Good ideas fall on grey ears who won
And it was this despairing tone I expected at the MacGill Annual Summer School in Glenties, Donegal. Government ministers, academics, economists and soap stars were all there to debate the state of the nation.
So I set off for the mythical land of my childhood hero, Packie Bonner. Only agricultural workers should ever see the little hand of a clock point at the number five twice in the same day. And my hands are far too soft for farming. Or saving penalties.
But even though I’ve never done a day’s hardlabour in my life, I don’t consider myself an intellectual or an academic. In fact, they intimidate me with their red wine, jazz music, and all that talk of Crime and Punishment.
But crime and punishment were first on the agenda for the Wednesday session. Judge Michael Reilly, in his capacity as director of prisons, outlined the Dickensian conditions still imposed on some of our prisoners.
He told us how in 1818 we banished 3,000 Irish citizens ‘Down Under’ as punishment. Now our young Irish citizens banish themselves there. And ironically, this time around if you’ve a criminal record they won’t let you in.
But they weren’t checking criminal records to get into the speeches. Placed on a desk where they took the admission fees was a huge tray with an assortment of sweets chocolate eclairs and the whole job.
And if ever there was an audience that would have appreciated a few USA Assorted Biscuits, it was this crowd. The room was greyer than your average Sunday Mass demographic.
So in a break between sessions, I tracked down the MacGill Summer School founder and chief organiser, Joe Mulholland. I asked him what he hoped to achieve, given that the educational value of the seminars is being missed by the very people who could potentially implement the ideas being proposed for the future of our Republic young people.
Joe said they’d had a successful Twitter campaign to raise awareness, but added that the town of Glenties and the wider Donegal area has been emptied of its youth, with emigration hitting the area hard. All off ‘Down Under’.
Then after vegetable soup was depression.
Moderator Dr Eddie Molloy told us mental health issues have finally come out of the closest. My father once asked me what depression was. I told him it was “suffering with the nerves”. Immediately he understood. Different times indeed.
Actress Mary McEvoy told us how she was on the verge of cancelling her appearance at the event. She had a big problem with the word hope the theme of the session. How could she give others hope when she had none herself? Her voice quivered with emotion as she asked us the question.
Then it was time for the Minister for Health. Outside the hotel, the fluorescent garda vests were everywhere.
Suddenly a black car pulled up at the entrance. Dozens of prolifers started screaming abuse at Dr James Reilly as he entered the building, heavily flanked by security.
He blamed a profound conservatism reinforced by vested interests for the current failures of our public health system. He said he wanted to build a new republic where all citizens were treated equally. So while you might have the money for the Beemer, you’ll still have to queue for your colonoscopy.
During Dr Reilly’s speech, the event organiser, Dr Joe Mulholland, made it his business to find me and inform me there were much more young people in the venue now than earlier.
The garda presence was again significantly heightened for the evening session. The ProLife army was out in force again, weighed down with waterproof rosary beads.
This time they were there for Gerry Adams. With their muttered prayers and thousandyard stares, they proudly held their disgusting placards showing dead bloodied babies on metal trays.
In his speech, Mr Adams called for the abolition of the Seanad and the centralisation of power. He said we’d allowed a native conservative elite to replace the British conservative elite.
But despite Mr Adams’s enthusiasm to point out all our problems, I again came away disappointed he’d offered no real solutions. He didn’t bring any patches to cover all the holes he’d carefully poked.
The next morning we were in for a dose of banking. Introducing the session, Dr Donal Donovan, former deputy director of the IMF, remarked that he was surprised and disappointed there were no representatives of the banking sector at the event, despite being repeatedly extended invitations.
Dr Donovan introduced Brendan Keenan, former financial editor of the Irish Independent, who he interestingly described as the Roddy Doyle of economic commentary. Packie Bonner crossed my mind again, cheered on by Jimmy Rabbitte and Bimbo as he saved that penalty the lads wedged into Italia ’90 soccer jerseys with Opel spelt across their bellies. Out selling chips in a van to force their way out of the last recession.
The emerging anarchic theme of the week continued with another dose of protesters that afternoon. Minister for Education and Skills Ruairi Quinn had just arrived. More than a dozen parents of Down Syndrome children had gathered in response to the imminent closure of the local St Agnes school for disabled kids.
But then the real suddenly became bizarre again, when Fianna Fail TD Michael McGrath praised a room full of pensioners for not rioting. He talked about the Greeks, and their rioting antics. He strangely chose to overlook the fact the rioting Greeks don’t get 188 a week.
I left Donegal confused. There were good speakers, and there were good ideas. But there was also a lot of boasting, backslapping and pointless political rhetoric. And far too many PowerPoint presentations.
Richard Curran, a finance commentator with the Sunday Independent, said he felt the MacGill Summer School represents a moment that gives us a brief pause to catch our breath, and get involved in an intellectual exchange about our country. That’s all well and good, but the people we need to involve in this exchange no longer live in this country.
So while it’s nice to congratulate ourselves on being a great bunch every now and then, it’s actions and not words that are needed to dig your way out of a hole.