More information about the Love and Courage podcast, other episodes, and sign-up for e-newsletter at www.loveandcourage.org
Eamon Stack is a happily married former priest who has a background in peace and justice work, including during the conflict in the north of Ireland. In 2006 he co-founded a charity and social enterprise called Enclude and as chief executive he has led it become the largest IT charity consultancy in Europe and they have now started working in Venezuela and elsewhere.
More information about the Love and Courage podcast, other episodes, and sign-up for e-newsletter at www.loveandcourage.org
The Love and Courage podcast
The Love and Courage podcast features interviews with inspirational people who are making a real difference in the world today. Guests are typically people passionate about social justice, and who have demonstrated courage and conviction in their lives.
Host Ruairí McKiernan is leading Irish social innovator, campaigner, writer and public speaker. He is the founder of the pioneering SpunOut.ie youth organization, and helped set-up the Uplift and the A Lust For Life non-profits. In 2012 the President of Ireland Michael D Higgins appointed Ruairí to the Council of State, a national constitutional advisory body whose members include all current and former leaders of the country. Ruairí is the recipient of numerous awards, including a Fulbright fellowship, and he contributes regularly to the media on youth, health, community and social justice issues.
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[00:00:39] ES: Finally, over a few years, pretty well all my peers in the Jesuits left. One after another. And I was kind of left companionless and lonely, and uncomfortable in my life. And a good insight I had with that was: I’m always talking about change. The world needs to change, everybody needs to change – well, I had to change.
[00:01:04] RM: My guest in this episode is Eamon Stack, a former Jesuit priest with a background in peace and justice work in Ireland and overseas. Eamon is the co-founder of Include, a non-profit that promotes technology for social good. Include is now ten years old, and has become the largest IT charity consultancy in Europe, and has also started working in Venezuela. Eamon is all about the love, as I’m sure you’ll hear now, in what was a fascinating conversation, when I joined him at his kitchen table one afternoon in north Dublin.
[00:01:40] RM: So, Eamon – thanks very much for agreeing to do this interview with me. It’s a pleasure to see you again. How’s life with you?
[00:01:47] ES: I’m great, Ruairi. You’re very welcome to my house here in [inaudible 00:01:50 – Montee?], in the north side of Dublin.
[00:01:52] RM: Overlooking Dublin Bay and Howth Head. It’s a lovely part of the world to live. Have you lived in this part long?
[00:01:59] ES: So, we’ve been here since I got married, about seven years ago, seven and a half years ago. And it’s glorious – it’s at the end of a cul-de-sac so it’s really quiet, looking out on a park. It’s a good place to be, as a person, to live. And to be beside the sea, and then to be very conscious of the move of the seasons. So it’s better than it has been for quite for a few years – so I feel grateful for that, yes.
[00:02:29] RM: I’m intrigued by this part of Dublin, because there’s such access to nature, as well, with St. Anne’s Park], Dollymount, Bull Island, Howth Head – and yet the city is so close. But I’m also intrigued by the fact that not that many people seem to take advantage. Have you noticed that, yourself?
[00:02:46] ES: Ah, yes. Yes, we’ve gone down to the beach in the morning – it’s five minutes down to Dollymount Beach – to find it empty, regularly. And to have it to ourselves. So that’s surprising. And it’s only a really sunny day that brings out the populace. And at Howth what’s interesting is – and it says a lot about Ireland – at the weekends, often, when you’re walking the cliff walk, there’s just a whole load of people from different countries, with their whole families. So Polish people are there, with granny and grandad, and so on – so there’s less English spoken than any language.
[00:03:14] RM: I noticed that, myself, on both sides of Howth Head. Particularly a lot of Italians, and I wonder… It must be in some particular guidebook. So, it does raise a question for me, sometimes, to wonder: are Irish people more removed from the outdoors, or more removed from nature? Because, obviously, it’s cold and it’s wet a lot of the time – but then, the days it isn’t, there aren’t so many Irish people out. Do you think that’s something that’s happened in our culture, at all?
[00:03:46] ES: I’m not sure. I say for myself, and my family, had tended to be outdoor peoples.
[00:03:53] RM: Yes, tell me about your family, and where you grew up.
[00:03:57] ES: So – and that’s part of being by the sea here is because I was used to that as a child, being brought up in Tralee. So, just looking up on the mountains, and looking out to the sea from Tralee. It’s a glorious place. Even when I was young, and cycling my little bicycle to school, I didn’t always notice. Except for the odd day, the odd exceptional day – there’d be snow, and suddenly the landscape would be utterly transformed.
[00:04:23] RM: And you grew up in Tralee town, or nearby?
[00:04:25] ES: Oh, very much a townie. Very much in the town – myself and my four sisters. And my parents lived up in the town. And it’s a lovely place to be brought up. And my dad worked in the county council, he was a council worker – he was actually a county secretary [laughter]. And county manager, for a while. So, that’s that.
[00:04:46] RM: And your mother, she was a Kerry woman?
[00:04:49] ES: She was a Tipperary woman. And when my dad was moving around, on a tour of various county councils…
[00:04:54] RM: He brought something back!
[00:04:55] ES: He found her in Templemore, County Tipperary, and brought her to Tralee, yes. And they had great friends in Tralee, and that was marvelous. It was a great place to bring up kids, and a great place for them to live, and have a circle of friends. And my mother still has those friends – in fact, at this stage in her life, she’s watching them die. People I’ve known all my life. So it’s a testimony to the place – that there’s genuine community.
[00:05:19] RM: Yes, can you describe your household, when you were a young man, or a young boy? Perhaps around the age of, maybe, 7 or 8, what life was like for you there?
