In many ways, these long January evenings are a blessing in disguise, a time when life slows down just enough to allow us a chance to reflect on our experiences. I was fortunate enough to spend Christmas back in Ireland, but it is only now that I find myself able to process all that I saw and heard on my visit. Ireland has featured in some gloomy news headlines over the past couple of years. The country is held up as a cautionary tale, an example of how fast things can go terribly wrong; a destroyed economy, rising unemployment, rising emigration, and the wide-scale loss of public confidence in those in power, and much uncertainty about the future of the Euro, and our role in Europe.
And yet, if I had to describe the general mood of people I met there I would have to say that, even in the midst of times in which the temptation is surely toward negativity and despair, they were remarkably positive. Nowhere was this more evident than in Donegal, where I began my visit. I was there to participate in the second segment of a community development exchange program that saw a group of Donegal community leaders travel to Boston in September 2010. The welcome extended to us exceeded all of our expectations, and I can tell you that despite the difficulties posed by the economy, people in Donegal continue to be defined by their enormous generosity and hospitality.
The region is still one where traditions are important and yet one of the things that impressed us was the ways in which Donegal is proving a leader when it comes to embracing change and diversity. The county is fortunate to have such an impressive leaders such as Mayor John Boyle, Councillor Dessie Larkin, Chair of Donegal CDB Peace and Reconciliation Partnership, Seamus Neely, County Manager, and Michael Heaney, Director of Service. I was delighted to return again to the Port Na Failte Welcome Center in Letterkenny, and to the Regional Cultural Centre, where we saw evidence of great compassion, creativity, and enterprise in the face of significant economic and social. Everywhere we went in Donegal we saw a love of music, the Irish language, and the arts and the innovative ways in which the people have used these things to contribute to the economy and particularly, to appeal to tourists (especially those among the Diaspora).
Donegal, as most readers will know, has a long history of emigration by necessity. Sadly, Ireland’s current economic troubles have once again seen many area young people and whole families have to leave in search of employment. There was short-lived joy while I was there because some of these young people were going to be able to return home for Christmas, but that joy will seem a distant thing now as January turns to February and separation once again becomes a reality. I noticed something however. Whereas in the past, many emigrants feared that they had been forgotten by those at home, there is now a very clear determination that Donegal’s emigrants be kept at the top of the agenda. This was evidenced by one of the local Councilors, Michael McMahon, who talked about the plight of the undocumented and the sadness and grief of those who could not return home. This concern for Ireland’s emigrants was very noticeable and very widespread. Radio personalities like Pat Kenny, Joe Duffy, and Marian Finucane all featured stories and phone-ins with the Irish overseas, both recent emigrants and those that left many years ago. Some of the stories people told were heartbreaking, but there were also the inspirational and hopeful stories. People acknowledged the new ways to stay connected and spoke of the importance of the Diaspora in terms of the community, the economy, and tourism.
There is no question that Ireland faces huge challenges at the moment. Everywhere I went, people told me that they feel let down by the politicians and disgusted by the greed and the fast-dealing of the banks. I heard stories of friends and family losing their jobs and in some cases, their homes. In fact, some of the non-profits I met with told me that they are bracing for a significant increase in homelessness as families struggle to pay the mortgage. And yet, for all of the hardship, many ordinary people are still willing to dig deep and to pitch in to help. This generosity has always been an important value in Ireland, but it is so heartening to see it still being practiced in a time when almost everyone is feeling the pinch. Brother Kevin at the Capuchin Friary in Dublin spoke of an unprecedented response to his appeal and of the many who called offering donations of time and money in assistance to struggling families and the homeless. I saw an increased interest in community gardens, local job creating ventures, ‘buying Irish’, and I saw true compassion for those who had lost homes, jobs etc.
And for all the gloomy news, there was cause for pride in the many positive developments of this past year. The visits of President Obama and Queen Elizabeth to Ireland proved a spectacular success and provided a much-needed boost to morale. The also demonstrated that country is still the land of a hundred thousand welcomes. My impression was of a place where, if anything, people’s priorities have shifted toward taking more time with friends and with family. A walk through Temple Bar in Dublin was enough to assure me that music and chat are still a draw for locals and tourists alike. Although these are certainly very trying times for the country, it is not a return to the dark 1980s. Ireland has changed. It is more diverse, more compassionate, and more confident than it was thirty years ago.
I couldn’t finish this reflection without mentioning what a special treat it was to have the chance to catch up with two old friends while in Donegal. Many of you will remember Denise McCool who worked with us years ago (and who is responsible for the beautiful quilt that still adorns our lobby). Denise, her husband Finbar, and their two children are now living back in Donegal. I had a lovely time visiting also with Cahal Stephens, the talented architect overseeing the Center’s renovations. Cahal now divides his time between Boston and Donegal. The Irish people have always been resilient, but my recent visit showed me that they are now better equipped than ever before to deal with challenges. I was inspired by their positive attitude and by the support they showed one another, especially the support they expressed for those who have had to leave for distant shores.