'Support and retain what is local but grow it with vision'
Fr Harry Bohan tells Jim O'Brien we're repeating the mistakes of the past by concentrating on national development at the expense of regional growth
Published 23/07/2014 | 02:30
Harry Bohan's house in Shannon, Co Clare is the nearest dwelling to the airport. His living-room window looks out across the mudflats metres from where the planes take off and land in this, the most westerly airport in Europe.
The door is open and as I come in, the priest stands up to greet me. A big man, he speaks with a deep rich Clare accent that gives every consonant its full value, while shaving the vowels to a minimum. A shock of strong white hair stands stylishly on the crown of his head and his eyes are as sharp as those of a 20 year old.
"You'll have tay, come on in to the kitchen."
His tall frame moves slowly, almost gingerly.
"I had cancer, you know, and an aneurysm that went wrong."
He proceeds to list a series of operations, any one of which would have incapacitated a normal mortal.
"I'm lucky to be alive, if lucky is what you'd call it, but at least I don't have to retire. I'd go mad if I hadn't something to do to keep the brain working."
We return to the sitting rooms where books and boxes of tablets share the shelf and sideboard space, testament to his condition and his passions. The 75-year-old parish priest of Sixmilebridge and Kilmurry ministers to his flock with help from his 'curate,' retired Bishop of Killaloe, Willie Walshe.
"I still do 40 first Friday calls every week," says Fr Bohan. "I spread them out over a few days but it's fierce important. I take my time at it because for some of these people, the priest's visit is one of the few bits of social contact they have during the week."
The word 'social' looms large in Harry Bohan's vocabulary.
"The day I was ordained in Maynooth in 1963, my bishop, the late Joe Rodgers, took me for a walk and told me he was sending me to the University of Wales in Cardiff to study sociology. I nearly fainted because I'd had enough of books and I told him as much. In explaining his reasoning he said that Shannon, Clare and its surrounds were at the heart of the new Ireland that was emerging. He wanted someone in the diocese who'd understand these changes."
As a student, the man from Feakle, Co Clare was very influenced by a young professor of sociology at Maynooth, Jeremiah Newman, who subsequently became the bishop of Limerick.
"Newman shaped my future, what he was doing in Maynooth was trying to enable us to connect with the real world, while the theology we learned was up in the clouds." In Cardiff Fr Bohan did his thesis on the growth of cities in Britain.
"In short, I concluded that the massive housing estates and high rise apartments were not good places to raise families."
After he finished his MA he was sent to Birmingham to work with Irish immigrant families and what he found there confirmed what his research had told him.
In 1968 Harry came back to a changed Ireland.
"It had been through four revolutions in a short period. These included the revolution in communications with the arrival of television, the revolution brought about by free education, the changes brought by industrialisation and the changes in the church under Vatican II," he explains.
"I came back with the hope that the mistakes made in Britain in terms of the growth of cities would not be repeated in Ireland, that the concentration of industry and people would not be repeated here."
Unfortunately this had already begun in Dublin and locally in Limerick.
Ireland was reaping the rewards of Whitaker's Economic Plan but Britain's mistakes were being repeated in the concentration of industry in industrial estates and the concentration of people in massive housing estates.
"This ran totally contrary to the settlement patterns in Ireland, a pattern of towns and villages and open countryside. And today, Ireland is still making the same mistakes by concentrating on national development at the expense of genuine regional and local development. We are continuing to pay a huge price for putting people into places they were never meant to be."
In his memoir, Swimming Upstream, Bohan quotes Maynooth sociologist Liam Ryan who delivers a damning critique of national planning, "….the new economic philosophy would seem to be achieving in the area of job creation, but meanwhile the population continues to fall in the West and the north West. A little bit of dole here and a little bit of Bord Failte there will not be enough to change this trend."
Fr Bohan claims that Foreign Direct Investment is simply allowing "branches of export-led multinational companies to export our people from the towns and villages into the cities and when these (multinationals) get fed up, they move on."
He goes on to say that in the various incarnations of national planning, all that mattered was job creation but it didn't matter where the jobs were created. "What resulted was a population shift from towns and villages and instead of going to Boston and Chicago, they were going to Shannon, Limerick and Dublin. Not a thing was learned," he says.
"We don't seem to have brought any creativity whatsoever to the whole development process. The development values were money values, market values, commercial values, not the values of human and natural resources, not the values of people and what they could create. It was all top-down stuff concerned with growth and not the spread of growth."
Fr Bohan's first response to this situation was to set up the Rural Housing Organisation. "Something had to be done. In 1973 my own home village of Feakle had a population of 120 but only three people were between the ages of 20 and 40. Alarm bells were ringing, villages were dying and at the same time post offices, shops and garda stations were closing."
The Rural Housing Organisation started its work in Feakle where local couples were invited to save a specific weekly amount for a deposit on a house while, at the same time, they were helped to get loans from the county council and local banks. With this system in place the organisation set about building affordable housing.
"The aim was to retain in communities the very age group communities needed to survive."
In its time, the Rural Housing Organisation worked in 13 counties from Cavan to Cork and built 2,500 houses.
"The benefits of this were immediately obvious - young farmers stayed around, school numbers grew, businesses became viable, community centres were built, emigrants returned, other houses were built. The populations of villages increased by up to 30pc."
