back, and with it the feel of the breeze, the
smell of the fire, even the slight taste of ash in my mouth. I walked off to one side to make way
for the next walker. As I scanned the sea of faces for sight of my family I felt the rise of the
strangest sensation. I’d been expecting this – to a certain extent. Seeing as I’m relying on
cinematic references to illustrate my points, I’ll direct the reader to the scene
in Highlander when Christopher Lambert, playing Connor MacLeod, defeats Iman Fasil in the
car park under the Garden. There’s the thunder and the lightning and the roar as power flows
through his body. Unfortunately, I couldn’t summon up the special effects, but I did feel a huge
surge in endorphins – I entered a euphoric state and only wanted one thing – to walk through
the fire again.

After finally spotting my family in the throng of supporters, I made my way back to the line of
waiting walkers. Keeping my eye on my loved ones, I strode boldly through the flames and out
the other side. Without breaking step I continued on to my family, only to find my eldest son
in floods of tears. I though that these tears were for me and I tried to comfort him that I was
perfectly fine and unhurt. I was soon brought back to earth when I discovered that his tears
were actually for the fact that his iDevice had lost power just as he was trying to get a video of
me stepping through the coals. As I walked, he was looking down trying to get it to work and
he missed the lot. Worse than that – the first time I’d done it he’d been enveloped in the crowd
and hadn’t seen it either. There was only one thing for it! I’m back at the fire. I shout over to
Bertie: ‘Can you see me? I’m doing this one just for you!’ … and away I march again! It was at
this point that Oscar looks at me with his big brown eyes, juts out his lip and says ‘you didn’t
do one for me’ … that’s why I did it a fourth time. The fifth time was just for fun and because
five feels like a more mystical number than four. With each walk the experience was slightly
different, but largely the same for me – sometimes it felt that the emphasis was on the brevity
of the experience, while in others it was more focused on looking at my feet and examining the
embers in minute detail. But in all cases I felt accompanied and carried through by all those
who had invested – both financially and emotionally – in me, in this charity, and in this
endeavour. As I have made clear throughout, these are my experiences alone and I make no
claims to universality. For me, all I can tell you is that I loved it and, had they let me, I’d have
kept going until the dim light of dawn. Some people did their one trip across and that was
enough – I say ‘fair play’ to them. There was one person who has my undying respect and
admiration. I don’t know who they are, but my memory is that they seemed to be always
around the start of the fire pit, but never making it across. So many times they walked up,
looked, and left – just couldn’t take that first Indiana Jones-like leap from the lion’s head. I
felt for that person and I know that had I lost my nerve at the beginning, I could not have gone
back a second time. But that person tried and tried and tried. At the very last minute, when
the organisers were preparing to put out the fire, they found their courage and went for it and
succeeded! Every person in the assembled crowd cheered and none louder than I!

It was only on the walk back to the car, as the endorphins or adrenaline or whatever it was
started to ebb, that I first started to feel pain. By the time I got home, and got my feet into the
bath for a soak, they had taken up a dull thudding pulse of heat and mild pain.

9pm
My eldest son is still annoyed that he didn’t capture my awesomeness (my term, not his) on
video. Thankfully, my wife did and we’ve had to promise to forward it to him. I’ve uploaded it
to YouTube for your viewing pleasure: here. As I was putting him to bed, he asked if I was
going to do it next year. I said a pretty firm ‘no’. Then he asked: but what if they do another
one in 2015? Would you do it then?’ … well, yes, then I just might!


Friday November 8th 2013 (The Day After)
I’ve been awake since 5am. I have no memory of having any firewalk-induced dreams, but I
can’t get to sleep again. Every time I do I see the events of last night replayed again and again
in slow motion. For the first time in over 20 years I see the sunrise while not behind the wheel,
driving to another cold field in the search for archaeology. My feet tingle – not a pins-and-
needles tingle, and not in pain, just a light happy ‘I’ve got a serious buzz going on’ kinda tingle.
For that matter my hands are tingling too. It appears that I can’t stop smiling.

My clothes from last night are in the washing hamper and even passing by at the distance of a
couple of feet, they still smell strongly of smoke. The strength of the scent to trigger memories
is quite amazing and, for a moment, I’m back there on the coals and loving it! Still thinking of
Candace Weddle’s meditation on The Sensory Experience of Greco-Roman Sacrifice, it
suddenly strikes me that there must have been the same moment in ancient Rome when
someone walked by the carelessly heaped pile of togas and suddenly, forcefully remembered
the previous night’s burnt offerings to the gods!

