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Sr Stan is one of Ireland’s most well known and respected social visionaries. She is a founder of four leading Irish organisations - Focus Ireland, the Sanctuary, the Immigrant Council of Ireland and Young Social Innovators. Now in her mid seventies, she has been a tireless voice for justice for over fifty years and has been a huge champion for the benefits of mindfulness and meditation. A former member of the Council of State, a keynote speaker, and an author of numerous books, there is no end to Sr Stan’s achievements and talents.
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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[00:01:51] RM: Sister Stan, thanks very much for taking the time to join me for the Love and Courage podcast. How is life with you these days?
[00:01:59] SS: Life is good, thank God. Good. Yes, I’m well and healthy, and, yes – all’s good. All’s good – maybe round me, things aren’t so good, but I’m well myself.
[00:02:15] RM: Yes, we were saying there, when we met up, that the world is in massive flux right now, and – obviously the world has always been in flux – but we’re going through some testing times. Are you feeling that? So we’re here in The Sanctuary, which is a… maybe I’ll let you explain what The Sanctuary is. I think you’ll do a much better job than me.
[00:02:37] Well, The Sanctuary is a center in the middle of the city of Dublin, and it’s a place, I suppose, of peace, and stillness, and beauty. And I suppose it came about because I was working in the inner city - it was the early years of Focus Ireland, and I was working… There was a lot of demands, and a lot of stress, I suppose, for workers. And I suppose I had this idea: if there was a place where people could go to find rest and respite, and peace and stillness, which would be restorative. And I had this kind of dream, of a place where you could open a door, in the city, and you’d go into a place that was beautiful, and that was still and peaceful, and that, in itself, it would speak to the stillness and beauty within people. And in that way, it would restore them. So that’s…I had this dream, and then I went round looking for a place, and finally I got this place. I got the site from the Sisters of Charity, after a lot of asking, and we converted it into being a center of meditation and mindfulness. So now, it’s a place where we have a lot of courses and programs for different people - for children, for young people, for adults, men and women – that really help them to find stillness in their daily life. And it’s also a beautiful place. So, that’s where it is. And in a way, I suppose, for me it was very different from what I was doing before. And I think it was because…of what I’m still doing. And I suppose it’s because I’m working, and I’m very much in the midst of situations that are problematic, that are difficult, that have no very clear, maybe, solutions, that I saw the need for the other center to be there, that would help people on that journey. And I suppose it’s part of myself – that I have two parts… I’m very much drawn to action, very much drawn to do something about things, and at the same time I have this great need for silence, as well. And, I suppose the two come together in my life, and the two come together here in The Sanctuary, too.
[00:05:08] RM: Yes, I can very much identify with all of that – the desire for action, but the need for silence. And that’s one I have, myself. And I live close to a park and a beach, and myself and Susan often talk about: Would we be, ever, able to live in the city again? Because that…we can’t do our work in the world unless we can, kind of, counter-balance it. And I’ve been fortunate enough, as well, to benefit from The Sanctuary several times: several training courses. And every time I come back in, it does feel like you’re not just going through a physical door, you’re going through a…I don’t know if it’s a metaphysical door, but it certainly shifts the energy. And, just thinking about the different aspects of despair in the world, it literally does provide sanctuary from that.
[00:05:58] SS: Yes. It does, and there is… I suppose I feel we all have to do our bit to create more positivity in society, and to be more positive in it. But one way to do that is through meditation. I certainly don’t think it’s the only way, but I think it’s a very real way of bringing peace into the world. And if we really believe in the inter-connectedness of all things – so if I am sitting here with a group – that has a huge effect on the rest of the world. Now, as well as that, of course, there is the whole business of recognizing ourselves as social beings, and recognizing ourselves as people with social responsibility - and taking that kind of responsibility, as well, in an active way.
[00:06:57] RM: Yes, so this interest in meditation and mindfulness – obviously it’s not a million miles away from being religious in one sense. But it’s not all religious people that would necessarily practice in that way. Obviously they’re used to the practice of prayer, but not necessarily that.
[00:07:18] SS: Well yes, and many of them…many people who come here wouldn’t actually be used to the practice of prayer. They would come because they recognize, for themselves, how meditation helps them. And it wouldn’t necessarily be from a religious point of view. I’d say many people, or most people who come here don’t go to churches. But they would come to meditate, because they find this helps them to find peace in their lives – but also they see, they value it, for the whole of society.
