There is hope for Ireland and I have the evidence. Over the last month, I've hitch-hiked the length and breadth of the country on what I called the 'hitching for hope' listening tour. This was an adventure I embarked upon to help inform my forthcoming talk at the MacGill summer school. I hadn't hitch-hiked in 18 years and didn't have money or a plan but ventured into the unknown and rediscovered the beauty and power of our land and people.
I'd be lying if I pretended this wasn't as much of a personal quest as it was social research. I'm looking for hope as much as anyone. I've struggled to get by financially in recent years; but more importantly, I've struggled to have faith that this country has a bright future.
On my journey, I met and interviewed people of all ages, races and backgrounds. They included farmers and fishermen, atheists and priests, barristers and business people, the unemployed, the depressed and the hopeful.
I spent time at a cattle mart in Connemara; with the resilient islanders of Inishbofin; with pilgrims on Croagh Patrick; with Orangemen in Derry; office workers in Dublin; monks in Glenstal; community workers in Moyross and tourists on the Hill of Tara.
Everywhere I went, I found kindness, warmth and generosity. I was offered lifts, smiles, stories and any amount of cups of tea. Others bought me lunch and offered me a place to stay. The Facebook and Twitter communities rallied behind me with messages of support and invitations to visit. Friends, strangers and colleagues contributed money to help ensure rent money wasn't a concern. The media also played their part by covering my progress as I travelled.
All over I heard tales of hope and triumph. There is the young farmer who will fight on for the sake of his kids; the former priest who is discovering a new form of spirituality; the 50-year-old unemployed man who is retraining in forestry; the young graduate who believes political change is possible; and the social entrepreneur who is setting up a food and energy localisation movement. The visionaries and creatives are out there, ready to play their part if given the chance.
I also heard stories of despair and anger. Many are giving up on this country. They don't have hope and have taken to despair, drinking or emigration in order to survive.
There is a real sense that Ireland is a two-tier State, with one law for the rich and powerful and another for the rest of us, who are supposed to keep taking austerity and injustice on the chin.
Among all of this is a nation that is re-examining its core values. It is through a return to community values that many of us are re-imagining the country from the ground up, finding light in the darkness. There is an emerging return to understanding that true happiness comes from the simple things in life – from friends, family, community, nature and having a purpose bigger than ourselves.
A huge thirst exists for leadership, direction and jobs and I don't underestimate the challenges ahead. At the same time, a new movement of hope and possibility is stirring.
We have one of the most fertile, beautiful and safest countries in the world. As a people, we have the wisdom, warmth, talent and resources to make something great happen. Hope is out there in the spirit of the people. Sometimes you just have to look harder to find it.