Elegy for a teacher: Seán Gaffney (1942-2022)

- Father Ambrose was right!

Seán Gaffney died on 5 March 2022, leaving behind a grieving family, and for those of us who worked with him, a legacy of so many brilliant teaching moments, light touch facilitation, warm hearted supervision, and all those friendly exchanges on books, music, TV series and popular culture. This is our personal and collective tribute, as the Gestalt Centre Belfast, to a great friend, colleague, teacher. All factual errors are our own.

The most important part of Seán’s Gestalt education took place in with Ed Nevis from the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland, who became his mentor and colleague. Ed Nevis died in 2011. And today, just as Sean had to write Ed ‘s obituary for the British Gestalt Journal (Vol.20, No.2, well worth a read, more Irish wake than obit!) today it is us who have to do this. And so, raising a glass of Redbreast 12 years old to Seán, let us begin.

 “An Irishman by birth, culture and conviction” is how this ‘north Dub’ living in Sweden since 1975 described himself. Always at the boundary between cultures and languages, always looking for a way home.

For Seán, the road to Belfast opened after a meeting in England in 1995 with two Gestalt trainers, Flora Meadows and Hilda Courtney, of the Gestalt Trust of Scotland and North of Ireland. At the time they were delivering Gestalt training to their third cohort in Belfast (known to its members as ‘GT3’). They liked Seán’s approach and invited him to work with GT3. 

The group remembers this silent observer of the group, who let the participants do what they thought one does in a Gestalt group. “Then he brought us together in a circle as a group to discuss how we each felt. With delicate care he drew out threads of our awareness and got us interested in our process as a group, rather than focusing on individual actions. On recognising our process, he had us laughing and connecting without feeling shamed. We left refreshed with a deeper felt sense of learning and connecting from the group experience.” (Mary Kay) And another: “He was so different from what we were used to that I thought, the poor man is clearly out of his depth - until the last hour where he stood at the whiteboard and masterfully tracked every bit of process that had gone on over the three days.  Wow!  I never underestimated him again.  He laughed uproariously when I confessed my initial thoughts some years later during one of our drunken escapades.” (Paula)

The gossip about GT3’s encounter with Gestalt of another kind got to the ears of the next cohort (of which this writer was part). Seán was asked by the Trust to lead our first residential in Wicklow, November 1996. Two of us drove to Dublin airport to collect a stranger that had been variously described to us as ‘Santa’ or ‘Karl Marx’. And this residential changed forever our way of practising Gestalt. 

What we experienced, as I remember it, was a facilitator who focused on forces and themes rather than individuals – no hot seat demo sessions for him! His experiments were openly designed from emerging themes or dynamics in the group, and he always concluded the day with a discussion to make meaning of the process so far, and to offer possible theories about it – in T-Group fashion. We were so excited we asked for more. Seán became one of our main trainers in Year 2 and we had a residential in August 1997 in the summerhouse in Sjöbacken. 

Meanwhile Seán was also invited by Sonya Murray and Marie Quiery to offer OD consultancy to a Community Training and Development organisation Triskele, in Co. Monaghan, and as a result, was asked to facilitate a supervision and consultancy group in Belfast for people working with organisations. Group membership varies, was up to 23 at some point! Some members of this group remember vividly the ‘water clearing’ exercise. Or the long silence at the start of a particular day, as participants sat without a word - you could cut the unfinished business with a knife! Seán finally asked people to get off their chair and stand behind it. As they contemplated the circle of empty chairs, he put it to them that they had a choice to participate or not, just as he had a choice to stay, or, if they didn’t want to work with him, to leave! People found new seats and started to work! “We learned quickly that we influenced each other and that we had responsibility for what happened. Seán was a committed existentialist!” (Bríd)

Seán’s OD consultancy work in the north of Ireland ranged from an AIDS Helpline, to a Youth Counselling organization, to a rural community development network, and many community organisations where Gestaltists worked. Many were activists, and Gestalt influenced their practice during the ceasefires of 1994 and 1997, and in the peace process.

Seán referred often to Paul Goodman’s understanding of the political context of Gestalt practice, or “psychosocial activism” as Jack Aylward aptly calls it. Exploring the edge of political activism and psychotherapy was a feature of work with clients and organisations.

He relentlessly encouraged those of us who continued developing their Gestalt practice to meet, to organise, to write, to teach. He also spoke of us internationally, and worked constantly to weave Belfast Gestalt into the international Gestalt community where he taught with Ed Nevis on the Cleveland International OSD programme. He invited several of us to join that programme, and would regularly bring OSD training groups to visit us in Belfast where we could tell them about our work.