But it is very, for me: meditation is prayer. And for me as, I suppose, as a person that comes from a Christian tradition, I would see that whole business of entering into the silence within us is entering into the God within us, the spirit of God dwelling in us. So it’s very much being present to God, and living in that presence of God. But a person needn’t necessarily believe that – a person can really seek that stillness within them, and be with that stillness, and be people of peace. And so, people come here from all kinds of traditions – or from no faith tradition – but come to practice meditation. And that’s the great thing about it. I have no problem saying that it comes from a Christian tradition – that’s where it came from, that’s where it’s come from. But it has opened to the other traditions, and welcomes and embraces the other traditions. Because we’re all going in the one direction. If a person is seeking meditation, and seeking that stillness within them, we’re basically going in the same direction.
[00:08:53] RM: I remember - I don’t know if it was yourself, or someone I heard or read – talking about… So we’re familiar that a lot of meditative practice and tradition comes from the East – from Tibet and India, and so on. But…I think it might have been yourself, talking about: was it the Desert Fathers? Or this idea of watchfulness, that in the Christian tradition there is, or there was, more focus on that.
[00:09:18] SS: Well yes, absolutely. Yes, in the second and third centuries, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, they did go into the desert to practice meditation. And they had…they developed extraordinary people who really led the way, and had people who went into the desert to learn from them how to meditate. And they had this watchfulness, that’s what they called it – an attentiveness, a watchfulness. And they also had what they called ‘the sacrament of the present moment,’ which was really: being in the present moment. And that was seen as sacramental. So that goes back to that time, continued, then, and changed over the years – and at one point, it really became just what people did in monasteries, whether they were monks or nuns, and were very confined in that way. And even though in the East, meditation continued from the same time, same period – you know, the Buddha, who was 500 years pre-Christian – they developed their own tradition of meditation, which developed, mostly, in the East. But it wasn’t then, until the… people like, particularly from the Buddhist tradition, started to move into the West. It went into the States, and really found, there, monasteries of monks and nuns, and then asked them: “What was the difference between what they were doing and what the Buddhists were doing?” And that led to the monasteries bringing meditation out to communities. And so you had people like Thomas Martin, Thomas Keating – those kind of people, who really realized: “This isn’t just for us. This is for everybody.” And started to bring laypeople into it, or they’re coming out to laypeople. So there was a whole change in that way. So it is true that a lot of meditation has come to the West from the Eastern tradition like the Buddhists. But it doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a tradition all the time.
[00:11:26] RM: Yes, I was down in West Clare recently, in…not too far away from Ennis, but certainly very remote. I can’t remember the exact location, and I came across…I had an American visitor, so I was doing as you do: you follow signs for castles and all sorts of old ruins and stuff. And we came across a castle – but there was a sign near it that brought us down to an old monastery off, I think it was St. [inaudible 00:11:51]. And it was, I can’t remember how many hundreds of years old, but it was very old. But one of the signs pointed to Desert or dysart [inaudible 00:12:03] in Irish, and I remember reading, there… Oh no, it was actually…I was on the Arran Island several months after that and I read… Darryl Molloy had a book, and he in the book said that the word ‘desert’ or ‘dysart’ – I’m not sure how to pronounce it right – is all over Ireland, and that there was a contemplative tradition very much alive in Ireland at one stage - but it had a direct link with the desert, and it entered the Irish language somehow.
[00:12:35] SS: Even down around Kerry, there definitely was a strong… There are old ruins of monasteries, definitely, that could go back to the 11th and 12th centuries – there was a very strong tradition of meditation and contemplation. Very much around monasteries, though – not so much available, as I said, to laypeople. But it was very, very strong. And you most definitely can show that there was a link between the Desert Fathers and what was happening in Ireland. And there are even some writings that connect places like Greece with Ireland. So there was a very strong tradition, in Ireland.
[00:13:32] RM: So, in a way, you’re building a new ‘dysart’ in the city here, in one way.
[00:13:36] SS: You know, in a way. I really used to smile at myself, because I lived… When I entered the convent life and the initiate life, particularly, it was very, very monastic. And there was a lot of silence, and a lot of prayer, and a lot of walking in the gardens. And then that all changed, with the second Vatican council – we see much fewer convents now…well, there are much fewer nuns, but that’s a different story. But people moved into smaller houses. And then I started, I was living in the lodge, here. And then I started looking for a place that could be, kind of, a monastic kind of a place where people could be quiet, could be silent, could walk. And I was laughing to myself, because I was saying, you know: “I thought I’d never get out of that convent to live in a house [laughter], and now I’m looking for this again.” But I suppose it’s the need, as I said in the beginning – it’s that a basic need, which I believe is in all of us, it’s that need to be quiet, to be still, to be present. And I do believe, if people built that practice into their lives, if people even did one minute, three or four times a day, and during that minute just breathed mindfully for one minute. And you could easily do it, because you can count how many breaths you take in a minute, and you can simply breathe mindfully for one minute. Do it four or five times a day – and if you did it five times a day it would only be five minutes. But that could transform people’s lives – I’m certain. And it’s a very simple practice. But people don’t do it. And if people did it, it would really affect everything they do, because it’s easy to do it, for example, before you start something new. Before you move to something new – that transition could be just a mindful minute. And it’s building those kind of mindful moments into our lives that makes a difference.
