Let's answer Roscrea's call: 'Ireland needs to be reborn'
Last week we saw a mid-sized town in Tipperary hit the headlines for reasons far deeper than we've yet to understand, writes John Waters
Published 03/08/2014 | 02:30
Sunrise belongs to the countryside, to the mountains and the beaches and the bogs, but sundown comes into its own in the town, where it sends odd shafts of light between chimneys and the old people come out and sit on their window sills and there is a strange sense of peace at the end of the day.
Usually, having been reared in a town, I feel a profound exultance on almost any street at this time of day, a sense of rest and looking forward, a feeling that reality is not hostile but friendly.
But not this Thursday evening. I am walking around with two local men, Derek Russell and Martin Maher, who are having their photo taken to accompany the fruits of our day's conversations.
Roscrea is a beautiful town - with its castle and round tower close to the heart of itself. There are few towns in Ireland more striking. But this evening it is hard to avoid a sense that a pall hangs over these streets. It may be that the sun hides its going-down behind a dirty duvet of clouds. But there is also the quietness, as though the population of the town has been ordered indoors, or elsewhere. A few cars pass by, but there is no life here of the kind that you would expect in a major country town around teatime.
As we stop at the castle for the two men to be photographed, a woman in an apron comes out of a public house, walks up the street and unashamedly looks about and around everyone and everything - half pretending not to see us but surreptitiously studying every face while pretending to be about some other business, then carefully scrutinising the gate of the castle, as though for rust, before returning to the bar from which she emerged a minute before. Even odder is that neither of the two men appear to see her. Further up the street, we stop again and a man in a passing green Toyota shouts at the two men: "Don't be always painting a bad picture!"
Twenty years ago, I published a book with the title Every Day Like Sunday, a nod to Morrissey but more so a stab at a prediction about the grim future of towns like this, their hearts torn away by joblessness, emigration and what was then called 'rationalisation' - unless, I cautioned, something happened.
Then something happened - the Celtic Tiger - and for a decade everything I'd written seemed completely wrong.
I'm not claiming to have predicted anything. What I foresaw from the Ireland of 1994 was a slow economic disintegration, with human consequences in line with historical experience. I did not predict the kind of vultures that would descend on places like Roscrea, to suck the lifeblood from our young and harry them to early graves.
Perhaps nobody could have predicted what has emerged from Roscrea in the past week, although, now that we come to think of it, we have known it all for some time, but have not given voice to it. The story which has made national headlines is of a town beset by drugs, devastated by young suicides, which has finally risen to its feet and shouted, 'Enough!'
In this story, Roscrea is both itself and Everytown. This story goes deeper than itself, deeper than its factual basis, deeper than anything we have heard or read or said or written about for perhaps the past 20 years.
It starts, yes, in one sense, with suicide: in the past two months, two young men have taken their own lives here, and another young man and two young women have made attempts on their own lives. Some - not all - of these episodes have been drug-related. There is talk of young people in debt to drug pushers, being terrorised and laid siege to because they cannot pay their drug bills.
These are the essential facts. But behind them is another story, and behind that another. And another, and another. This is the story of the life and possible death of a town. It is the story of what has happened to Ireland in the past two decades of alleged boom followed by enforced atonement.
It is the story of a town which was once one of the most thriving market and industrial towns in the region. In recent decades it has suffered several seismic shocks resulting from the closure of the Antigen pharmaceutical factory and another that manufactured ribbons.
As elsewhere, these losses were for a time disguised by injections of cheap borrowings, creating the false highs of the building and consumer booms. By the time we came down from the heights of our fantasies, the damage was gone too far for a quick fix.
As elsewhere, shops and bars were closing, leaving streets gap-toothed and largely uninhabited at night. Multinational conglomerates like Tesco and Lidl came in and hoovered up whatever few bob was going around. (Aldi has just obtained planning permission for a new store in Roscrea).
Into the vacuum of joblessness and growing alienation a different kind of drugs purveyor moved to offer the short-term escape of instant bliss.
But it is also the story of a country abandoned by its political class, which long since abdicated its responsibility to provide a life for its people. For the past six years, both the administration of the country, and the conversation about it, have somehow taken it for granted that the purpose of government is something else: perhaps the balancing of books, or the appeasement of foreign leaders, or the subsidisation of those who took losing punts on the Irish economy, as though it were a piece of earth sticking up out of the Atlantic rather than a community of human beings trying to raise their young.
What's happening in Roscrea, and elsewhere, is in a sense symptomatic of a culture in which the purpose of government is deemed to be something other than what it says on election posters.
At first glance it may seem anomalous that the first stirring of revolt in this country should be about a menu of issues that are, to say the least, off-centre in terms of our public discourse. But the more you think about it, the more sense it makes.
We have been bullied and patronised and bled dry, and yet have remained silent. We have been occupied once again in the name of alien governments and have stayed silent. Now, the deeper effects of the years of pseudo-prosperity followed by austerity become visible in the pained hearts and faces of our children. Can we stay silent for this? This is the final test of our resolve.
