Published in TheJournal.ie
IN JUNE 2003, I wrote a letter to Nelson Mandela asking for his help. At the time I was twenty five years old and like so many others, concerned about the recent invasion of Iraq.
I wanted Mandela to raise awareness of Ireland’s involvement in what many people believed was an illegal and immoral war. I wanted him to give a message to our leaders, telling them that people everywhere wanted peace, not war.
I figured that if I sent my letter by registered post to him at the university and marked it as private, then someone would be obliged to give it to him. Naive perhaps, but I had seen how 100,000 marchers in Dublin didn’t seem to influence our government and thought it was worth a go.
The next day I listened to Mandela’s speech online. I was a young man waiting for a leader to represent my voice, and the voices of millions like me. I was looking for hope, and I wasn’t disappointed.
In his speech that day Mandela talked about the fact that there had been no world war since 1945 because of the United Nations and that “any organisation, any country, any leader, that now decides to sideline the United Nations – that country and it’s leader are a danger to the world”.
“And they do so because you are keeping quiet,” Mr Mandela continued, after prolonged applause from the audience. “You are afraid of this country and its leader”he said. Mr Mandela said he could “not keep quiet” and that “all of us must have the courage to stand up and condemn what is wrong, and I am grateful that you have allowed an old man, who is more than 100 years old, to come and address you” he said on what ended up being his last visit to Ireland.
I had no idea whether Mr Mandela received my letter, and he didn’t refer specifically to Shannon airport and Ireland’s role in the war, but you could read between the lines. Finally, someone was speaking truth to power, saying what our leaders wouldn’t or couldn’t. Mandela was standing up to the spin doctors and the war mongers. He was using his platform to fearlessly advance the freedom of all people, not just his own.
It was a speech that gave me hope and inspiration, a unique moment of light in an Ireland that was often blinkered by the economic boom. Mandela’s speech burst through my frustration and growing cynicism and caused me to commit to making a difference in the world in whatever way I could.
Just a few months later I joined with friends and set up the SpunOut.ie youth organisation. Ten years on, and although I’m no longer involved, SpunOut.ie remains an important platform for young people at a time when many are struggling to remain hopeful.
It was the example of people like Nelson Mandela that helped inspire me during the inevitable challenges of setting up an organisation and in the work I’ve gone on to do. At that impressionable time in my life Mandela was a beacon, a teacher, and a guide to what is possible.
Young people today need similar inspiration. They need leadership and vision beyond the spin and rhetoric that promises them things are changing. They are hungry for inspiration and ideas that redefine conventional politics and cut through a culture dominated byadvertising and fear.
They want their values to be represented in public life and to be given encouragement and opportunities to be involved in shaping the world around them.
Mandela is being celebrated by billions around the world not just because of his remarkable feats in South Africa, but because of what he represents for humanity. He is a symbol for the great human leap forward, of the phenomenal power of the human spirit to triumph over flaws, adversity and injustice.
At a time when the world is crying out for courageous leadership, when injustice and suffering is everywhere, Mandela has left us a timely challenge and a call to action. It is up to us to be our own Mandela, to rise up and keep the flame of freedom alive.
“Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great. You can be that generation. Let your greatness blossom”.
Published in The Huffington Post
During July 2013 I hitch-hiked around Ireland, recording people's voices and visions for the country, on what I called the 'hitching for hope' listening tour. I dreamed up the idea as a way of informing my speech at the MacGill Summer School about citizen's views on democracy at what is a critical time in Ireland's history.
On the trip I met people from all walks of life, including barristers and businessmen, unemployed and homeless people, islanders on Inishbofin, farmers in Connemara, Orangemen in Derry, community activists in Moyross, and monks in Glenstal.
Here are a few things I discovered along the way.
1. Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith
Several people said I was mad to go hitching. On top of this I had my own doubts. I am in debt. I didn't have a plan, money, or equipment. I thought maybe I should just stay at home, be sensible, find some paid work to cover my rent, spend time with my fiancée, and cop myself on. Still, the idea kept calling to me - so I said 'what the hell' and jumped into the unknown.