He organised an EAGT Writers’ Support Group in Belfast in May 2007. He encouraged the Cape Cod Model Training Programme to come to Europe and include Belfast in its first training in 2009-2010! We met in Oxford the first week, and in the Belfast UNISON (trade union) building for the second week. He brought the ‘Roots of Gestalt’ conference to Belfast in 2014. 

Quite importantly, his Gestalt Model of change in organisations (see his book Gestalt At Work vol.2 Chapt.11) was evolved in his work in Belfast. It was recently summarised by his Russian friend and colleague Konstantin Pavlov on his Facebook page, as a support to Gestalt practitioners in the current conflict in Eastern Europe.

Meanwhile Seán who in the late 1990s had never written anything in English beyond poetry, or those diagrams on a flipchart at the end of a training or supervision day (all of which are held in Bríd’s attic!) finally decided to put LAMY pen to Rhodia paper (as another stationery lover I could not resist this one), and this became a PhD - or as he self-mockingly called it, an OAPhD – entitled ‘On Borders and Boundaries: Gestalt At Work in the World’. It was completed in 2009, and we toasted the new Dr Seán in Belfast in December 2009. We later discovered, in his two volumes of writings ‘Gestalt At Work: Integrating Life, Theory & Practice’, the long and arduous road he walked to get to this point, a working-class boy from north Dublin to Seán Gaffney, PhD, author, international trainer and consultant. May we learn from his example!

The original supervision and consultancy group formed and reformed, people left, others joined. This writer joined it in 2005. The group finally closed in October 2017 when Seán’s declining health made frequent flights to Ireland too much of a risk. In the meantime, he had helped design a Gestalt Supervision course, where his model of Working At One Remove was practiced, and a two-year Gestalt Practitioner Diploma, on which he taught 2016-2018.

His approach to supervision i.e.  ‘Working at One Remove’ had a profound effect of those who were supervised in this way – the experience of the field, the freedom experienced by the supervisee to explore all aspects of their contact with the client, made possible by the supervisor holding the ethical responsibility for the client during supervision. We have heard in the week of Seán’s death from many supervisees who remarked on the felt loss of Seán’s presence and guidance in the work. As one of them said tearfully to me, her supervisor: “I felt you had an extra spine!” A testament to his support from those who had only met him at one remove.

We learned from him how to facilitate group process by adopting a stance of environmental Other of the group, thus allowing a group to become and be ‘A Group’. We learned from him that Gestalt therapy requires the therapist to be fully who they are. His description of the phenomenological stance i.e. when the actions of the client in the moment meet the imagination of the therapist, was a wonderful way to teach the difference between phenomenological practice and interpretation.

Seán’s net of influence was cast wide during his time with the Gestalt community in the North of Ireland.  For example with his encouragement  Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing was launched in Ireland.  This neurophysiological approach to working with trauma (much needed here with our history of colonialism) became part of our Gestalt approach deepening both our Gestalt practice and our understanding of SE.  

Seán loved leading reading groups, we discovered this late on, as he had become Zoom-conversant during the Covid pandemic. He led another group on Field Theory, and we met six times before his death. We felt fortunate to have him help us discover this important pillar of Gestalt therapy, and this core theoretical framework of his practice.

After school, Seán joined the Cistercians as a novice, and in his second year, the Novice Master Father Ambrose called him over, and told him he wasn’t meant to be a monk, but a teacher, and sent him on his way. After struggling with this, Seán accepted that this was indeed his calling. His many students, of which we were, will agree with Father Ambrose.

Finally his poetry! Seán launched his first published suite of poems in Belfast, in February 2017. His poems on Las Meninas, the famous Velasquez painting, embody through empty chair dialogues between the painter and the viewer, the painter and his models, the relationship of the artist to his public. And this happened again four years later, when he read of his fourth suite of poems, an online event organised by GCB, and asked volunteers to read one of his poems, In No Man’s Land. Each reader reads a different poem, same words, different music, an illustration of field and lifespace, a Gestalt as much as a literary event!

Seán did not get to celebrate his eightieth. He was certainly ready for this transition, and had already written enough about his experience and how it made him who he was, that we do not have to do this. But this is an homage to a teacher, and like all good teachers, his immortality is in our learning. Pablo Neruda asked: “How long does a man live after all?” and Brian Patten answered “A man lives as long as we carry him inside us”, and Sean Gaffney did it his way:

“I hope to be around until there is no longer any me, a

Memory of he and him, an it to be disposed of, my matter soon ashes my

Mind there still in my books, in the memories of my family and friends, my students

Here and there, and

Me now, nowhere to be seen, a

Was, a used-to-be.” (Aspects of Ageing)


Joëlle Gartner (with the contribution of Bríd Keenan, Mary Kay Mullan, Paula Keenan, Marie Quiery)

Belfast 17 March 2022