Blueprint for a smarter society
Ireland performs brilliantly at a community level but functions poorly as a society. How can we apply our small-scale success to the whole country?
Illustration: Dearbhla Kelly
It is noon on a Friday, and the hall of St Joseph’s National School on the Muirhevnamor estate, outside Dundalk, is packed. There are 40 children, aged between eight and 11, either on stage or sitting quietly at the sides, waiting their turn.
All week they have been working hard at a literacy and numeracy camp. Now they’re showing off what they’ve learned, concentrating as their teachers hover and their parents watch, willing them to do well.
They do very well indeed. St Joseph’s is a disadvantaged school. Muirhevnamor, since it was built in the late 1970s, largely to house people who had fled the Troubles, has had to deal with the difficulties of Border life as well as economic disadvantage and the challenges of large-scale immigration.
But inside this hall you wouldn’t know much about how hard life is here. The kids are shining with health and energy. And they’re brilliant.
They stage a funny mock trial of the Big Bad Wolf. (He is acquitted on all charges.) They do scenes from Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice and Romeo and Juliet – big, difficult words that they’ve worked hard to master. They perform great orations: Robert Emmet’s speech from the dock, Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream”. They are confident, disciplined, articulate.
If you dropped into that hall that afternoon, knowing nothing about Ireland, you would have to think that it is a great little country – and not in the ironic way we usually use that phrase.
You’d see public servants – the teachers, Gheni Ni Naraigh, Caroline Cummins and Rosalyn Brady; the principal, Marcella Ó Conluain; and the rest of the staff – who have been working evenings and weekends to organise the project.
You’d see parents who care about their kids. You’d see children who radiate dignity and possibility. You’d see Government spending that really makes a difference: the Exploring Pathways programme that funds these literacy camps in primary schools is a great example of effective public expenditure. You’d see a brilliant use of the arts and creativity – the things we boast about to the world – to enrich so-called ordinary lives.
Above all you’d see a community in action. If you look at the children on the stage you can’t avoid being struck by a crude but remarkable fact: an awful lot of them are of black African origin. And if you listen to the names called out as they get their end-of-camp certificates, you can guess that many of the white children are from families who migrated here from central or eastern Europe. Forty-four per cent of the children at St Joseph’s are from immigrant families.
Like many working-class communities, Muirhevnamor has had to cope with the challenge of being transformed in a few short years from monocultural sameness to microcosm of globalisation. It’s a tough process, and it generates tensions, resentments, and overt and covert racism.
But most of those communities have coped superbly, a fact that’s embodied in the school hall on this tropical afternoon. Even if you watch the children with a sceptical eye it’s impossible to see any awareness among them of racial or ethnic difference. They hold hands and whisper together, and when they speak so proudly and clearly on stage they all do so in the same glorious Dundalk drawl.
This is not a Benetton ad, but it is a new community creating itself day by day in tough circumstances and often with too little help.
In pretty much any community in Ireland you could probably get, on the right day, a similar rush of optimism. You could see public employees doing much more than their jobs, parents full of pride in their kids, children with imagination and discipline, good public programmes, villages, towns and housing estates that have met the challenges of extraordinary change with innate decency.