Now, to come here to The Sanctuary, I suppose, is a decision to spend a specific amount of time meditating. Or to walk mindfully, to sit mindfully, meditating. But that’s like, it’s like going to the gym. If you go to the gym to exercise, and to improve your exercise, and that helps you in your daily exercise, which is really the mindful practice. So they complement each other. If I’m doing the mindful practice during the day, it will help me in my meditation.
[00:16:05] RM: Yes, it’s an absolute no-brainer. It’s almost like meditation is a no-brainer, in a way. That the brain is so active, and we’re being stimulated more than ever – like myself, in particular, with Facebook, with Twitter. I go through three or four newspapers a day because I’m trying to keep up with everything. I want to understand what’s going on in the political world. And then I’ve got my own personal challenges with, you know, keeping house, and money, and work, and podcasts [laughter]. And so those moments are the difference between peace and happiness, and chaos.
[00:16:41] SS: They are. It is very, very difficult for people to get. It’s very difficult for young people to give themselves that space to be quiet. That there is so many demands on their time, and I suppose that would have to change. I mean, one of the things we did here was called ‘Mindful Use of Technology,’ to help young people to take time out from technology. And I think we need a lot more of that – it should be part of education. Part of schools. Everything, now, contributes to more and more noise. More and more noise in our heads.
[00:17:28] RM: That’s for sure. So, you mentioned Kerry earlier. Let’s go back to Kerry – and this is where it all began, really, for you. What was life like for you, growing up? And what kind of a household, and what were you like as a young woman, or a young girl, even?
[00:17:46] SS: Well, I come from a very rural part of Kerry. I come from Lispole, which is between Tralee and Dingle, just about three miles east of Dingle. And I came from a farm. There were five of us, five children, and my parents. And a very, I suppose, simple way of life, rural way of life, which…a time, a place of great beauty. So it was, I suppose you would say, very uneventful, in many ways. And yet, I suppose, we thought everything was an event. And I suppose the thing I remember most about it was the freedom – the absolute freedom to come and go, and to walk up the hills and through the valleys, in absolute freedom and fearlessness. And joyful in nature, and really being with the beauty of the hills and the sea. And, I suppose, absorbing that. And the other thing – I suppose I didn’t realize at all then, but I realized it after I left it, and I particularly realize it now – is having time. Having time to spend, having time to waste. And time for each other. The amount of time people spend together chatting, young people meeting older people, listening to each other. That was so natural. People cooperating with one another, the whole idea of [inaudible 00:19:39] and that, working the farm in that way.
[00:19:43] RM: And you were farming people? Most people would have been, there.
[00:19:48] SS: Yes, we were farmers. My mother’s father was a fisherman, and he came from west of Dingle. But it was that whole, I suppose…at one with nature, and at one with each other. There was somebody saying to me, the other day, that where she’s working, that there’s…there happened to be a lot of older people near it, so she’s always bumping into them. And she says she has to really brace herself and say: “Oh, I have to stop and say ‘hello’ to this person.” And then she feels really guilty, because she knows that, of course, it’s a good thing to spend time with older people. But she said: “In a way, they’re in the way of my work.” And I was talking to her about where I came from, and how that never occurred to anyone. That older people are slower, people were in the way. They were part of the community. So, I suppose I learned a lot, an awful lot, from that community. On the other hand, I also learned that if you were a bit different, it wasn’t exactly the best place, you know? And if you were poor – none of us were well-off, we were all poor, in the sense that we were small farms. My parents were particularly interested in education, they were determined we’d go to school, we’d be educated, and saved money to educate us in that way. And many families did that. Not every family was able to do that – they didn’t have a farm, they didn’t have a shop, they didn’t have anything. They were terribly poor. And I knew they were different, and I knew they were treated differently in school. And I think that’s really what affected me more than anything, it’s that I knew this was so there. And I used to ask my mother why was this so, and was this the same elsewhere. And all she said to me was: “You just go and study and you’ll be fine. You do this and do that.”
Of course, when I came to the city, I knew that the divisions were greater. But it was that kind of… I wouldn’t have been able to say: “This is unequal, this is unjust.” I wouldn’t have been able to, as a child, I wouldn’t be able to say that. But I knew there was a difference. And I think that was what led me to want to do something about this difference, to want to do something about people who were poor.
[00:22:08] RM: And did that have a role in you becoming a nun?
