On the face of it, Ruairí McKiernan had it all. The year was 2013, he was in his early 30s and was a much-admired mental health advocate. He had founded the young people's charity SpunOut and he was engaged to be married.
But underneath it all, the Dublin-based Cavan native was deeply unhappy. He began to realise that he had been on a treadmill of his own making for years and he was completely burnt out. His health was suffering. And, it was the period when the so-called 'Great Recession' had hit hardest and he sensed despair all around him. Ireland, frankly, was broken.
"I had been on overdrive," he recalls. "I hadn't put any fuel in the tank." The same, perhaps, could have been said about Ireland.
So he threw caution to the wind and set off on a challenge with a difference: to hitch-hike his way around the country and to record the conversations of people he met along the way. He hoped the experience would help him to both reconnect with his country and to find himself. He managed both - and learnt something about the spirit of the Irish people while he was at it.
"I had reached an unhappy place and I wanted to try something different," he says. The result is a book, Hitching for Hope. Part memoir, part travelogue, it evokes an Ireland after the shock of the crash had subsided and people were wondering how best to rebuild their lives.
"There was a lot of anger out there," McKiernan says, "people had lost their jobs, they were worried about losing their homes, they were struggling to pay rent, many were having to emigrate. But, amid all of that, I found a huge amount of positivity."
He took temporary leave of his then job, gathered up a small holdall, and stuck his thumb out. "It was something I used to do when I was in secondary school and I'd hitched abroad, too," he says. "It's very much about trust, and you get to have a conversation with a complete stranger."
The idea came to him when he was asked by the MacGill Summer School about the citizen's view of Ireland. What better way to get a sense of what the man and woman on the street thought than by hitching a ride with them for the best part of a month?
His journey began in Spiddal, Co Galway, and it took in a large part of the island. Always active on social media, he tweeted details of his adventure and found that some of those who stopped to pick him up were already familiar with his idea.
"Not only was I struck by people's generosity," he says, "but they were positive about their own futures and about remembering all the good aspects of life."
That kindness was displayed time and time again, including at an Orange Order march in Derry. As someone who had grown up in a border county, he is perhaps more aware than most of how religious tensions can divide rather than unite. "But what I found was a shared humanity. People really do look out for each other."
Reading the book today, one is transported back to an Ireland of the relatively recent past - but one whose future was far from assured. Words such as 'bailout' and 'Troika' had become part of the everyday lexicon then.
The book was written long before Covid-19 changed the world. McKiernan had planned to hitch around the country once more as part of a novel promotional tour for his book. Now, he has had to try to get the message out with virtual events and on social media.
In many ways, he insists, there is much of the same fear in Ireland today as there was in 2013. "This pandemic is the great unknown," he says. "And it's caused huge hardship."
Today, there are record numbers of people out of work. More than one million of us are requiring government subsidy of some kind. McKiernan works as European director for the Narrative 4 initiative, a charitable organisation founded by the writer Colum McCann. He says he is trying to take stock and recalibrate.
"Just as it was in the crash, community is vitally important. We may not be able to meet like before, but we can face this together. And there's a comfort in that."
He says the unhappiness he felt in the past was lessened when he discovered that many others were in the same boat as he was.
Right now, he says he's in a good place - mentally and geographically. He and his wife Susan Quirke, a meditation teacher and singer from Limerick, relocated to Lahinch, Co Clare in 2018 and are happy to have quit the rat race. "We were sick of paying the huge rents in Dublin," he says. "I love the city, but you end up having to work all the time just to live there."
One of the most compelling parts of the book is the chapter set in Dublin. The people he meet are swamped with huge accommodation costs and astronomical childcare bills. What's heartbreaking is the sense that they are all too aware about how difficult it is to make ends meet. Fast-forward to 2020 and many find themselves in the same boat.
"We have to look at how this country is being governed and big questions have to be asked. What drives me is a sense of impatience that Ireland can do better," he says.
Rather than a country fixated on economic growth, he hopes a post-coronavirus Ireland could be one that focuses on people and what is right for them.
Everything, he says, centres on community. "There's a lot of celebration of community at the moment," he says, "but in the last 15 years I haven't seen that recognition at the political level. There's a few crumbs from the table thrown at the community sector, so let's imagine that this [the coronavirus crisis] could be a catalyst for a community revival at all levels."
McKiernan, an optimist at heart, will be hoping that some good emerges from the current misery.
'Hitching for Hope' by Ruairí McKiernan, published by Chelsea Green, is out now