[00:05:28] ES: We lived in a small street, with about 25 houses. And everybody knew everybody, and some more [inaudible 00:05:36] and some less. I had very good friends, who I’m still friends with – particularly one guy called Shukrow, who’s a dentist now. But we were brought up together, and we used to do things together. And my family… I’d say a characteristic of my family was: my dad was always very busy. So he was always out at meetings, and so on. And now, looking back on it, I can see: I have inherited some of that being busy about projects, and seeing them through. But then, that’s at a cost, of being away.
And then, my mother came from a business background, but she stayed at home to bring up the five of us. And she was very focused on that. In that sense, a great mother, a great Irish mother, for that time in her life. So that was our… And then I went to a local school, there. Now that it’s 2016, I’m looking back and Tralee was quite a Republican place, and some of my teachers were extremely Republican [laughter]. But that kind of washed over me, because my family weren’t. My family were very neutral about politics, and I think that was a good thing, and a healthy thing. In that sense, I think, my dad was quite a reflective person. I suppose he’d have the strongest intellect in the family. Both in terms of politics – he’d have kind of an independent view of it, and of faith. He would have been at the edge of the church, even though it wasn’t very public, at the time. But that would have been his position. And that has influenced me hugely – that sense of: “You have to think for yourself. And you have to value things as you see them, but also be critical and not just take everything as society takes it.” So I appreciate that.
[00:07:27] RM: And when you were, say, a teenager, around the age of 16, 17, how did the adolescent or the young man emerge? What was on your mind?
[00:07:37] ES: Well, it’s… I suppose a big change for me is I went to boarding school. So I left Tralee when I was 12, and I went to Roscrea, the Cistercian college and boarding school. An all-boys environment, having been brought up with four sisters – and I found that very hard. So, that’s just a personal change for myself. And for all five years, I did not find it easy, in boarding school. And in those days, it wasn’t as easy to come home. So your sentence was eight weeks, or longer, before you get back home again. So that was challenging. And in that, I think, I suppose I developed more my independence, within that. So it’s something I probably had learned from my dad. It also became, in my life there… I didn’t fit in as easily with everybody, and therefore I had to stand on my own two feet. And one of these lovely moments of insight, at 16 or 17, when I was talking about travelers’ rights – and quite passionately about it – and a friend of mine turned to me, and said: “You really believe that stuff, don’t you?” And I just took it for granted that everybody believed in that stuff – but actually they didn’t. So that was an interesting moment, for myself, to say: “Oh, I do have strong opinions. And that will mark my life – because that’s not everybody’s way of dealing with the world.”
[00:09:00] RM: Yes, so obviously human rights and social justice has been a theme in your life. And it does sound, to me, that some of that did come from your family – or at least your ability to look outside, and make up your own mind. So, when you did look at the situation facing travelers, or other issues in society: what was big in Ireland, at that time, and what was calling for your attention?
[00:09:27] ES: So I suppose I transitioned, then, from boarding school to college in Dublin. And I studied engineering in Trinity, in the late-70s, early 80s. And I loved college – brand new buildings in Trinity, at the time, the arts building was new. And yet, I was drawn out to the city center. And Ireland was struggling with chronic poverty and division, at the time. And I was appalled to find that here, my young, privileged student, only hundreds of meters from people who were chronically poor. Like, a poor you would have expected in the Third World – but you were seeing it in Dublin. So, that did affect me. I just said: “Wow, our world is very imperfect – or Ireland is very imperfect.” And I did feel I’d prefer to know that than not know that. At least that’s a starting point in my growing up.
And then, the next question emerges: “Well, what will I do about it?” In the years in college, then that came to affect me more. I got involved in [inaudible 00:10:48] St Vincent de Paul Society in a more systematic way, and then I took a more leadership role in that in the years going through college. So, that’s growing up as an adult, and taking responsibility. And in some of the Vincent de Paul work, I was hopeless. Like, out visiting people – I enjoyed doing it, I liked to do it, but I wasn’t naturally good at chit-chat and so on. That was a learning, a personal learning. But yet, I was very interested in the social situation in Ireland. And at the time, I asked myself: “What will I do?” And the one place I found some coherent answer to that question was in reflection, or on the faith and justice. There was a live movement that had emerged in the Catholic Church, there – a minority part of the church [laughter] – that was very passionate about social justice in society, and how the Jesus of the Gospel lived that out. And that, somehow, we lost that message.
And I was really taken by that. And it’s great, as a young student, being open to that message, and saying: “I want to go out there and heal the blind, and get the prisoners out, and change the world.” And I was drawn by the message, and felt: “God, a coherent line here is the social, Christian message.” And therefore, over the last two years in college, I changed direction, and decided to go into a religious life. And I was, at first, drawn towards the [inaudible 00:12:21] Church in Dublin – but I found the message more coherent in the Jesuits, at the time. Particularly Peter McVerry, who is still a very inspiring figure. So, I was drawn towards the Jesuits, and I joined in ’83.
[00:12:35] RM: Did you go to Maynooth? Or where did you go from there?
[00:12:39] ES: So, well it’s good to say where I went [laughter]. One is: it was a very weird thing to do, for my family. They found it very hard. And I went out, near here, to Manresa House in Dollymount, was the two-year novitiate. And my dad and my mother brought me out. And I could see it caused them quite…strain and stress, that I was making this decision. And… Particularly my dad.
[00:13:06] RM: Because it wouldn’t have been a strange thing at the Ireland of the time. There were still plenty of people joining the church, and joining the priesthood. Not as many as before.