[00:22:10] SS: It did, yes. At that time, it wasn’t possible to do social work or social science. I didn’t…that wasn’t a faculty in the university. So, the way I…my sisters were older, and they had gone on to college and they were training to be teachers, and one of them was training to be a nurse. And I kind of knew I wanted to work more directly with the poor, and the only way I…I had read about, you know, things that were happening in other countries. But I then heard about the Sisters of Charity, who worked with the poor, and who work with poor children and poor families. And then I went to see them. And that’s why I joined them, really. Because they had…they were particularly interested in working with the poor, and so I went to meet them. They really impressed me, and their respect for the poor – now that’s why I joined. But that wasn’t why I stayed, obviously. You know, why I stayed is that the spiritual life became important.
[00:23:11] RM: So, at another time, you could’ve made a different choice, to be a social worker or a youth worker or a community worker?
[00:23:16] SS: Yes, absolutely. You never…you don’t know.
[00:23:21] RM: Yes, I often think that – some of the people that I come across in community work. That if they were born in different decades, they would’ve become priests or nuns. Because the social service mantra is very similar, in some ways. Not for everybody, obviously.
[00:23:34] SS: Oh yes, absolutely. There’s no doubt. There’s no doubt many, if given the opportunity, would have followed that path. Today, that’s what people are doing – people aren’t joining religious communities, at all, in Ireland. People – men – aren’t becoming priests either. So that, that will go through a phase of them dying out. And something new will emerge. I don’t have any doubt about that, because I can see how little groups and people, like people who come here to meditate, they’re all seeking a spiritual life – a deeper life. So there will be a way, into the future, where new forms of spirituality will emerge, new forms, ways of helping people to express, to live their spiritual life, and to serve, as well.
[00:24:28] RM: So that’s interesting, because, at some sense what I’m detecting is that you’re reconciled to the change of how religion is. Particularly, I’m talking about the Catholic Church, in Ireland anyway – because it is growing in other countries, perhaps. And you’re basically sounding hopeful, in another way, because the institution, or the organization, isn’t the priority here. It’s that people continue to develop a way to serve, and to find peace. And you don’t mind how that happens – that’s what I’m hearing.
[00:25:00] SS: Absolutely. Absolutely. I really do believe that we’re all spiritual by nature. We have a spiritual side to us. And I really believe that will win out – the spirit will win out. And the spirit of the divine will win.
[00:25:19] RM: So, could you elaborate on that, now? Because there are going to be people listening to this who identify themselves as atheists, or agnostic, or whatever it is. And when some people hear the word spirituality, or God, or spirit, even – there’s a lot of tension around that.
[00:25:41] SS: There is, yes. I think that’s because of history. That’s because their understanding of that has been very negative, and their understanding of God as being this judge. And the understanding of ‘judge’ is very authoritarian, and full of rules and regulations. That’s the understanding, that’s where people are coming from. But really, I suppose what I believe is that spirituality is about the truth. It’s about the truth of who we are. And really discovering ourselves in that true self, that true being that we are. And whatever will help us on that journey is good. If it’s about truth, and love, and peace, and justice. If it’s about that, it’s good. I don’t have any doubt.
[00:26: 38] RM: That reminds me of thinking about Gandhi, because in some ways, I think Gandhi’s philosophies were – I think one of them was termed ‘satyagraha.’ It was this pursuit of the truth, and a worship of the truth, no matter what the truth is, which is an interesting… And that’s an exploration; it’s not necessarily a destination.
[00:25:57] SS: No, no it isn’t. For the truth will lead…the truth will lead you to peace. The truth will lead you to stillness, and the truth will lead you to your true self.
[00:27:10] RM: So can I ask you: obviously there are figures like Jesus, and many others in every religious tradition. But we’re brought up, particularly in Ireland, with a definition or a concept of God as, mostly, a man in his, maybe, in his 50s. I can’t really…I’m trying to get a picture in my head – and he’s certainly a white guy, and he generally has a big beard. Maybe he’s in his 60s. And he’s a bit cranky, isn’t he? So, personally I don’t buy it. And God, for me, can be many different things or nothing, or it can be something to one person and something to somebody else. Is that where you’re at with this?
[00:27:57] SS: Oh yes. I think a lot of people were brought up to that: that God was somebody to be feared. But then, if you’re a Christian, if you follow the Christian tradition, and you read the life of Jesus or the Gospels, you know, the words of Jesus – they’re all about love and peace. So that shows us a different God. And, I suppose, the God for me, the Jesus for me was the God who particularly loved the people on the margins, and who particularly restored people’s dignity, and gave the people on the margins a new sense of themselves. Who brought them in. If you read the stories, any of the stories in the Gospels, it was always bringing the people on the margins into the center. And really, whether they were people who were lepers or whether they were people who were tax collectors, or whether they were sinners, or whether they were in prostitution – whatever. They were, for Jesus, really important. And they were people that he really showed the rest of the people that they had an importance, and they had a dignity. So that, for me, showed me a God: a God of mercy, a God of love, a God of justice, a God of compassion. And that is my God.
