Toby Joyce, 62: ‘You can be a moral person and live an upright life without religious belief’

Photograph: Barry Cronin

Photograph: Barry Cronin


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Toby Joyce lives in Navan, Co Meath

I grew up in Clifden, Co Galway, in a house on Market Street in the town. To put it bluntly, I think the town was dying then, back in the 50s. There were a lot of derelict buildings, unpainted buildings, buildings without roofs. Clifden is a much changed place, for the better, today.

My father Tobias was in his 50s when he got married. He was many things in his life, but he mainly dealt in cattle. If he had a love, it was for sheep, but the money was in cattle and beef, so that’s what he dealt in.

Both my parents were very much pro-Free Staters. They were very anti-clerical and had a profound mistrust of the church. They were pious Catholics in public but privately, in front of the family, they expressed their real views. I think there was always a latent anti-clerical element in society and that it’s not something that has only emerged in recent years.

I don’t practise religion and I abandoned it quite early on, by the time I was 20 or so. What I disliked about Irish Catholicism, when I started to think about it, was its arrogance. There was a veneer of superiority and there was very little that was humble about the church. I think you can be a moral person and live an upright life without religious belief.

There were four of us children. I was always bookish. I was a bit of a nerd before nerds were invented. I relied heavily on the local library, as did my mother. We both went there every couple of days.

I went to boarding school in Garbally, then to UCG, where I studied mathematics and physics. I was very rudderless when I finished. There was a feeling you didn’t have to emigrate any more. It was the Lemass years and there was a general feeling of lift in the country. I was at a loose end.

I took a job in the Indian Ocean, through the Holy Ghost Fathers. It was the equivalent of Voluntary Services Overseas in those days. I taught mathematics and physics at Rodrigues, an island about 350 miles from Mauritius. I was 23 when I went out.

I was there for two years. My father passed away when I was out there. I didn’t get back in time for the funeral, and it was even a couple of days before they got the news to me, because I was on a boat between islands at the time. Missing his funeral is the most painful thing that has ever happened to me, because there was no closure. I felt I had missed something with him.

I’m really sorry now that I didn’t say something more meaningful to him the last time I saw him before leaving Ireland.

I got married in Rodrigues before I came back to Ireland. Kathleen was a native of the island, of South Asian origin. She was 18. She had never been anywhere, apart from Mauritius. We never considered staying in Rodrigues when we got married. We came to Ireland in 1978.

We lived with my mother in Clifden for the first six months. In a way, we were still on an island. I remember, there was a postal strike at the time and it was very hard because I was applying for jobs. I remember driving to Galway and Castlebar to give out CVs. A postal strike today would not have the same impact.

I got a job in Galway, as an engineer with Digital Equipment Corp, who are part of Hewlett-Packard now. We stayed in Galway a couple of years and then moved to Clonmel with the company.

We have two daughters, and the big fear was they would encounter racism at school, but I don’t think they did. When Kathleen came here first in 1978, the peculiar thing is that because non-white people were rare here then, there was no animosity towards them. People would stop her on the street, particularly elderly people, and ask her where she was from. It was only in the 1990s and on we encountered racism.

The racism she has experienced is something that’s very hard to put your finger on. A lot of it happens when I’m not present. It’s things like not getting the best service or attention in shops and restaurants. There’s something unpleasant and nasty there that wasn’t there when we came back first. It means that unfortunately we have to be a bit defensive at times.

After Clonmel, we moved back to Galway until Digital closed. I tried to run my own business for a while; I even drove a cab in Galway for a couple of years, to keep things going. Luckily, the bubble was inflating at the time and there were a lot of jobs in the IT sector. I got a job in Blanchardstown. We moved to Navan in 2000 and have been here since.

I’ll keep working probably until my late 60s. We’d love to divide our time between Rodrigues and here; summer here and summer out there during our winter.

The big thing I have learned in life is the importance of family. The people closest to you are really important and if there is one meaningful thing you can do in your life, it is to bring up the next generation as best you can.

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