WIP Class Intern, Sarah Mulcahy Talks Politics & Society with Canon Donal Linehan, a retired Priest from Ballinora, County Cork, Ireland
What were you doing when you were my age?
I was a student in St. Patrick’s College in Maynooth. I did a BA in Philosophy. I then went on to Theology for four years. It was a seven year program, for the priesthood, three of which you would have done your basic degree, and the other was the degree in Theology and Scripture. I was ordained a priest in May 1959. I got a bachelor of Theology in 1958, and I was ordained a priest then in 1959. But I did go back to study again after that twice.
How did you get to where you are today?
I began to work as a priest in Cork in September 1959, working with young people who were leaving school early; people who were leaving school at fourteen, having learned very little and with very bad prospects. I was an interested student, a very interested I suppose really. They were the opposite end of the educational spectrum, but I was delighted. It was a great challenge. To know how they functioned, what was happening in their families and what kind of experience they had in school; all this was troubling me. I was supposed to be teaching them religion. But unless you know how people function and how they live, you can’t do that, you see? I remember this one young fellow anyway- and God, some of them, they were undernourished, they weren’t happy. They were very resentful. See, at the time they had to go to school at least one day a week, it was compulsory and a lot of them resented that. It was intended to help them, but they didn’t see that. Some of them were very angry- But this one young fellow anyway was depressed beyond measure, and he looked so pale. To be honest you’d like to take him out and give him two cream cakes you know? But I couldn’t get through to him at all and often wondered what to do. One day, I was walking through the Mardyke and I saw him walking two greyhounds. He used to walk greyhounds. And you see, that was his life. That was his language and so I got it- “greyhounds”- that’s the medium. So it was that kind of learning.
I was in that for four years. Then I was appointed to St. Finbarre’s Secondary School, which was a boarding school for boys so I lived in there and worked there for six years. I was teaching religion and maths and Irish. I did enjoy being there, but I didn’t want teaching as a life career at all, teaching those subjects anyway. Then in 1969, the bishop, moved me to chaplaincy in UCC and I was there for ten years and that was great. I loved being there and the kind of political upheaval that was in and about Maoism with a lot of people angry at the church. But you see I love that. I like that. In UCC I used go for a coffee at about half past ten, and you might leave the restaurant about two hours later. This group and that group and the other group. It was quite unstructured. So I was there for ten years, until 1979. Then I took a year out because I was kind of worn out, and weary. I did some community development work with young people especially programs for young people who left school early, I was very interested in them. And then I went to the University of Birmingham, and did a Masters in social planning. So that’s connecting to politics. Social planning now, not houses and roads but people. Planning for people to live their lives, that kind of thing.
I came back then in 1982 and I went as a priest to Mayfield, and I asked to go there. I was there for sixteen years. I really liked it. It was church activity, mass and first communion and all that, but I was also very interested in a few other projects. I think I was good at recruiting people, for projects. It isn’t a one man show, you can do nothing on your own really- but I did recruit some very good people. I set up this training workshop for people who were leaving school early at that time, twenty years later from 1960’s. It’s still functioning, for about fifty of sixty young people who are leaving school early. So I was there for sixteen years. During that then I did a Masters in counseling in UCC. I was very interested in being as effective as possible with people. Then in 1998, I came to Ballinora, so we are here.
Who is the most influential person in your life and why?
I had one uncle, a priest. He was my mother’s brother and he was made bishop in Waterford. We used to go on holidays and stay with him. And he was really lovely. The first time I went on holidays down there, I was ten. I think what really impressed by with him was his status and power, but he was so gentle. He had a great mind, very clear thinking person, but he had a great heart. In his role, now priests could be afraid of getting censored, but he was very kind. I could see that, and he was like that all the time. So I think he had a great influence on me in his thinking. He was very much in touch with the humanity of people. For example, he was very concerned about people who were very genuine in their religious commitment and who were living a life that was very frustrating and confined. So for example, when the circus was coming around after the war, he wanted to make sure that the teachers and especially teaching nuns went to the circus. And they didn’t think they should. So he said: “Sure of course they must go to the circus, sure how can they talk to the children? Children are bubbling up with it!” The nuns at the time didn’t go on holidays you know? So he arranged with one religious house and asked the Reverend Mother to send them on holidays, she said, “Oh gosh” she said, “They’d be horrified” so he said, “Tell them go as a penance” and sure, when they went once, they couldn’t stop them. It’s just the style I think I admired, very much the style. There was no preaching. So I mean leadership, I’m very interested in leadership.
