Hitch-hiker’s guide to the national mood
Ruairí McKiernan is thumbing his way around the country to get ‘a citizen’s view of Ireland’ as research for his upcoming MacGill Summer School address
Ruairi McKiernan, founder of Spunout, on Green Road in Sligo as he hitch-hikes around Ireland. Photograph: James Connolly/PicSell8
You might expect a 35-year-old man hitching around modern Ireland to spend most of his time waiting by the side of the road, watching cars go by. But Ruairí McKiernan says that, so far, he hasn’t had a problem getting a lift. People consider it a novelty to see someone hitch-hiking and stop out of curiosity.
But then his journey is something of a novelty in itself. McKiernan is a founder of the youth organisation Spunout (spunout.ie), and was appointed to the Council of State by President Michael D Higgins last year. His Irish hitch-hiking tour began after the director of the MacGill Summer School, Dr Joe Mulholland, asked McKiernan to contribute “a citizen’s view of Ireland” to this year’s event.
The hitching trip is his research. McKiernan set out a week ago and hopes to take in about 20 counties, before ending up in Glenties at the end of July for the annual summer school.
When we spoke earlier this week, he was making his way from Galway to Derry, relying on the kindness of strangers, including a pair of Italian tourists who offered him a lift as far as Mayo.
Over a meal on Achill Island, the three compared the economic situations of Ireland and Italy. One of the Italians said that where he came from the average wage was down to €1,000 a month, and so to him Ireland didn’t look too bad a place. It’s all about perspective, McKiernan says.
McKiernan spent some time in Australia this year and on his return, he wanted to get back in touch with Irish people and hear from them what a new vision for Ireland might look like.
He’s at something of a crossroads in his own life – in his mid thirties, soon to be married, and finding paid work in Ireland often hard to come by. So his journey is as much a personal voyage of discovery as a reconnection with Ireland. Along the way, he is blogging about his experiences (at www.community.ie, on Facebook and Twitter) and recording the thoughts of some of the people he meets.
Some of those who have given him lifts have spoken to him about personal tragedies. “One woman had a younger brother killed in a hit-and-run by a drunk driver. She told me she knows who did it and that it happened 20 years ago and there was a cover-up. She gave me an insight into resilience, into how to survive something like that and still enjoy life.”
Other common themes are the importance of community in many parts of Ireland, a vibrant local sense of right and wrong, and the number of people struggling to make sense of modernity and progress.
Back to basics
“Many people talked to me about simplicity and about how life has become way too complicated,” he says. “The dream of progress as promised was all about making life easier. There is a sense it has failed us. I’m hearing [that] we are going off track not economically, but socially.” People tell him they are interested in “getting back to basics and prioritising things like friends, family and spending time in nature”.