It was Derek Russell who shouted stop in Roscrea, convening in two major public meetings in recent weeks, the first attended by 400 people, the second by about three times that number. He went to his second funeral within a few weeks of a young man who had killed himself, and could take no more. He didn't know the lad, but knew his father, a musician who would sometimes play music at a Tuesday night session in Derek's local bar. Sometimes he would send him over a pint to say thanks for the music, and he felt that was a good enough reason to go to his son's funeral.
"But the point that got to me was that there were men that I knew that were in no way related to this man, who were going out crying, 30 and 40 years of age, even though the person that died was no relation. It was the fact that this was bringing big grown strong men down.
"We all hear this theory in society that men don't cry. Men do cry. I cry. I mightn't necessarily cry in public, but I do cry. I have depression. I don't make any secret of it. I don't go around shouting it off the rooftops either. I've learned how to handle it. I go up to St Patrick's Hospital - I spent 13 weeks there four years ago. Best thing I ever done. Men do cry, but the environment has to be right.
"What I seen that day was too much altogether. His friends in the town - the emotion that was there. Life is too short for these things.
"And to know that there was drug dealers sitting in that day at the funeral - the very people that caused the deaths. To see their killers there in the congregation - it's nearly the same thing as if they shot him. They forced him to take his own life, the way it worked out."
Derek believes that there are many complex issues bound together in what is happening in Roscrea. There is an historical issue relating to mental illness, which he says may be to a degree particular to the North Tipperary region.
He says the suicide factor has been visible for about ten years, and affects most of the towns around there. (Actually, North Tipperary is indeed in the upper reaches of the suicide graphs: between 2007 and 2011, it was placed 11th in a chart of 34 local authority areas, with a suicide rate of 13.6 per 100,000. Cork city was highest at 17.6. South Tipperary was eighth with 14.1. Dun Laoghaire and Fingal were at the bottom of the chart, both with a rate of 6.3.)
Derek Russell is not an activist nor an ideologue nor even a local busybody "stuck in everything". He is an ordinary working man, the separated father of a young boy, who has had enough, who won't stand idly by, who's as mad as hell and is not going to take it anymore.
Martin Maher is the married father of two little girls. He is in the second year of a course in social justice at NUI Maynooth. He relates several stories, some involving well-to-do families - one about a woman who's son stole and sold everything she had to pay his dealer, another of a female student, a very bright girl, who ended up prostituting herself while at college because she fell behind with her drugs bill, and was beaten up by a client.
The drug problem, he says, took root in the town's council estates - Kennedy Park, Ashbury Land and Chapel Lane (the latter just a minute's walk from the town centre) - but is now spreading like dry rot.
This simmering alienation has nurtured the outlaw element as the sea nurtures fish. Everyone agrees that this outlaw element is relatively small - maybe just two or three houses in any of the estates - and that most of the inhabitants of the estates are good, decent people. But the contamination spreads far and wide and it takes just a handful of predators to poison a whole town.
Martin Maher sees the issues as rooted in welfarism, welfare dispensed with a contempt that invites and provokes its mirror images, generating the corrosion of alienation close to the vital vessels of human communities.
He says also that the alienation once confined to ghettoes has been spreading from the estates to the main streets of the town. Parents have struggled silently with wage cuts, joblessness, dole, mortgage arrears, negative equity, and managed to keep going, but have passed their suppressed despair on to their children.
Martin, like Derek, comes from a couple of miles out of town, and therefore, he says, sees and hears things that the locals don't notice. He's seen a change in young people in the town in recent times, pre-dating the recent crises - a constant articulation of alienation, apathy and despair. He thinks young people are giving voice to sentiments they've been picking up at home.
Tadhg Martin teaches in the local secondary school, Colaiste Phobail. He too sees the drug problem as having been brewing for a number of years. People had been turning blind eyes, he says, but now it's happening openly in the streets.
Dealers are driving around estates like ice-cream men, for the local youths to come up and get their fixes. Once rendered vulnerable with drugs on credit, the young people become enslaved to their habits and their suppliers.
"There have been cases in which people have been barricaded into their own houses, with guys outside the door demanding money," he says. "If you've had any hand, act or part in handling the drugs, you will be hounded.
"And it's relentless. You do not mess. This is what has been seen by the young people of this town. And unfortunately up until now it has been seen as the norm. It's up to all of us to make sure that we get the word out that we will not accept it any longer. We want this town to turn around. We want the town back."
It is not, he insists, that there is any scarcity in Roscrea of "things to do" for young people. Rather, he says, the problem is the hopelessness and attendant meaninglessness which infects young people, arising from the palpable inability of their locality to offer them any kind of meaningful future.
Sometimes he thinks the school he teaches in has become more of a baby-sitting service than an educational establishment.
"I'm being constantly told in the school environment: 'Sure there's nothing there for us. It's a waste of time coming to the school in the first place.' That's the kind of vibe that I'm getting from the kids themselves - not all the kids obviously, but from a certain section of them."
He also says that, while recent economic developments were distracting our collective attention, far more radical shifts were occurring in family life.
