Cool to be kind: an experiment in niceness

Ahead of Clonakilty Random Acts of Kindness Festival, Patrick Freyne set out to discover how people react to acts of altruism on the streets


A young woman strolls by pushing a large pram. “We could follow her,” suggests the photographer. “She might need help getting it up the steps of the Hapenny Bridge?”

“Is it stalking if we’re following her for a good reason?” I ask. I’m simultaneously eyeballing an old lady with a stick. Maybe she’ll fall over, I think. Then we could go and help her up.

We are attempting to perform random acts of kindness in advance of the Clonakilty Random Acts of Kindness Festival. Hoping old ladies will fall over is a low point in the experiment. But don’t go away. Usually kind acts performed for strangers are a wonderful thing. This weekend in Clonakilty, individuals, communities and businesses host street parties and give away food and gifts to neighbours and strangers.

“In today’s world we can very easily switch off and do things that only affect ourselves,” says Ger O’Donovan, a 27-year-old teacher, Macra member and co-organiser of the festival. He wants people to look outward and build community. He sends me up a batch of little cards to use. They read: “Please enjoy this random act of kindness.” The other side asks we “pass it on”.

Graham Finlay, a lecturer in political philosophy in UCD, breezily recounts a number of works of social research that indicate humans are kind at heart. Of course, other studies tell a different story. There’s the famous “Good Samaritan” study, for example, in which people were put under pressure to deliver a talk about “the Good Samaritan” and then, while hurriedly making their way to the lecture hall, were confronted with a man who appears to have been badly beaten. “Some leapt over him to get to the theatre,” says Finlay.

But he’s an optimist. “There’s a lot to be said for ordinary everyday kindness, and not just the heroic throwing yourself on a grenade kind of stuff. Simple kindness creates trust and glues communities together.”

We don’t discuss where cynically performing kind acts in return for newspaper copy fits into this, but a few days later, on a scorching sunny day, I head towards Henry Street feeling altruistic.

As mentioned, serendipitous opportunities for kindness do not present themselves. Shoppers at Jervis Street and the Ilac Centre are not laden down with bags. The elderly seem self-sufficient, tourists geographically well-oriented. I stand holding a shop door open for a while, but it feels like defeating the purpose to waylay people for a conversation afterwards.

On Ormond Quay I pay for the parking of three cars with out-of-date tickets on their dashboards, but I don’t meet the owners. As I tuck tickets into windscreens, I feel like I’m doing something underhand.

Colleagues try to help. They suggest activities that are either impractically time consuming (holding a sign for someone while they go for lunch) or downright creepy (complimenting a stranger). In the end, the most useful thing I think of doing is distributing ice-lollies to heat-stricken passers-by.

Yvonne O’Shea is one of the first people to whom I give an ice-lolly. She thinks random acts of kindness are a good idea. “You are what you witness!” she says. The previous week she did some volunteer work with disabled children. “I study social care as a subject in college so was it purely altruistic? I don’t know.”

Sixteen-year-old Stephen Farrell and Evan Reilly, selling scratch cards to raise money for the Hanly Centre, say they can tell if people are kind just by looking at them. “I thought the elderly people would be the ones most interested in helping out,” says Reilly, holding his ice-lolly. “But they never stop. Younger people stop.”

In contrast Rita Meagher, out shopping with her daughter Ciara, thinks that the younger generation don’t pay enough attention to what’s going on around them. “People my age chat with one another in a queue,” she says, but she thinks young people are kinder in other ways. They talk about their emotions more, she says, and are much more accepting of gay people.

Theresa Ward from Ballyfermot says that Dublin is a kind place. “This morning there was a young fella looking for his bus fare so I said ‘You can come along with me.’ I have a pass that entitles me to have a carer. . . I pretended he was my carer.”

Steep learning curve
Of course, these are just some of the people who accept ice-creams and talk to me. I also experience a fair bit of social awkwardness and rejection. Here are some things I learn:

1 Many people have a perfunctory “No, thank you” ready on their lips when approached by a stranger. Some would say “no thank you”, walk a few yards and come back and say “Really? A free ice-lolly?” as if they only registered what was happening a few moments later.

2 My own kindness is shamefully conditional. I find myself getting unreasonably annoyed at people who take the ice-lollies and don’t stop to chat (One lady took five). True kindness is about expecting nothing in return, I’m told.

3The supermarket assistant isn’t remotely fazed to see me purchasing a fourth batch of ice-lollies. “Enjoy those!” she says cheerfully. This is a kind thing to say to a man with an apparent eating disorder, now that I think of it.

4 Distributing ice-lollies to teenagers is, on reflection, creepier than complimenting a stranger. When I meet Rita and Ciara Meagher, Ciara says: “I’m very trusting. I just think ‘Ice cream!’ But you could be trying to lure me into a van for all I know.”

Iran v Ireland
That all said, giving things away is a nice way to start a conversation with people you mightn’t otherwise meet. Mortezza Moussabi and Medi Safaei are from Iran and have a lot to say about Irish people. Moussabi feels we are very kind. Safaei thinks Iranians are kinder. He recalls a day when an Iranian colleague went to get an ice-cream and bought ice-creams for the whole staff. “[The Irish people] were so surprised,” he says.

Of course, some Irish people are just as generous. One person I meet offers me some cannabis (I decline). A few moments earlier, a stranger handed him free sunglasses.

He thinks Ireland is a very kind place. “I don’t receive social welfare and I don’t work. I’m a ‘skipper’. I go to skips and I get a lot of food and I share it.” He’s all about sharing. During our chat he offers another man a chance to get into a festival for free.

Desmond Kane isn’t surprised by random kindness either. That morning he and his son Dylan helped an old person get their shopping over a gate. “They couldn’t open it,” he explains. Desmond was formerly homeless and drug-addicted, but now has a council flat and has joined an evangelical church. “I have had great kindness done to me,” he says.

Mary Brennan from Kilkenny is shopping with some younger relatives. She accepts an ice-lolly. Today she has given money to beggars. “Oh God, I feel so sorry for them. You don’t see that in Kilkenny. They’re young people too. I just associate them with my own [children].”

Over the course of the afternoon I hear a lot of opinions about whether Ireland is kinder than other countries, whether small towns are kinder than cities, whether the past is kinder than the present or young people are kinder than old people. Views vary on all of these things. A few people tell me that the country is wrecked and that altruism is a sham. But I also hear many anecdotes suggesting that genuine acts of kindness are the secret ingredients of a functioning society.

These things don’t need to be heroic. “Always thank the bus driver!” Rita Meagher comes out of a shop to tell me this on seeing me for the second time. “That’s something Irish people do which I think is very nice.” She laughs. “It’s the little things.”

The Random Acts of Kindness Festival is on in Clonakilty from July 19th to July 21st,

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