[00:13:15] ES: Not as many as in the past, no. There’d definitely been a downturn. Now, it was not that long after the papal visit – the John Paul “I love you” visit [laughter]. So there was a little bit of movement. But at the time, I wasn’t really reflecting on that. It was a minority enough thing – you know, very few others out of college were joining a religious life, at that time. But there were a few. And I was with… Then I encountered a good group of friends, in the Jesuits – many of whom are still my friends, forty years later.
[00:13:46] RM: And, so, your parents presumably gave you their blessing, so to speak, in the end, and you went off. And it’s a seven-year period in the seminary, is it?
[00:13:58] ES: So yes, religious life…The Jesuit formation training is ten years, but in the middle of it there was a two-year full-time engagement. So, I went to Limerick and worked in the Crescent College Comprehensive, and at the same time worked in Limerick Youth Services. So, that was my first engagement with full-time work. And, what was I, 26, 27, at that stage. And then… And I found that really good – really good to get out there and earn your money. Even though I wasn’t earning any money, but work within the school. Teaching is great, as well, because you’re confronted with these merciless students who will confront you with who you are. And yet, your job is to engage with them. And then you listen to people in education, about what makes a good teacher. Because I definitely liked teaching, and I think I have a good ability there, that was developed in me. But the thing was: do you care about your students? Do you, in some form, love your students? It’s a key thing to having success in teaching. And the other is: are you good at teaching them? Helping them to learn? And it’s very basic stuff [laughter] – and all the other stuff is secondary.
And I did find that, is: I cared about the people, and I cared… In Crescent College Comprehensive, there were groups of pupils came from poorer areas, and there was a task to make them more comfortable. The environment wasn’t their natural place to be, and I felt I had a role to play in that. The other thing I was very interested in, as well, is: how to put the stuff that had influenced me, in terms of experiencing other aspects of social life, to the more privileged students at the Crescent. And so, I developed a program whereby all the students went out, for at least one week, to some area – whether it was working with children with intellectual disabilities, or working in a center for alcoholics, or working in Limerick Youth Services, and so on. But every student went out for two weeks, and they were prepared, and came back. And I was delighted to do that. And it was, kind of, a little bit of my own experience being shared with them. And that still goes on! 50 years later, or whatever it is, 40 years later, they’re still running those programs. And I’m very proud of that. It was a small thing, but it was kind of making a little mark, here, that, looking back on it, I think I’m glad I did.
[00:16:31] RM: Absolutely, if that’s… I don’t think it’s 50 years, now, looking at you. You’re a bit more sprightly than that [laughter]. But that’s a great example of a legacy that somebody can leave – a practical legacy where, presumably, many thousands of students have been through that program, now. And therefore tens of thousands of people affected.
[00:16:52] ES: Yes, yes. And other schools have taken up the same program, so it’s become more. Yes, and it’s so simple – and it’s such a normal thing to do, where people just see the other side of the world. And then they share that – because different people have different experiences. One of our great adventures, then, in that program, was to bring people from Limerick to Portadown – so, to cross the border in the dark old days. And I regularly brought groups of students up to Portadown College, which would be an equivalent upper-middle class college in Portadown. And, to find that there was a lot more in common than there was different, in the middle-class side of things. Whereas, when the same Limerick students were encountered…kind of a working-class youth club, the division was much clearer. So, you know, the divisions were more social than they were political, or religious.
[00:17:50] RM: So, this was not just a cross-border trip, but it was across the political divide, so to speak.
[00:17:54] ES: Yes, yes. And very interesting, then, tours to Belfast, and walking around Belfast, in the dark old days of the 80s, when bad things were happening and division was…
[00:18:05] RM: Are we talking about the early 80s, here?
[00:18:07] ES: Mid-80s, yes.
[00:18:08] RM: OK, so just past the hunger striker period, and things would have been fairly tense.
[00:18:14] ES: Yes, and particularly, it was just after the Anglo-Irish Agreement, where there was a lot of ‘No’ voices in the Unionist community: “Ulster says No” – and here are us Taigs coming up from the South. And it was quite difficult for certain groups to meet us, because the feelings were very strong.
[00:18:36] RM: So, you were obviously very much interested in justice and faith, obviously. But bridge-building and, it sounds like, peace-building… Because there’s still people that haven’t necessarily crossed the border, or are still afraid to, in some ways. But you were bringing people together, and bringing ideas together. Is peace, in general, something that you’ve thought about in the Irish context, and the Irish political context?
[00:19:01] ES: Yes, yes – absolutely. When I was in Trinity, obviously, I was very aware that there were a lot of people from the North there. And there was a lot of Protestants. And I was a Kerry Catholic, you know. So, I was very involved in Ecumenism during my time in college. And one of the mad things only a Catholic could do is: I used to go to Church of Ireland mass every week [laughter]. And it was a mad thing to do, but I very much engaged in trying to view the world from the other side. And I think, naturally, division goes against my natural instinct. I don’t think there should be division. I think it’s great for people to have different opinions, and share them – but I don’t think we should be divided as a result of it. And Christian division makes no sense to me, whatsoever. So, there was a definite reaction to that, or attempt to move in the other direction.
So even as a young man, I was involved in ecumenical work – or living on the other side. I had two really good experiences, then. As a young Jesuit, I was sent up to Portadown one summer. And it was one of the…it was ’85, I think, and the parade was particularly difficult – parading season was particularly difficult there. And I witnessed riots, and madness like I had never met before, and violence – and clear injustice, to me. But a wise Jesuit, then the following year, says to me: “Well, you have to go to the other side.” So I spent the following summer living on the Shankill Road. And I had to change my name, so I was ‘Eddie,’ and I worked in a Christian coffee shop where they showed me how to make orange cake, just to make the point [laughter]. And I was there working with another guy from the south, who was from Cork. And he was a Methodist, and he was working in youth clubs there. So, I spent a few weeks viewing the world from the very opposite side.