What do you think makes a great leader?
I think a feeling for other people and a willingness to be really with them. Try to have patience to listen on the one hand, but on the other hand, having a sense of purpose. A vision. I was very conscious of that a few times in my life. In Mayfield, especially I was fifty, and I said to myself “You’re not going to be around forever” and I was very focused. I spent a lot of time talking out the vision of the project and the sense of purpose. There might be ten different ways of doing things, but I was very very keen on getting across that common sense of purpose. I think it’s very important to have ideas, and to have a vision and to be able to translate ideas into specific projects. But then, it’s so important to really be able to bring people into that vision and that sense of purpose. I can be very very patient in the smaller print; it doesn’t matter too much as long as it is all in the same vision.
In Mayfield, I had a very clear sense of the church as being concerned with more than the sacraments and prayers. For example, there were families who were not functioning well, who were very poor and there were a lot of one-parent families. I realized that some of the mothers were locals, and that there was support for them locally from their own families. I said that was a very important to get them accommodation locally. It was a strength. And that was new. So a family center then became a project. Then another one was for people leaving school early. There was a very good community school in Mayfield. We talked a lot about it, and I was very clear that we could not improve on the community school. So what could we do? Give more attention to the young people. And then make demands on them when you won their allegiance. So try and get your purpose clear. I wouldn’t tolerate this kind of simplistic talk that “teachers don’t care”. I could see that with these young people, it was really about motivation and self-belief.
How did the young people go to the center?
We invited them. We thought out the project and then invited them. FÁS wanted to give them an allowance for coming. In the beginning we didn’t want that at all. We thought that nobody under 16 or 17 should be getting allowance. But we lost that battle. So that was one incentive, but that created some problems because people came for the money. We had a very good guy as manager of it then. He had been working in construction for the previous twenty, twenty-five years. He also had a great interest in motivating people. His thing was that you could come in the morning half an hour late, but if you were late, you lost half your allowance. Later on in the day, he might spend time talking to you about what was going on in your life, but we wanted to get this thing across, that we don’t create the world and there are standards to be created out there. So there was a lot of learning.
Computers also. They took to the computers so fast. Work experience was a very important part of the program. We found that a lot of the young people, especially the boys, panicked with work experience. They couldn’t cope with the world downtown. They couldn’t take orders, and got into a huff. So we got one staff person full time on work placement, meeting them before, during and after it to try and figure out what was the problem. It was confidence. I love when people notice that is the problem. As a group and a project then, you are learning along the way.
What would you like to change, or what do you think about the political situation in Northern Ireland?
I think that young people of different ages, and especially in post graduate study, working or studying together is a very powerful dynamic. That learning about the other culture and working together.
Mixed schools, yes?
I think the interaction of schools is very important. I think the lack of interaction is too drastic altogether. I would prefer to think it out, say, “interaction between young people is what we want, how and when and where to bring it about?” because it’s not happening really. The school affects your social set, and even many are going to university in Britain rather than in Queens. I mean Queens is taken over by the nationalists, Irish Catholics if you like. So I think that is very important.
A first cousin of mine now was one of the founders of what’s called the Educate Together Movement in Northern Ireland. She and some other families of different faiths started off a primary school. She and some others were very middle of the road Catholics and very conscientious. They started a Sunday school for the Catholic children in their house, and they told the other parents, “We’d love if you would do the same for your children”, so that they would get a sense of their traditions and religion. So those children went up the line, into secondary school and so on. They have about a thousand students in that college now. See, political factors are intervening as well. This person, Cecil Linehan is her name, tried it in her own time.
What do you think would make our society and Ireland better?
I think learning goes on in ways that are wider than formal education. There is an awful lot of learning through television, public discussion, newspapers, and other media.
Suppose I was asked to set out a program for six or ten sessions on the radio or television. I think I would go for what you just said there, a vision of living in Ireland that was pluralist, where there would be people on it with different visions, but with a very strong sense of common purpose. One of the problems with pluralism is it can lead to fragmentation. There is a guy cutting turf up in Leitrim and we’re talking about a referendum; that’s aggravating for him. That is a terrible waste of energy unless there is some sense of common purpose in how to go about discussion.
So do you mean, having a method of communication?
Yes. I mean, I do understand why the guys cutting this turf have a grievance. I mean, there’s a good reason underlying the issue. Guys cutting the turf feel on the margins, they feel half forgotten, which they are of course. I remember long time ago some seminar down in south Kerry in Derrynane, I was saying why the hell are they so annoyed about things? I could see it then, South Kerry; part of the ring of Kerry was a frigging disaster. All the money they felt was being spent in Killarney. That’s where Jackie Healy Ray and all this kind of stuff came from. It didn’t come from nowhere, it came from a whole lot of people in a locality having a fierce grievance and that is very much happening in parts of the west of Ireland.