At work there’s much interest from colleagues keen to check that we’re not too crispy. Lots of
questions of ‘how was it?’ and ‘what did it feel like?’ Like any form of ritualised rite of passage,
there can be no easy explanation of what happened to those who did not make the journey
with us. All I can do is tell anyone who’ll listen – if you get the opportunity, go do it – you’ll
have an amazing time! But here’s the thing – you’ll have your amazing time filled with
all your personal moments of certainty and doubt. Things I found easy, maybe you’ll find them
difficult. The converse is also true: things I found hard, you could find not to be problematic.
The essential thing is that it is you that will find these things and they will belong to you.


A view from above. Photo: Naga Ganja


Saturday November 9th 2013 (2 Days After)
Everything’s back to normal – or at least my version of it! Feet have stopped hurting and I can
now speak without constantly smiling.

Insofar as I’m capable of deep though, I’ve been reflecting on my experiences. First of all, the
worst part is definitely the waiting – I imagined everything that could go wrong would go
wrong – often spectacularly. In many respects, the easy bit was the firewalk itself. No – I’ll
correct that! The first step was pretty difficult. But once you put that foot down and realised
that it wasn’t going to kill you, it was much better … the second and subsequent steps were the
easy bit! Despite what I said to my son, I’d definitely be happy to do it again and sooner than
2015. I also now see why firewalking has become such a popular corporate tool. Some of the
people who walked that night, I’d only met for the first time at the meal beforehand; some are
colleagues I see every day. But none of them could I have said that I knew pretty well. It seems
ridiculous in some respects – we went to a cold car park, took off our shoes, and walked
through the coals, there is no actual indication of superior moral worth in any of this, but I feel
that I know them better and trust them more. I know I’ll talk to them more often, value their
opinion more and, if it’s within my power to do so, go the extra mile to bring them help and
assistance. After all, we did the impossible – we walked through fire together!

As I’m bringing these notes to a close, it’s appropriate that I offer acknowledgment and thanks.
First it’s got to be the people at ANIbody, my workplace charity, who instigated all this and put
in so much effort in turning a good idea into an actual thing. To the PIPS Charity – they do
such good work in the service of a difficult cause. I’m glad to be associated with them and hope
that the money and awareness I’ve helped to raise will do some real good in our communities.
The guys at Firewalking Ireland have my huge thanks and respect – they organised an
exceptional event that was well-structured, well-planned, and well-executed to ensure that all
walkers and watchers were safe and fully informed. Any yet, they still managed to make me,
at least, feel that the modern constraints of health-and-safety were not so overpowering as to
remove the feeling of ‘specialness’ of the event. I can heartily recommend them for all your
firewalking needs! Stuart Rathbone also deserves a mention here. In a recent interview he lists
meeting me – and my willingness to facilitate his excellent papers on this blog – as a highlight
of his career in archaeology. It goes the other way, too - without Stuart's willingness to publish
his work here, I may not have read, or been so strongly influenced by, his paper on mental
health issues in Irish archaeology, which set me thinking about mental health issues more
generally, eventually leading me to take action in the form of volunteering for this firewalk.
My family are wonderful and I love them very much. They deserve my thanks for going along
with my craziness – both general and specific to this firewalk. In my moments of fear, panic,
and self-doubt they were there to comfort and support me. More than that they stood in a cold
car park in south Belfast on a dark Thursday night to watch me go through with this –
supporting me all the way and experiencing this event with me. My final thanks go to those
who donated cash, offered good wishes, and believed in me enough to share their stories and
their pain. Thank you all of you – you carried me through!


Triptych of my first firewalk. Photo: David Hyland.

Same moment as before, but I think it captures my emotional changes very well from grim
determination, through an involuntary scream, and into pure joy and happiness.
Photo: Richard Hetherington.


Notes
The JustGiving page I set up to solicit and collect donations will remain open until February
2014. If you would like to make a donation to this very worthy cause, please click here or use
the button below. If you are reading this after that date, but would still like to donate directly
to the charity they may be found here: [Website | Facebook | Twitter].

If you’ve got photos from the night that you’d like to share, send me a link in the comments
and I’ll happily add them.

The title of this post is taken from the song ‘Criminals’ by The Tallest Man on Earth. If
Scandinavian singer-songwriters are your thing, then there’s a good chance you’ll already
know his work. For everyone else: give his stuff a listen - you may just enjoy it!

In doing what may be lightly described as ‘research’ for this piece, I encountered the Hip-Hop
Shakespeare Company. It may not be Shakespeare as I’m familiar with it, but it’s well worth a
watch!

In the interests of fairness, and general politically-correctness, I should point out that there
are probably many, many lesbians of African origin that find it difficult to articulate their
feelings – the straight white guys don’t own that market, despite what our stereotypes suggest!

I keep meaning to mention this, and here's as good a place as any. My favourite song in the
world is The Jags' Back of My Hand. When my time comes, can someone please arrange to
have this played at my funeral? - Loud!

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