[00:21:03] RM: So, were you Eddie the impostor, essentially?
[00:21:05] ES: Yes, absolutely! Innocent, me, yes. Very dangerous time. In fact, I had to leave suddenly, because a Catholic builder had been murdered, in the Shankill, and I had to suddenly leave. They were nervous. They were awful times, awful times. But I think that’s so important, to see the world from the other side. And nothing beats experiencing it – walking out of that coffee shop every morning and seeing a bit of graffiti on the wall across the way: “Fuck the Pope.” [Laughter]. That’s a perspective on the world. And yes – that was real, that was real.
[00:21:47] RM: How old were you, around then?
[00:21:48] ES: Probably 26. 26 or 27, yes.
[00:21:50] RM: And so, then, tell me how life came about, then, for the next few years, into your 30s.
[00:21:59] ES: The most exciting academic thing I did is: I started studying theology. And that did fire me up – and that made sense of why I made the decision. Because I really liked engineering, and I was naturally attracted to that, but I found myself even more attracted to theology, and all aspects of it. Bringing in the philosophy that I had learned, which was also part of the solid Catholic teaching of priests – you learn philosophy first, you learn the language, you learn the thought. But then you go into theology, and I just loved it. I just loved reflecting on how God moves us, and how the love of God might be active in the world – and to critically look at that. So, I spent two years doing academic theology in Milltown, in Dublin. And then I did have the insight to say I wanted to finish my theology in the other side of the world. So I asked, and was very grateful to be allowed to go, to finish my theology in Venezuela, in a school of theology there that was particularly influenced by the Liberation Movement. And I studied under a great Jesuit there, Pedro Gonzalez. And it hugely influenced me. And some of the subjects that I had studied in Europe I studied again in Latin America, particularly Christology, which was a major topic. And just how two schools can approach the same topic in totally different ways is extraordinary.
[00:23:27] RM: Can you give me an example of that?
[00:23:29] ES: Well, say, it could be one school focusing on Christ and the Pauline approach to Christology, and struggling with the natures of Christ: was he human, was he a person? And lots of big debates around that, in the church. And that was very good to learn, all that. The other bit starts with the historical Jesus. And he’s born poor, into the world, marginalized, and that that was no accident. That the incarnation was God entering into our world, but choosing to enter at the poorest point. And the story, the historical story, of Jesus’ life. And then looking at his death from the perspective of a political and a religious assassination. It was just really exciting theological reflection. And in that, the key insight is love. That in all that political and social, worldly, persecutions, this person who absolutely loved, and insisted that that was the victory: love over death, love over anything you can throw at me. I think that’s, personally, finally, had me articulate my own belief that that’s what it’s all about, our faith. We say it, but we don’t live it – that it’s all about: love one another as I have loved you. And one another is everyone – love everyone as I have loved you. And then resist anything that goes against that, is fundamental. So, I was blown away, to say the very least.
[00:25:08] RM: We talked… Well, you’ve mentioned a lot about the other side, and seeing and hearing and experiencing other perspectives. And there’s a lot of division in the world at the moment, particularly in the area of religion, or at least perceived divisions. And I’m just curious as to the nature of Islam, or Buddhism – why, for you, Catholicism, or why Christianity? Or why any religion, for that matter? Because you’re someone who’s described yourself as an independent thinker – have you explored other traditions, or have you explored having no tradition, and yet still having that same belief, or similar values?
[00:25:46] ES: So, firstly, I’d say: faith and spirituality are a fundamental part of our humanity. And the lack of that is a poverty. It’s a dimension of our life that needs to be expressed through art, but also through religion. And if you take that away, I would say you just lose something. So, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a profound Hindu, or a Confusionist, or…I’m trying to struggle with the words for Islam – so a Muslim. To me, that’s irrelevant. What’s important is that that dimension of your humanity is nourished, and that you’re a complete person, in that sense. You’re, kind of, slightly lacking if you don’t have that.
So, then what you have to accept is the limits. And I’m interested in looking at, from a global perspective, the incarnation of God into the planet. Well, God had to choose – and he couldn’t choose every religion, he had to choose one religion, which turned out to be Judaism. And he had to choose a particular part of the world. And so, we’re limited as human beings. And so, I’m born into Ireland, and I’m born a Catholic – and I think that’s great. That’s where I am. I wasn’t born a Muslim, and therefore I have no idea what it’s like to be born one – and I can never be born that. However, I profoundly respect the fact that somebody else is. And I’m absolutely convinced any problems we have are to do with excesses. You know, they’ve got to do with extremes – so extreme Catholicism, extreme evangelical Protestantism, extreme Islam, are all equally awful, because they take something really good and turn it on itself, or use it for human reduction purposes, instead of human-creating stuff. And I find that… In every walk, that’s bad.
[00:27:42] RM: There are, possibly, people listening to this – or somebody listening to this – who might have just heard you say… Well, they may not have that faith, or that belief, or that religion, and it may feel that you’ve said that they need something to be this fuller person – and they maybe feel perfectly complete, and perfectly whole. And you’ve possibly just said that they’re lacking.
[00:28:05] ES: Yes, yes.
[00:28:06] RM: How do you…[laughter]. Do you just stand by your words on that one?
