Friday, July 9, 2010
Compassion is at the heart of being Irish
Chesterton tells the slightly implausible but interesting allegory about a child who is reared in a big house and who when he leaves it for the first time gains perspective only when he walks down the driveway and looks back and for the first time realizes how big the house really is.
In a sense we do not really miss Ireland or know what it really means in our lives until we leave it. Nowadays some of the angst is reduced because thanks to Ryanair of Aer Lingus we can be back home within a few hours. Being a child of the fifties who visited the gaeltacht at the end of that decade I had the dubious privilege of knowing what emigration looked and felt like in the west of Ireland. On the way to school in Connemara I passed houses where all the occupants had left and were now lying derelict.
I left home in 1969 with the intention of never returning home. I spiritually left Ireland on the 1st of August to join a Mexican Order. I called a few of my best friends around to the house at the end of July and told them casually I was off and away and might never see them again. To their eternal credit they did try and visit me in the seminarian fortress on Leopardstown Road and went as far as bringing girl friends to visit the incarcerated until the practice was discouraged.
When I landed in Spain I remember for the first few weeks missing BBC TV and Cadburys chocolate. After a year in Spain I travelled to Italy. Sad to confess I did not miss Churchtown where I was reared. I missed the West of Ireland where I had spent every summer holiday as a child.
What I missed most was the element of compassion in the Irish psyche. I found that Irish people cared. Not that we are alone. But our compassion that extends to complete strangers is quite unique. This compassion manifests itself initially in plain curiosity. It is impossible to pass a person on an Irish country road or in a small village without some form of a recognition - a greeting or even a nod of the head. City and suburban life is reducing perhaps this intimacy although Dublin is regarded as a remarkably friendly city.
We may need to rediscover that sense of community and self reliance that disappeared not only in Ireland but throughout Western Europe over the past twenty years when as a society we became the equivalent of social drug addicts. We simply passed to the State. i.e. to complete strangers the entire responsibility of education, caring, and maintaining the young and old and sick.
As I studied and travelled it struck me that all cultures have their strengths and weaknesses. The Spaniards struck me as direct, at times brutally so, and fun loving with a keen sense of the picaresque and the whimsical (not unlike the Irish). Spain of course is not a single country - it is a series of countries and there are huge regional variations. Similarly in France. I was impressed with a country in tune with its culture, and confident in its past. In Italy I found a family oriented society. It seemed Italians would never utter a sentence if a paragraph could do. They seemed to love to talk and occasionally to listen.
Compassion in the Irish soul may date back to Famine times and the shared memory of suffering, loss and support. It may find its roots in the Christianity that we Irish embraced so willingly and exported so effectively in the golden years of monasticism between the 6th and the 12th centuries. This physical and spiritual outpouring found a reprise in the missionary, teaching and mideical efforts of the early 20th century. It may date back to our Celtic and preceltic roots. Or it may be a mixture of all of the above.
Other cultures - particulalry the Moslem religion - have long and worthy traditions of welcoming strangers and giving them sustenance when they arrive on the doorstep by chance . But whar seems unuusal and radical to me is that a child sitting at a school desk in Gorey Co. Wexford will decide improabaly to devote some or all his/her life to people in Africa or South America she/he has never seen.
I am proud of the relief efforts of thousands of young Irish aid workers over the past fifty years. My sister Kate spent three years in Bangla Desh with Concern. I have a fondness for Gorta and the work it does in the Third World by helping the poor to upskill and to lose their dependent on the West. I hate the culture of dependence that we have encouraged. I love the Gorta maxim, 'give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime'. I am impressed with Trocaire which does terrific work in areas of social justice. I served briefly with the Irish section of Amnesty International which traditonally punches above it weight. I welcome the newer arrivals on the chairity scene - the Niall Mellon foundation that builds thousands of house in S Africa and the Haven charity set up by Leslie Buckley to assist the people of Haiti and countless tiny charities including the project to build an orphanage in Lesotho run by Acara. Lest we forget, these latter are children of the Celtic cubs. Not everything we did in the past decade was bad!!
At a time when we despair of our leaders in the Church, in politics, in business and in finance we can always fall back on our inner resources and the deep and tried and trusted reservoir of human emotion and compassion that has served us so well. In Ireland we don't have a monopoly on compassion but for me it is the word that more accurately describes our core value - ahead of drinking and poetry and music and literature - themes for another day.