The next challenge Fr Bohan saw was to tackle the lack of job opportunities and investment in rural communities. The Rural Housing Organisation became the Rural Resource Organisation and with seed capital of £100,000 borrowed from West of Ireland bishops and some interested parties, the organisation began to loan money to local projects and rural SMEs at 2pc when the banks were charging 16c. The intention was to set up a people's bank based on a German model to reverse the outflow of capital that was leaking from mainstream banks, who were taking the savings of people in the West of Ireland and investing them everywhere else but back in the local communities where they were deposited.
Although the Rural Resource Organisation kept building houses and supported a range of rural business projects, the 1980s downturn hit it hard and after disposing of its remaining land banks and paying its debts, it closed up shop.
It wasn't an easy time for the Clare man. "One minister for the environment said to me at the time: 'Why did you set up that organisation? If the West is dying, I'll save it.' But Government could only do big things in big places; it could never see that the way forward is to facilitate people to take responsibility for their own lives. The same could be said of the church."
Fr Bohan is not just a man of action, he is equally a man of ideas. He likes nothing better than exploring what people are thinking. He often prefaces his description of the initiatives he was involved in with the words, "a few of us gathered and began talking about this". And so when the arc of the Celtic Tiger was firmly on its upward trajectory in 1999, he launched a series of annual conferences held in Clare and known as the Ceifin conferences, named after the Celtic goddess of inspiration Ceibhfhionn.
Led by nationally and internationally-renowned speakers and thinkers, the gatherings, which lasted from 1998 to 2000, challenged the prevailing wisdoms and sacred cows of the time. In this regard, the contribution to the 1998 conference by David McWilliams in which he foretells the collapse of the Tiger is chilling in its accuracy.
As the country attempts to pick up the pieces after the most recent economic collapse, Fr Bohan shakes his head at the thoughts of a looming property bubble in Dublin and the emergence of a two-tier recovery. "Has nothing been learned?" he asks ruefully.
But he has hope, he keeps trying and keeps experiencing little victories. Among these, he numbers the retention of the hospital in Cahercalla, near Ennis, as a community hospital bought by the people of Clare. The most recent victory is the purchase and reopening of the mart in Sixmilebridge in 2011 after a long struggle between the local community and former owners, GVM.
Now operating as a co-operative in community ownership, the mart is a thriving source of activity and industry, and has spawned a bustling local country market.
"The mart story proves that the cooperative model is a viable one at a time when people have lost faith in larger institutions and corporations," he says. "The message is, 'support and retain what is local but at the same time grow it with activity, creativity and vision'."
It's time to go. We have been so busy we hardly mentioned his second religion - Clare hurling.
"Will ye beat Cork tomorrow?" I ask. "We should," he says. "But t'will tighten us. But Limerick are flying." This last remark was delivered with all the admiration of a fowler taking aim at his next airborne target.
It was definitely time for this Limerick man to beat a retreat across the river.
Unfortunately, Cork got the better of both of us.
Bohan on... The Church
‘It is a pity, when the Church had its voice it didn’t address the key social questions faced by Ireland’
Harry Bohan is a loyal churchman, a loyalty that gives him the license to deliver a sharp and incisive critique of the organisation he has given his life to. Here are some of the things he has to say:
"It is a pity, when the church had its voice it didn't address the key social questions faced by Ireland. We concentrated on sexual morality and ignored these social questions to our cost."
"There is no point going on and on about the shortage of priests and vocations, this is just looking for more of the same. We have to go back to first beginnings, to being Christ-centred and define the church in terms of how Christian is the society it is creating."
"In his words and actions, Pope Francis is modelling a church which loves humanity."
Bohan on... Hurling
‘There are two GAAs–the players and the administrators’
Harry Bohan is a passionate hurling man, he managed Clare in darker times between 1974 and 1979. In his first year in charge, the team reached the Munster Final, a rare occasion for Clare who had only featured in five provincial finals in 90 years.
In 1977 and 1978 they won two National League titles with Fr Bohan and competed in the Munster Finals of 1977 and 1978, being beaten by the great Cork All-Ireland three-in-a-row team that included Jimmy Barry-Murphy.
He stepped down in 1979, returned to the job in 1980 and stepped down for good in 1981, but since then has served on various backroom teams, including working with Anthony Daly between 2003 and 2006.
Speaking about the current Clare team, he says: "They are a young bunch of lads who obviously have a mission. They set high standards for themselves…they are also people who are close to one another, who have huge respect for one another, and for Davy - as he respects them."
Reflecting on the GAA, he quotes Wexford man Liam Griffin, who said that even if there never was a player, the GAA would still meet. "In other words, there are two GAAs - the players and the administrators."
Bohan on farming
'We need to bring a huge amount of creativity and imagination to farming'
Harry Bohan thinks and talks a lot about farming: "My good friend, Michael McGrath, the former CAO in Clare, is right when he says there's a huge future for grass-produced food in the country. In that vein we should never grumble about the rain, we should thank God for it."
In one of his recent initiatives, Fr Bohan is involved in establishing the Good Food Movement. "In an era when people are eating huge amounts of mass-produced food with consequent health problems, there is a growing interest in good food."
He believes we need to get away from the "beef and milk yo-yo" and begin to look at what we can produce in our rural villages that will do new things and open up new opportunities.
"We need to bring a huge amount of creativity and imagination to farming, doing it the way we always did it isn't working. There is no future in exporting agricultural raw material as we have always done, we need to start investing in the finished product."
In that regard, he bemoans the way the country is willing to spend billions on attracting foreign direct investment but grumbles about putting a few pounds into developing our best indigenous industry.