[00:28:10] ES: Well, we’re all lacking. None of us are the complete, full thing. However, there is a project for us to grow. There is the project for us to grow in our full humanity. Many, many people don’t have that choice. People who are hungry don’t have a huge choice, to grow fully. And that’s a lot of people in the world. And other people who live in very restricted political situations don’t have the opportunity to develop or grow – people who live in oppressive religious situations don’t have the… But when you do have the choice, then it’s a great thing to allow yourself to grow, in every dimension of your life. And I think the most important one is your capacity to love – so whatever does that. So, sometimes, people don’t name the spiritual thing, but they actually have it anyway. So, it’s about whether your heart has stretched, and that you really grow in this capacity to love.
And many ways can do that, but there’s no doubt about it that your consistent message of faith can help you, in that respect. The tools that are used within faith – meditation and spirituality – help you reflect on your life, and so on. But, possibly, they’re not the only one. And then, there are different, obviously, approaches to faith in different religions that would be probably equally useful. But the purpose is to grow as a full human being. And there’s an important thing: that that growing as a human being is growing in community, as well. So, Western society has had this fantastic Renaissance, with the Enlightenment, of valuing the person, valuing the individual person, and the dignity of the person. But maybe we’ve moved to a little extreme, on that one, and we’ve lost that sense of: there’s a balance between the person and community. And community is everybody – it stretches out to every corner of the world.
So, I do believe there’s a real struggle, here, for us, to both value where we have arrived – with psychology, with great reflection and philosophy in the last, say, 400 years – but also to say: there’s a real challenge for us to understand the world as one community. And it’s not OK that 70% are poor, and it’s not OK that some of them are chronically poor. So we should never settle on that. As much as I say: “It’s important to have that faith side of ourselves” – it’s absolutely vital we have a community side to ourselves as persons. And that, even though I can’t fix all the problems of the world, I do want to be angry about the problems of the world. The children that die every day.
I had a good moment in the Make Poverty History campaign in ’95, I was involved in, of saying that: we do want to end poverty. That’s what my heart wants, and I’m not going to let that go. I mightn’t fix it, and it mightn’t happen in my lifetime, but I’m not letting go of that ideal, that that’s the way I want… And it’s not OK that 30 children die every hour, or whatever, was the slogan at the time. That is never, ever OK – and I think it’s good we carry that with us, every day.
[00:31:24] RM: Tell me more about your experience of the Make Poverty History campaign.
[00:31:28] ES: Yes, that was… I think there are good moments in history, and cycles in history, where things happen and something moves in people’s hearts, and so on. And around the 2000, a little bit happened, but it didn’t really happen, in terms of the millennium, when we make a new start in the world, and so on. But by 2005, there seemed to have been a genuine move to explore: what are the things we need to do, the concrete things we need to do? And at that time, it was about debt – debt forgiveness of nations was so, so important. It was about Fair Trade, and it was about development resources. So, 0.7% - to share that from the wealthy countries with the poorer countries.
So, in… There was a very big movement in England – the Make Poverty History movement in the UK. But one of the leaders of it was Bono, from Ireland. So I got involved about a year before the campaign in Ireland. And I kind of said: “Look, a lot of these people in the UK have done a good thing – could we ride that wave, and do something in Ireland?” And I was with a very small organization at the time, the Debt Development Coalition – very small. Our normal events had a couple of hundred people at them, on a good day. So, Make Poverty History was happening in 2005 – so we organized a rally for a week before the big UK rally, which actually was happening in Edinburgh. And it was a Thursday afternoon. And we kind of invited everybody who wanted to join this moment in history, of saying we wanted change. And what was extraordinary is: 20,000 people turned up at a rally outside the Dáil. It was the biggest gathering that non-profits had organized in the history of the state. It was just extraordinary. People who had no vested interest in this whatsoever – you know, you have people at the minute who are very taxed about, say, water charges in Ireland, as so on. But that’s a…there’s a real vested interest. This was people gathering together because they wanted the world to be a bit better. And, for me, that was just a moment of great encouragement. To say, well, people are willing to come out, sometimes, and say: we want change – and we’ll do that together. So yes, in a nutshell, that’s the Make Poverty History moment. Sadly, it was followed by an economic crash a couple of years later. A lot of the gains were lost.
[00:34:01] RM: So, Eamon, I want to take you back to where you were in Venezuela, you were presumably coming back to Ireland, around that time. And what happens next?
[00:34:10] ES: Yes, so, personally a big moment there was: I was ordained a priest in the parish in Ballymun, in ’93, so at the end of 1993. And that was a nice moment – a nice moment for my family, and so on. Because I’d had a lot of training, a lot of years, where I was out of circulation. So, suddenly, I was into full-time work as a priest. And my first appointment was to Portadown. So I was absolutely delighted to go back to Portadown, where I had been as a student. And it was a time when the peace process was warming up, and there was hope, and I was glad to be there for that moment, to see how that would emerge.
So, I started there in ’93. I was involved in community development, in the Drumcree Community Centre – so, that had been established by the Jesuits in the community over the previous 10 years. And so, at first, I was just doing regular community development work in an area of very serious poverty, and many, many social problems – as well as the context of the chronic political, social division that was solidified during the sad times of the Troubles. So, I remember in ’95, then, we had the first protest, street protest. So, an issue for the people in the place I was living with was: they had parades, Orange parades, through the heart of their community, once a year, that drove them mad. That they found very hard to manage. And it was the occasion, then, for all the hotheads of the community to go out and riot, and fight with the police, and so on. And from a community development point of view, that was a disaster. Not only did it set community back every year, cyclically, and of course it set all possibilities of bridging the divide, of ecumenism, of community unification, just back. And it was cyclical, every single year.