And I suppose, as well as that, working, then, with poor people, and working with people who were homeless – and you hear their stories. And they tell you more about society and the way it operates, and the way it excludes them. And their need for this love, and their need to be included, and their need for somebody like Jesus in their lives, who showed them that this…who showed them, and gave them, dignity. So it is the God of liberty – the God of love and peace.
[00:30:06] RM: And this is very topical, because we’ve just lived through 8 years of austerity and, for me, it feels that it’s almost like a war on the poor, in some ways. Because we are told that there wasn’t this money to go round any more, but when you look at the research and the statistics, there’s actually been increases in wealth in a small portion of the population, which I think has led us to this horrible scenario of division and, almost, a road to fascism, in one way. But the poor become the problem – and they’re not. The poor are the symptom of the problem, in a way. I don’t mean to, kind of, categorize people in that way, either.
[00:30:50] SS: Oh no – but it’s true. It is absolutely true. There are, in Ireland, many people who don’t know there was a recession at all. It had no effect on them. Many people – it’s not just the top people who are well off, and got richer. But there are many people that it didn’t affect at all, at all. And people would say that to you, better off people who it didn’t affect. And then, there are other people, like the low-paid worker, the unemployed, the poor people, the one-parent families, all those – they have suffered enormously. And the poverty that exists in some parts of our country is incredible. It’s unbelievable, in this day and age. And, not only that, but it’s never talked about now. I was involved in the Combat Poverty Agency – I was in the first year of Combat Poverty in 1974. And the first time we talked openly about poverty, and there was a paper done that showed that 25% of the population were living below the poverty line. That startled people, because people hadn’t thought about it. And all during…from that time on, until the 90s, it was constantly brought to people’s mind. There was a certain number of people living in poverty, a certain number of children living in consistent poverty. You never hear it now. It isn’t talked about.
[00:32:11] RM: But they dismantled the Combat Poverty Agency, which is almost telling in itself.
[00:32:17] SS: They did – and since then, there are no papers produced on poverty. Occasionally, you hear somebody talking about poverty. But it isn’t. But it is awful. And you have the awful situation of homelessness, that has increased year upon year upon year upon year for the past 15 years. And now it is totally out of control. Now it is an absolute crisis. And yet, we hear the plans and the plans and the plans, and now we have a lot of demands looking for increases in wages and salaries. And you have people with no homes, you know? You have 2,400 children in bed and breakfast – in bedrooms in hotels and in B&Bs. And it’s not just here and there – they’re everywhere. I was talking to a person yesterday who is doing some work with people in B&Bs. And she works in a bed and breakfast in the city center where there are 90 families, in 90 rooms. 90 families! There might be three or four children in that family, in one room. And then there’s another family, and another family. 90 of them, in a bed and breakfast in the middle of our city. That’s only one example. Because people get the impression: “Oh sure, they’re in hotel rooms, they’re grand.”
[00:33:40] RM: ‘Hotel’ is a misnomer – because what they have… Not many of us like to spend more than a night in a hotel.
[00:33:48] SS: Exactly. And even with that, you have a nice room, and you go down to the dining room and have you…
[00:33:51] RM: So where do you wash your clothes? You’ve no sink.
[00:33:54] SS: Where do you wash? Where do you cook? Where do the children play? How do you live your life?
[00:34:00] RM: So I think, like a lot of stress there, the physical restrictions…but there’s a mental stress to that, that is driving people…
[00:34:07] SS: Hugely. And the children are going to be damaged. Can you believe, some children are born into that? Literally, I know of women who were in B&Bs – they went from there to go into the hospital to have their baby, and brought their baby back to the B&B. So the children are born into it, and reared into it. So, I mean, that is scandalous, in this day and age in Ireland. But that’s the kind of divisions you have in Ireland. Now, it’s hardly talked about. It’s talked about because we’ve been highlighting the fact that people are in hotel rooms – but it’s the awfulness of the hotel rooms. And it’s also the fact…it’s worse than the tenements, where you had the big houses in towns where there were many families. But there it was kind of a community. They knew each other. In hotel rooms, they don’t mix. They’re not allowed to mix.
[00:34:58] RM: And I think some of them have to go in the back entrance.
[00:34:59] SS: Oh they do, they do.