Then in terms of leadership, there’s been a phrase there mentioned a few times in the last week in regard to RTE management about ‘group think’. You know what that means? A group of people with very strong common purpose, working hard towards a goal with a lot of interaction together. This would be very true now of priests; RTÉ staff; would be true of guards and other professions that I wouldn’t be so sure about. And I suppose true of teachers too where these groups have so much common purpose that they are unwittingly thinking the same way about an awful lot of things. I found that very important along the way. You asked me about people who influenced me. There is a friend of mine now, Eugene O’Connor is his name, I don’t mind saying. He has worked with me for a long time, since about 1970 on a number of different projects. He worked with the HSE. Eugene will say the opposite to what’s conventional. And it’s not just saying the opposite thing for the sake of being awkward. It’s really trying to make sure that we’re not just drifting along with something, because we have so much in common. Instead we have got to look at what other factors are going on there.
How do you think that can be done? Obviously, that’s a big question-I agree with you- I think it’s very tough to try and balance those two things. One is that in Ireland and in our world today, there are a lot of different viewpoints, and there will be more, with different cultures coming in. I think that’s brilliant. But with that comes the difficulty of the fragmentation that a lot of different viewpoints can bring. How can you create something that allows for them, and that appreciates them, but that equally, has a common purpose?
Yeah, I think that’s very very important. If that is set as a very important objective, you might not get an answer straight away, but say for example in Mayfield, a very important thing was celebration. It was very important. Families a were having a tough time health wise, income wise- they loved to celebrate. We celebrated everything and that was very important. Because that was a sense of being alive together, being in this project together. That was very important. And the reasons for it may vary, and that brings in a little bit of the diversity element of it again.
That’s what I was thinking, because that’s what religious institutions have done for us. That’s so interesting, having a communal celebration
I remember one time in Mayfield, this young boy who was 16 or 17, had a very bad fall from a high building and he was very seriously injured. His family were part of the provisional IRA and democratic left. There were two priests in Mayfield, myself and Con Tuaig, and we had a great relationship with them. But I know that in some speeches they’d be very critical of the church. Anyway, they had this celebration, a night to raise money for this boy. The guest there was Thomas Mac Giolla. He was the president of provisional Sin Féin, a very intelligent man, but God he was hard to talk to. Then Con Tuaig arrived and in three minutes or maybe five minutes, Con Tuaig found out that Thomas Mac Giolla’s mother came from Macroom, and Con Tuaig also came from Macroom. No problem anymore. I think there are two things happening there. One is to honor that fixture, be it Democratic Left, or anything else, honor that. And then, human interactions will happen. I think that’s part of the sense of community. You have to honor difference and celebrate what’s common, and that would be my kind of formula.
What advice would you give to a university graduate like me?
Well even to stay with you, I think as you were saying that first of all it is important to have the overall statistical picture. I believe in that a lot. I have two nieces, one is a nurse. I was saying to her too, even in nursing, the statistics of it is one thing, if you’re dealing with particular patients or a sector, and then the other thing is the people of it. During her maternity care training, they found that a certain per cent of the mothers had been smoking. And it is important is to ask why. What is the psychology of that? Rather than saying how bloody careless they are, because that’s not true. Insight is important.
But I would be very concerned about the intellectual understanding of it, and statistics. Do not bring out a big book, and put it on the table though. I’ll tell you about that now, when I went to Mayfield, I had done this Masters in Birmingham. Part of it was a thesis on community development and I took Mayfield as a project. I published a little book. But this great friend of mine, Eugene O’Connor says to me, “Have you many copies of that left?” He says, “Put them under the bed would you? Don’t ever come to a meeting with a book”. God almighty, I didn’t realize it, that you’ve got to begin with people even though you have studied morning noon and night at some stage.
How do you think you can give young people confidence and give them a vision?
I think acknowledgement of people, recognition of people, small things. I think confidence building at that level is very very basic and very simple. What age group are you talking about now with young people?
I said I was thinking about my three brothers…
Well I think recognizing somebody- it’s specifics. If somebody says to me, “You’re great”, I have no idea what that means, honestly. But if somebody says to me, “What you said at the end of your talk on Sunday, that said a lot to me”, that’s specific. You don’t have to say everyone is great all the time, that’s meaningless.