So, we kind of had a…built on protest that had been going on for the previous ten years. But a good discipline of non-violent protest that had been developed – so, there was tea parties held on the road before the parades, and they were clearly non-violent. And that tradition was quite successful. So, that was ’95 – so those who know a bit of history know things are going to go seriously south in the next couple of years. So in ’95, then, we decided to be a little more assertive in our protests. So, ’94 had been the peace agreement, and so there was no longer bombs, there was no longer killings in the North. And, for the first time, the Catholic community could unite around a major issue. With violence, there was division. But in the absence of violence, the community came together. So, you had the more moderate SDLP types, and then the more radical Sinn Féin types coming together and saying: “Let’s work together to try and do something about these parades that are damaging our community in a cyclical fashion.”
And so, at that stage, there was clearly two different presentations of the issues – there was the SDLP, faith types, talking about dignity and justice for all, and the others, the more radicals, were: “No sectarian parades” slogans. And so, there was two different philosophies going. But everyone trying to do the same thing. So we sat on the road, the Garvaghy Road, on Drumcree Sunday, in 2005 – and the police refused to allow the parade to go down the road at that moment. They wouldn’t move us. And we were almost caught by surprise at that decision [laughter], at that moment. And it’s just… The Orangemen, Unionists, went berserk. And there was a very serious stand-off in Drumcree, there was massive rallies of up to 20,000 people on a hill about 2 miles away from where we were. Very difficult to contain, for the police. And that went on for a few days, and got more and more serious – and eventually mediators were brought in. And we figured that there was serious danger of loss of life, and we decided to step off the road, on that year. So, that was a very difficult decision for the Catholic community – but there was unity in that. And we just got off the road, and stood with our backs as the Orangemen silently walked down the road, early one morning.
[00:39:19] RM: What was your role, exactly, in all of this? Like, you’re a priest, you’re a community worker, you’re essentially becoming, I’m presuming, a community leader.
[00:39:29] ES: Yes, I was one of the founders of the United Coalition, which was the Garvaghy Road Residents’ Coalition. So I was one of the three leaders. And I was there to say, really: it had nothing to do with religion. I was a priest whose voice was: this is not about religion, and don’t mind if they tell you it’s about religion [laughter]. That this is about community, and this is about limits to people’s rights. That everybody can’t do everything, all the time. That we all have to live limits. And that some…about fairness – that the limits that we live with are shared by everybody, and that one group doesn’t have some limits and the others have different limits. That we all share the same limits, as communities, and that, essentially, this parade thing was unfair. So yes, my role was there. As well, it was to voice that 50 or 60% of the community were moderates who never supported the violence. So, I was to be the moderate voice in all the conversations, and say: Let’s see, can we do this reasonably?
But that decision, to step off the road, was a disaster. It was great for us – but it had consequences. That we weren’t going to do that two years in a row. So, I started to have serious emotional fear, from that moment on. Because I said: “This is going to come back in a year’s time – and we’re not going to step off the road.” That’s not a reasonable request. And after the parade in Drumcree Sunday 2005, when the Orangemen arrived at the bottom of the road, there’s a famous image of them being joined by Iain Paisley and David Trimble, and them holding their hands in the air, marching through the center of Portadown. Like, what a bad choice they made on that day. And they were always going to live with that choice. And I said… But we did everything in our power, over the next 12 months, to try and resolve this issue.
And the most interesting thing we did, as a community – and I remember it was important for myself – was to say: “Are we right? Have we got it right? It seems right to us, our position, but is it right?” So, we went to a few political philosophers – both in Ireland and abroad – to say: “This is our argument. This is our position against the Orangemen – have we any justification for our position?” And that was a really good thing to do. That was partly my role, to say: “We can talk to these people. They have views.” And we did realize that some of the arguments we were using were nonsensical. Like “No sectarian parades” was not a very good position to take. However, a very good position to take was equal citizenship. Within the peace process, we’re asking for equal citizenship – and it’s equal citizenship with respect to expressing your cultural identity in public. And we were given good language. And they were saying: “If you put your arguments together, you’re very coherent – as long as you don’t use nonsense arguments.” And then, those arguments are inclusive – because the other side can also talk in that language. So that was a real education process, for me, in seeing how good language and philosophy can help grassroots communities to express themselves in a way that creates possibilities. But we were moving to 1996, and the peace process broke down. So, we were heading into the summer of 2006 – we weren’t going to step off the road if there was an Orange Parade, and the peace process had broken down. And that was a moment of terror. Would we start the war? Would our actions inflame the situation, and restart a conflict that had…was slipping? The peace was slipping.
[00:43:16] RM: So your relatively small community group had the eyes of the world on it, in some ways. I actually remember watching it on TV.
[00:43:25] ES: Absolutely. Once it came to it…
[00:43:27] RM: And you were a relatively young man.
[00:43:28] ES: I’ve… Yes. A young Kerry man on the Garvaghy Road at 33 years of age, maybe 35 at that stage. So a relatively inexperienced person, in the public eye.
[00:43:42] RM: And it was global headlines.
[00:43:45] ES: So, once that approached, you’d have all the television stations from Britain and Ireland, and Reuters, and many others, watching us and listening to us at every moment. And under that pressure, it was really challenging to… Sometimes I managed to articulate well, and sometimes I failed – and I found that very frustrating: that you wanted to communicate well your message, but sometimes you failed. Because when you failed, you just allowed the others more room to maneuver.
[00:44:16] RM: And how did it all play out, in the end, over the next couple of years?