[00:35:01] RM: Tell me this – you’ve been around these issues a long, long time now, right? You’re kind of banging the same drum, for justice, if you like, and homelessness, and a range of other issues. Do you ever feel that – I mean, do you ever get sick banging the drum? Or feel that people might be sick hearing that, and go: “Oh, that’s your woman, that’s what she…” Because it’s something that comes up for me, now, because I make it my business to keep shaking the cage. Because I’m not prepared to retreat into silence whilst I see what I see. But I don’t want to be that guy, either. I wish somebody else would come on, and we can all do it together. I don’t know.
[00:35:48] SS: Yes, it’s true. I think…to be honest, I think all I know is that these problems exist, these divisions exist, this terrible suffering exists. And it drives me on. It just drives me on. So I…there certainly are times I feel: “Oh, I wish I wasn’t saying that over and over again.” But I don’t really think too much about what people think of me, and what people… Because you couldn’t stop [inaudible 36:23], you know? You’re compelled to go on saying it.
[00:36:30] RM: And you’ve met…you’ve seen out a few Taoiseachs, prime ministers, presidents, [inaudible 00:36:37], ministers, heads of agencies. They’ve come and they’ve gone – and you’ve met them. And now we have…we’re probably going to face a change of government at some stage in the very near future, and we’ll have, maybe we’ll have new old faces. We may have Fianna Fáil or…we don’t know who we’ll have. But if you had any…like if you had Enda Kenny, who I’m sure you’ve met, and you’ve been on the Council of State a couple of times, as well. If you had Enda Kenny in here today, and we had, say, Micheál Martin and a couple of heads of the other parties – what do you say to them? Or do you even bother? Are they hearing this, or is their world so complex – that world of leadership – that… I mean, are they doing their best, are they not doing… Are they hearing it? Is their compassion lost? Are they ideologues? Because problems can be fixed.
[00:37:29] SS: Well, problems can be fixed. I think there’s a lot of bureaucracy. There’s huge bureaucracy that prevents things happening.
[00:37:37] RM: But isn’t that what they’ll tell you? And then that becomes the excuse, and they’ve done away with you for another year.
[00:37:43] SS: It is a fact that…well, I think politicians can overrule that. If they want to. Of course they can.
[00:37:53] RM: So you’re saying that they don’t want to, then? Or what is causing the fundamental lack of leadership to sort these issues?
[00:38:00] SS: I think they’re tied into the system. They’re tied into the system that is…the structure that exists. They’re connected – they’re not really for bringing about justice and equality. They’re about keeping people happy. And they keep people happy at the different levels.
[00:38:18] RM: Keeping some people happy.
[00:38:19] SS: Some people. But then, if they give the five Euro extra in the pension, or whatever they did in the last budget - they think they will keep that group happy, for the moment. So they’re trying to keep a lid on that, and they’re keeping… It’s all, really, about political expedience. It’s absolutely, absolutely not about bringing about a fair and just society. On top of that, we have a political system that really isn’t working. And a political system where we have, as you said, politicians in for a certain length of time – they know they have so many years, they know that they want to do this much in that year, and to hell with what happens afterwards. So they don’t have, kind of, a statesmanship or womanship approach where they’re thinking of this issue and how long it will take to… So we need people in political life who have the long view, and who are prepared to work towards that long term.
Not everything will happen immediately. But they have to do it in a way that there’s an immediate thing that needs to be done, a short term thing needs to be done, and a long term. If you take housing the homeless: they’re not going to resolve the homeless situation – it’s out of control right now. They’re not. What they can do is: they can stop the flow of people into it. Every week, there’s more and more people becoming homeless. They can stop the flow into it. They can do something in the short term by bringing modular houses – immediately, they’ll take people out of the awful situations of bed and breakfasts. And they can have their long-term plan, as well. But they’re not doing all those three together. They’re not stopping the flow. The modular houses are so slow in coming about. But they have the long term – they tell us about the 20,000 houses that they will build within this period of time, and so on. And I know it takes time. But I think they must be ruthless about doing something about it now. And, to be honest, when I hear all the civil servants, public servants out looking for this and that and the other, I really think the government should say: “No, I’m sorry – we’re going to do something about housing and homelessness right now, and that’s where we’re going to put our resources.” Because it is – it’s an emergency, it is a crisis.
[00:40:34] RM: Yes, and food and shelter are the basics of society. If you don’t have that…
[00:40:38] SS: Absolutely. Absolutely. You’re damaging children – you’re damaging children for the future. And that’s the kind of leadership that I would like to see, at this time.
[00:40:49] RM: And migration and immigration has also been another interest of yours over the years, and led you to found the Immigrant Council of Ireland, at a time when we didn’t really understand much about inward immigration. We were very much sending people out. And, to some extent, we still are. What led you to tackle that issue, or approach it?