"I think the support in the family situation is not there to the extent it would have been a few years ago. Even looking at the background situations of quite a number of kids in the school - some of the situations are absolute shocking, where you'd have some of the kids living with grandparents, single parents who quite literally are not able to cope, kids coming to school in the morning without even having had a breakfast.
"Situations like this are becoming more and more the norm - where there's not stable family structure there. That's becoming more and more predominant."
The generations of young people growing up now show every symptom of conforming to Robert Bly's diagnosis of the "sibling society" - a society in which the vertical line of culture has been severed and replaced by a horizontal line which confines cultural communication to peer groups, with minimal intervention from outside or above.
It becomes increasingly difficult for the parent generation to break into these loops, and equally so for the young person to break out.
I find it myself with young people I know: you can engage with them, after a fashion, in lighthearted banter about rock 'n' roll or the World Cup, but you need to keep your ears pricked up for signs of anything ominous in their gait. And you need, too, to develop ways of sending signals of seriousness, by way of reassurance that, if ever things get real, the small talk and banter can be disposed of in a word.
It's hard, Tadhg agrees, to get boys in particular to open up about what's going on for them. The school has an excellent chaplain, Fr Lorcan Kenny, to whom Tadhg sometimes refers students with personal difficulties (he was out of the country last week, unfortunately), but he thinks more needs to be done to educate teachers in general in dealing with students from difficult backgrounds and situations.
"Sometimes it can be very hard to figure out what's going on with a teenager. I'd be the first to admit that it wasn't something we ever did in college. You were trained in your subject, but you were never trained to counsel students or anything like that," says Tadhg.
"More and more kids seem to have more and more issues - whether it's depression or, literally, finding it so hard to cope. But a lot of it stems from the backgrounds they're coming from, and what they may have encountered."
Twenty years ago, our country appeared to be waking up in different and sometimes radical ways, but was drugged back to sleep by a pseudo prosperity. Then, what might have been the shock of the meltdown turned into another kind of sleep: the sleep of disillusionment, apathy and suppressed rage, a kind of privatisation of hopelessness.
Meanwhile, something fundamental was changing in our democracies, something related to leaps in communication and collective thinking. It's as though a kind of cleaver came down hard on the central nervous system of our culture, severing the lines of connection to the past - even to parts of the present.
More and more young people appear to be imprisoned within technological compounds in which their immediate desires and requirements are gratified, but in which they are unable to access any deeper sense of themselves or the meanings of their lives.
Their parents, struggling against a state which squeezes them from every direction, are too distracted to notice, and in any event illiterate in the relevant areas of support.
And here's another thing: a country without mythologies is already dying. Unless a people has access to a source of public dreams and stories which are truer than history, larger than facts and more real than what's on the news, they start to walk about stooped and broken.
Myth enables us to exceed our own expectations of ourselves by drawing on the deeper capacities which the banality of the quotidian struggle contrives to bury in us. But Ireland has become a nation devoid of myths, seeking for heroes in all the wrong places, incapable of transcending itself because its public culture rejects such understandings as obscurantist, outmoded and dangerous.
All day Thursday, when I was thinking about going to and eventually exploring Roscrea, I played telephone tennis with the parish priest, Father Tom Corbett, whom everyone had told me I should talk to. He had a funeral in the morning and in the afternoon, it transpired, his landline went on the blink. Thus it was that we ended up having a perfunctory conversation on our mobiles on my way home.
It was a friendly and helpful chat, but not the one I wanted. I find nowadays, with Irish priests, that you need to be sitting face to face before they will talk to you about the heavy stuff.
Fr Tom spoke to me about the sapping of the town's morale in recent years, the responsibility of the community to act in defence of itself and its young, about the possibility of Roscrea providing an example for other towns. But he decided - for understandable reasons - to respond to my question about the spiritual dimensions of all this by hearing the word as "spirit" and shifting it a little before responding: "I think the meetings have given a lot of spirit back to the town."
I got the message: Let's keep the talk practical for the moment.
But now that this box has been opened, we must look at everything from every angle. At their roots, the problems which have manifested in Roscrea are metaphysical in their deeper nature.
How do we live? How is this decided when the language of everything is so reduced? How do we reconcile our dreams and our desires, and stop the one being snuffed out by a misunderstanding of the other?
And then, always, unrelentingly, the question at the heart of every person: what is it all for?
What, really, is the point of a life in which there appears to be nothing beyond the immediate satisfaction of instinctual desires? We can talk all we like about services and resources, but if we miss these aspects, we leave the true wound untreated.
In recent decades, many of those who have conducted the business and conversation of this society have expended a lot of energy in removing acknowledgements of the metaphysical from plain sight. So far we have not complained too loudly.
But beware: when you confine human expectation to the material level only, you had better be sure that you can deliver on your promises.
This, ultimately is the lesson of Roscrea: If you burn off all the spiritual sustenance from a culture, and leave only the material, you've created something that depends for its survival and functionality on the delivery of the material promise. And if this fails there is nothing left to sustain a human heart defined by infinite longing for something that cannot anywhere be found.