[00:44:21] ES: So, in 200… or in 1996, then, we sat on the road, and we refused to move, and there were three days of negotiations – high-level negotiations – in Ulster [inaudible 00:44:34] at the time. And the archbishops were party to it, and peace mediators. And, eventually, we were told to go home one day, and we knew it was over, and we were taken off the road that day in 1996. We were just dragged off the road, and there were some spectacular pictures of me [laughter] being lobbed off the road. And another one of myself with a woman, with her face bleeding – that actually became the image that was very widely circulated. Even some of my friends in Latin America were saying: “Oh, I’ve just seen you.” So, it was quite, relatively big situation that was global.
And the peace held – and that was extraordinary. It didn’t inflame the peace, and that was giving me a little bit of confidence, here, that the fear… So in 200…or 1997, the following year, there was an agreement – behind the scenes – that the parade would proceed for the last time. And that was the last time the parade ever took place. There is an extraordinary moment from 2007, where we couldn’t go to mass ourselves. So, you had this extraordinary, ironic situation: in order to facilitate the Orangemen to go to a church service at the end of our estate, and walk through the middle of it, they had banned us from going to mass. So, we held mass in front of the British personnel carriers – and it was a good moment of protest, of simple protest. And all the residents were sitting there, on their own chairs that they had carried in, to say mass in front of it. And we came to the sign of peace in the mass. And so, there was five priests – I was one of them – and behind us there were about 20 soldiers. And there was a choice – and I chose to go back, and shake hands with the soldiers. And I’ve never been forgiven for that, by that community, or by a lot of members of that community. And yet, that was the action – one of the actions in my life – I’m proudest to have done.
And I am absolutely convinced – and the historians might say that – that that was a disaster for the Orangemen, and for the British government. That’s not what they wanted: a peaceful gesture towards the British soldiers, in a very potentially conflictual situation. And stating that… There was a very clear division between the hate, the violence, the murders – and a movement that was looking for equal citizenship, that would build peace in the long term. And that, I think, has happened.
[00:47:26] RM: So, were you ostracized? Or what happened? How did that play out in the day to day?
[00:47:35] ES: People found it hard to be warm to me, after that. There was a hurt in the nationalist community, as a result of that, and… Over time, people… It took people quite a few years to let that go.
[00:47:50] RM: And what was the impact on you, personally?
[00:47:55] ES: I was saddened – these were my friends. And I wasn’t absolutely sure… There were doubts in my mind, that maybe I shouldn’t have done it, or whatever. But the stronger voice in me was: “No, that was the right thing to do.” And I think it came from a powerful personal moment during the whole Drumcree thing, where I felt bitterness was about to get into my heart. I mean, a few people had been killed. People I knew had been killed – and a few policemen had been killed – during the conflict. And I could feel in my own heart, there was the bitterness getting in there. There was room for negativity, and for something that would be expressed as anger, but which was actually a more dark spirit. And I think I was glad that I had been given the tools, as a Jesuit, to be aware of that, and to give myself space and guidance to resist that. And to say: “Whatever happens here, I’m not going down that route.”
I think that’s an important personal decision for everybody, no matter what you’re into. Even personal conflicts with people – if you spot that kind of bitterness getting into your own heart, get out of there. Get help, and get out of there – because that’s the stuff that destroys you. Internally… It’s less your external actions, it’s more your internal, personal, spiritual movement that is the thing that counts. And I think I remember speaking about that at the time, and people being surprised. From that perspective, it doesn’t matter whether the Orangemen go up and down the road. It doesn’t matter what is the outcome of the thing – what matters is what’s in our hearts: whether we end up loving at the end of this, or not. And if we don’t, there’s no victory that will compensate for that. And there’s no loss that’s worth it. So yes, that probably left me leaving that situation personally scarred, psychologically scarred – it was very, very intense – but stronger, as a person. And clearer about what was important in my own heart.
[00:50:10] RM: And where to, after Drumcree? Did you make a decision to move on, or were you called elsewhere?
[00:50:15] ES: I was due to move. There’s another part of Jesuit training that you do after five years of work on the ground. It’s a very wise thing to do [laughter]. So, I was due to go to Mexico – or I chose to… I asked, and was given permission, to go to Mexico for that. And it was a good time to get away from it. And it’s great – the Mexicans had no idea what I was on about [laughter]. A whole new perspective. From something that, for the previous number of years, was everything, and was big news, and so on – it meant nothing to the Mexicans. They had a lot more problems, that were a lot bigger than any Drumcree situation. You know, that gives us perspective on life. God! So, Mexico was good – and I love Mexico. Mexico is just a fantastic country, and it’s a diverse mix of cultures. No one thing. And I suppose I was in a good place to enjoy that.
[00:51:14] RM: And take me from there to where you are, here, today. You’re running a non-profit technology, social innovation, social change organization. How did you end up from Drumcree to Mexico to social entrepreneur, innovator?
[00:51:29] ES: Yes, yes – one thing that involved a big transition in my own life. And that when I came back, and was working in Ireland for a few years – I was working in an organization called [inaudible 00:51:44], which was a faith and justice project for young adults in Ireland – I had an experience of the church collapsing, for me, at that point. That… I probably had been in the Jesuits 20 years – and virtually nobody else had joined in those 20 years. Clearly, the papacy of John Paul II had moved the church to the right, and the scandals in the church – the child sexual abuse scandals, which were awful in themselves – but they also had an effect of pushing the church even further to the right. And I was just uncomfortable – that’s not the faith and justice project that I had joined.
And, finally, over a few years, pretty well all my peers in the Jesuits left. One after another. And I was kind of left companionless and lonely, and uncomfortable in my life. And a good insight I had with that was: I’m always talking about change. The world needs to change, everybody needs to change – well, I had to change. And that was going to be hugely difficult, for me. So I moved on, then, from the Jesuits – and on good terms. But I know the Jesuits found it very, very painful: somebody who had been 21 years, and very committed, and very involved, choosing to move on. And I moved on for those reasons.