[00:41:11] SS: I suppose it’s like everything else – I suppose it’s just, it’s my own experience. I was…I’d been running Focus Ireland, I’d pulled back from running it and I was still with it, on the board and developing the national part of it. But I was really conscious about migrants coming into the country – I was very conscious of their visibility in the city, and I just wondered about it. And there was a lot of talk, at the time, about asylum seekers. A lot of asylum seekers coming, and there was concern with the government about too many coming. And I wondered about the other people who were coming in to work, because there were a lot of migrants coming in to work. And I talked to anybody I could, really, about it – like the Irish Civil Liberties Group, people like that who knew a little about migration. And I concluded there was nothing done, practically, for people coming in to work or study. There was nothing to help them to understand the system, to navigate their way through the system, to… Any kind of social help, any kind of help that would help them to identify their needs or help them to…or support their rights. And it was with that in mind that I set up the Immigrant Council, as a center that would be there to support the rights – promote and support the rights – of immigrants.
And a lot of work was done at that time – there was a whole business of work permits. The work permits were given to the employers, not to the employee, and there was a lot of injustice, a lot of terrible things were happening. So we did a lot of work to put that right. And then other issues emerged. So we continued in that vein. It was, for me, the need. Once people start to come, you discover other needs. The whole business of family reunification, that wasn’t on the agenda. And there were people here who couldn’t bring their spouses in, who couldn’t bring their children in – and we lobbied for that. So the Immigrant Council became, really, a law center. But it became a way of helping people navigate the system, but also to influence policy. And I think it did that very well.
Now, the thing is changing. It’s changing radically, now, with the whole migrant crisis in Europe. And that’s a whole area that we in the Immigrant Council have to look at again, and how we are going to change now. Because it’s one of those things – when you start to do something, other organizations come in and they do similar things, so you have other organizations now doing some of the things that we did, and… So it’s a question, now we are looking at: “Where are we going now? What are we going to do about this migrant crisis? How are we going to be able to help society to be open and welcoming to migrants?” Because that’s the reality – the migrant situation is not going to go away.
[00:43:58] RM: That is, in some ways, the hot issue of our time. And there may even be people listening to this that have their doubts about immigration, and particularly - there’s no point in saying - the elephant in the room is… What some people want us to believe is a clash of cultures, of civilizations, and we now have talk of forming a list, a register, of Muslim people in the US. A state list, which…the last time something like that happened was in Nazi Germany. But what do you say to that person in urban or rural Ireland, that…they’re decent people, they’re working their asses off, they, maybe, go to Mass on a Sunday, and they’re genuinely concerned for Irish culture, or people getting free houses. You know, you’ve heard the kind of… And there is a kind of a fear, there, that: “Well, we need to stem the tide. We can’t cope with all of this.” What do you say to them?
[00:44:53] SS: I think, again, it’s about – we need great leadership from our politicians. And we need a good information and education system, that will bring information right down to rural Ireland, different parts of Ireland, about migration and its meaning. We need private and public partnership, where the people in areas, in communities, in parishes around the country, are helped to participate in the whole migrant situation. They’ve done that really well in Canada, where…led by the Prime Minister, where they have really invited local communities to become partners. And so, a local community could decide: “Well, you have a house, you rule it. I have money, and so-and-so does languages, and so-and-so does community service.” And so, they pool their resources, and they decide: “OK, we can take so many migrants into this community, and we’ll all work to welcome them.”
[00:46:04] RM: And that’s in partnership, and that’s the difference?
[00:46:06] SS: It’s done in partnership, yes. That’s what Ireland can do. And that’s the kind of thing I think we must be saying. And we must continue to say that it is a possibility. Just a recent thing I did, in writing the op-ed for The Times, and then in doing some radio programs – I had many letters from people, around the country, who said: “Look, I want to help. I’m a retired teacher, I rule my house.” These kind of letters. There are people who really want to do it. And it’s like everything else – I’ve always believed this, since I was in Kilkenny – that people only see the issue when they see ways of resolving it. I remember when we introduced Meals on Wheels in Kilkenny, way back in the 60s, when there was no Meals on Wheels in Ireland, and people said: “Why do you need Meals on Wheels? People have cooked all their lives. What are you bringing in this new thing for?” And we started to do it, and we started to provide a few meals for a few people who were willing to take them – and by degrees, people came and said: “Oh, I know so-and-so, and I know so-and-so, and I know so-and-so…and they’d love a meal.” So, once they thought it was possible to do it, and that it wasn’t harming to anyone, they came. And so Meals on Wheels developed. Similarly, with other services.