And so, I was lost. You know, a guy in his 40s… I had no project. And the Jesuits had both been my work and my community – and now I had no work and no community. And I had to start from scratch. And that’s a good thing for us. It took me a few years to get my feet under me – and so, one of the things that happened, then, shortly after that was: I got involved in the Debt and Development Coalition, and then the project with Make Poverty History came about. And so, I was able to contribute something to that project. And that might have helped to restore my confidence.
But in all that, I still had trained as an engineer [laughter], a long time ago. And I had been conscious of: all the charities that I had worked in, all over the place, had issues managing information and using technology. Technology was very little part of what I did, expect on the Garvaghy Road, we used fax-modems very, very effectively, for campaigning. And that did have a huge impact – but other than that… And then, the Make Poverty History showed how you use technology well. And the ability to bring 20,000 people together, how to communicate with them, and get across your message. And, therefore, I went back to Trinity, to the Center for Non-Profit Management, to look at the issue of information and charities, and technology and charities. I was kind of shocked that there was no strategy – and there was nowhere to put a strategy. And that it was very much piecemeal, and there was no funding to support charities doing it. And I had an interesting meeting with Paddy McGuinness – at the time, he was deputy CEO of Concern, and had been very involved in developing Concern. And I said to Paddy one day: “There’s this real problem for Ireland [inaudible 00:55:01] – that the charities are on the wrong side of the digital divide. And it contradicts our whole image.” And he said to me: “Well, you’d better do something about it.” [Laughter]. And it was that that spurred me on to say: “Well, I have to take initiative, here.” And so, I had met another guy who was coming from SAP, from the commercial world, but who had worked in Africa – Ciaran Hayden. And together, we set up Enclude, with a project to try and lead a strategy for technology use by charities that would help us deliver better service to more people, within the limited resources [laughter].
[00:55:41] RM: And that was 10 years ago?
[00:55:43] ES: That was 10 years ago, we started off – just the two of us.
[00:55:46] RM: So, tell me where Enclude is today, and what Enclude does?
[00:55:49] ES: So, from there, then – 10 years on – I think we’ve learned a lot about working with charities. And one is that: the donors are very generous. So, it’s a good thing to take full advantage of those who are willing to give technology to charities, and take full advantage of that. But the second thing is: we need to develop the capacity to use it. And so, Enclude’s biggest project is about helping charities to implement solutions that help them do their work better. And so, we’ve kind of formulated that much better now. It’s about alignment of the great, donated technology with best practice. And we, as charities, understand what best practice is. If you want to know how to do a homeless service, then you ask De Paul Ireland and the people in the services – and they’ll tell you how to do it. And so, the technology project is to align the good practice with the technology. Or in addiction services, again – people delivering those services, in every corner of Ireland, know how to do their business. And what’s missing is the ability to say: “Well, how can you align the technology with that, to help their referrals, help their assessment of clients, help their care planning? And lead to watching outcomes.” And the technology, then, can contribute to a circle of learning. A cycle of learning, where they’re getting good, structured information about what they do, they can reflect on that and say: “We can do it even better.” So, the idea of the project is about contributing to that process. So, it’s very much integrating information and process stuff with the best practice, to deliver effective solutions for people.
[00:57:32] RM: And, presumably, that saves a lot of money – not just for charities, but for foundations, and for the state? So, it’s sort of a win-win model really, ultimately, isn’t it?
[00:57:39] ES: It’s absolutely. The donations are incredibly huge. So, at the minute, we are managing to channel about 7 million Euro worth of technology donations to Irish charities every year. And we’re a small country. And yet, there’s so much more we could use.
[00:57:54] RM: And is it just in Ireland?
[00:57:56] ES: Just in Ireland, just in Ireland. And then, we have to develop the capacity to use that. And so, one of the difficulties was: it’s expensive. Consultancy projects are… Commercial consultants are very expensive for charities – and commercial consultants don’t understand the business processes. So what we needed to create, ourselves, was a capacity. So, we’ve built up a team of 21 people – many consultants who have come from the commercial world, who are willing to take a 50% or 60% cut in their salaries to change their work, to work with charities. So they can give them affordable services to help this [inaudible 00:58:34] process. I’m utterly inspired by these people. And I sometimes just name it as “blessing.” I’ve done nothing, in that sense – I’ve done very little. Except, maybe, create a room for those people to walk into, and create connections whereby they can meet their extraordinary expertise and compassion with the needs of others who are out there on the coalface, delivering services to domestic violence, or homelessness, or addiction. And it’s a great joy in my life, to see that happen.
And it’s not me – it’s just I, maybe, had to open to door to allow it to happen. And maybe, something of that inspiration in my own dad, to be able to see the bigger picture – and when you see it, it’s kind of self-evident. It’s not magic, it’s not extraordinary – it’s self-evident. It’s just, not everybody finds themselves in a position where they see it’s self-evident. And so, maybe, good leadership, then, is to say: “OK, I just happen to have this useful insight – and I’ll lead other people in that direction.” And, man, they’re fantastic.
[00:59:45] RM: Eamon Stack, it’s been a pleasure talking to you, and I wish you well with – no doubt – what is going to be many more years of adventure and discovery. Maybe we’ll return, again, in another 20 years to see how you’re getting on.
[00:59:58] ES: I really enjoyed talking to you, Ruairi – thank you very much indeed.
[01:00:00] RM: A pleasure – thank you.
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