[00:47:14] RM: So, you’re what some people would call a social innovator, and you see the social need and you create the innovation. How do we cultivate a society where more people see themselves as social innovators, that they… And, indeed, you helped – yourself and Rachel and others – helped set up Young Social Innovators. You led that way for young people to become social innovators. How do we get everyone to think that they can take a lead on this, and not rely on the same cohort of individuals or groups?
[00:47:46] SS: Well I think education is a big thing. I really do think that we should have much more social and political education in schools. And I think that would make a huge difference, to help people to see their own creativity and their ability to innovate. And I think Young Social Innovators is one way – it’s a great help to young people, because they realize they can do something about some issue, and they can display this new social…showcase. And that never leaves you. I think if you do something like that when you’re young, even if you go away for a while, you come back to it. And I think that’s one very important way to help people, show people they can do that. I think that organizations that are very active in the community should have that kind of an innovative side to them. In the sense that I think, for example, the GA is an extraordinary organization, and so rooted in the community. Round every parish, round everywhere. I think that could do more on the social side. I think it’s possible for it, I think it gives great leadership, I think…that’s the kind of thing I’d like to see. So it isn’t isolated.
[00:48:51] RM: Yes – and the GA was set up as a social, cultural organization, more so than even the [inaudible 00:48:55].
[00:48:56] SS: Absolutely – look at…credit unions were set up totally as social organizations. In us, in Germany. And they’ve changed radically, but they really have that possibility of becoming community, sort of…very much open, community service. So there are organizations that can develop that side to them. I suppose you need leadership for that, too. You do.
[00:49:27] RM: What do you say to anybody that’s listening and has a kind of a frustration in their work, or in their life, and they know that they just want to be doing more in the community, or do something, but they just don’t know how to start.
[00:49:49] SS: I suppose most people would know organizations of one kind or another. And I think it’s a question of them then sussing that out and seeing what they will do. And some people are better at that than others. And again, I suppose, I come back to places where people meet – that there should be that opportunity for people. That’s churches, really – for those churches that are relevant for, they should always be offering people the opportunity to give. Because I do think that whole business of compassion and benevolence and giving – it really is great for people, and it’s great for community, and it has an extraordinary positive effect. And people, maybe, who may have some mental illness or who may have some depression or something like that - the opportunity to give can make all the difference in the world. So I think that that should be promoted as something good.
[00:51:03] RM: Yes – and especially at a time when we have a mental health crisis, as well. We have any number of crises – ecological crisis, financial crisis. But in some ways, they all come from the same place: a dysfunctional core of value. But I do find with – and I’ve been through some hard times, myself, where you can end up, ultimately, feeling sorry for yourself, and then, what’s the word, one of the causes of depression is the rumination. And to hack into that, and to go: “Well, today, I’m not going to feel sorry for myself – I’m going to go out and help somebody else.” And it changes the course of the river. The stream of the river just changes.
[00:51:42] SS: Absolutely. Helping somebody else, and also giving people the opportunity to help. Giving people the opportunity to help us. This simple thing of asking somebody that you think isn’t feeling so good today to do something for you – that whole business of that compassion, that extension of compassion, that extension of kindness – that can change people’s lives, can change whole communities.
[00:52:06] RM: So you’re talking about asking for help – we’re going to finish up now, but I want to take this opportunity to say: Do you need help with anything? Because there might be people listening that have time, skills, money – and you’re involved in so much good work, and it doesn’t come cheap either. And so there’s – is there anything in particular?
[00:52:25] SS: We need a lot of volunteers who’d work in any of the areas I’m working in, whether it is with homeless people, whether it’s with immigrants, or whether it is in The Sanctuary. A lot of volunteers. Obviously, if people have resources and they can help financially in any of the organizations, that is really welcome. And, I suppose, the…I just think, because I believe in it, that whole business of the compassionate society. If people want to give, please come to me and say you want to give. And I’d be delighted to give you that opportunity to give.
[00:53:05] RM: So, Stan, final word: it sounds, to me, from everything you’ve said: you’re very aware of the injustices, the challenges of society, but on the whole, you’re hopeful?
[00:53:17] SS: Yes, I’m very hopeful – because I see the hope in people. I see people who are really down on their luck, who have nothing. And yet, when you give them a little help, a little help, it can transform their life. A little bit of help. So that really gives me great hope. The other thing is – and this has always been so – the people, when I started doing…the people who’ve come round me, who’ve helped me to do what I was trying to do…people much more competent, much more creative, much more gifted than me, in many ways. And they came round and helped me to do whatever I was doing, and still do that. And that gives me a great sense of hope – because I think it can happen again and again.
[00:53:59] RM: It reminds me of that saying: ‘If you build it, they will come.’
[00:54:02] SS: That’s right. That’s true, sure.
[00:54:04] RM: It was lovely talking to you. Thanks.
[00:54:07] SS: Thanks.
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