As soon as I did, doors started to open. Not just car doors, but offers of money, food, places to stay, media interviews, and no shortage of people willing to share their hopes, dreams and stories of love and loss. Letting go of my fears and worries of what other people thought, and trusting in the unknown, gave me the adventure of a lifetime and a new hope for the future.
2. Hitching is alive
My average waiting time was about five minutes and I'd regularly get picked up within a minute of sticking my thumb out. The longest I had to wait was 40 minutes. Eighty per cent of lifts were from men; there's no doubt that the hitching world isn't something that's equally accessible to women for safety reasons. I got picked up by people from all walks of life including a butcher, a fish monger, a priest, an ex-priest, a beekeeper, a businesswoman, tourists, a social worker, and a software engineer. All were mad to chat. You can hear some of the in-car audio interviews on my website.
3. There is another Ireland
Sometimes you can end up thinking we're the most miserable, depressed, oppressed and hopeless nation on earth. We're not. Ireland might not be well reflected by our leaders or institutions and the effects of unemployment, emigration and austerity are not to be ignored, but everywhere I went I witnessed kindness, generosity, creativity and signs of hope, courage and possibility. Within communities people are working hard, volunteering, campaigning, supporting charities, innovating, and doing their best to embody the values of a different Ireland. Despite everything we've faced, there remains a great spirit among the people.
4. People are angry
But while I encountered no shortage of smiles and welcomes, there is no doubt that people are angry about the continuing abuses of church, State and corporate power. There is a sense that there is one law for the rich and another for the rest of us, and in many cases this is feeding anger, depression, despair and cynicism. There is an appetite for revolution, reform, and renewal and a sense that we have to find new ways of coming together and getting organized.
5. People are thinking about values
While global, national and personal crises can be traumatic and painful, they can also be times for reflection and an opportunity for radical change. Many people I talked to mentioned the need to get back to basics. They spoke about the need to get away from individualism and cultivate community spirit, to cut down on all the noise and clutter and find simpler ways of living while connecting with friends, family, neighbours and nature.
6. We have other ideas
All over the country people are innovating and coming up with new ideas for job creation, political reform, and the transformation of things like health, education, energy, food, and agriculture. People don't believe the government message that there is no alternative to austerity and they have different visions for how we can run this country and make it a world leader in science and technology, participative democracy, and in green food, farming and energy production.
7. We're tough
Talking to historians and older people on the trip helped give me a sense of the turbulent times this country has been through. Older Irish people have witnessed mass poverty, emigration and the era of the industrial schools. One historian talked about the mass killings of the Cromwellian era when thousands of Irish people were murdered. He said that we are at the end of one cycle of history and the beginning of another and that we are a tough and resilient people. The challenge now is to take the lessons from history and to learn from them.
8. This is a paradise island
Chatting to tourists helped give me perspective on how they see the country (clean, green, spacious, safe, peaceful, and friendly) as did visiting some of our world class scenic and historic sites. Fair enough, the weather is bad a lot of the time but it's worth considering the pollution, climate chaos, overpopulation, poverty or violence that so many other countries have to contend with. Overall, and notwithstanding the obvious suffering, we have it relatively good.
9. It's important to listen
I called my trip a listening tour as I think there's often too much talking and not enough listening, not just at a political level but in our day to day lives. My work with young people has taught me that listening to people can be therapeutic and empowering. Listening to different perspectives without reacting or debating also helps you see another view on things. Listening requires focus, attention, and awareness. Listening to yourself is equally important; to your gut instinct, intuition, inner voice, or whatever you want to call it.
10. It's up to us
If we wait for the government to solve our problems then we will be waiting a long time. Ultimately the responsibility of transforming Ireland and transforming our lives is up to us all. We have the power to decide what we do with our time, our thoughts, our money and our votes. Many of us have serious life challenges to contend with but there is always room for manoeuvre in how we perceive situations, and how we approach each day. It is up to each of us to help build the world we want to create.
A selection of Ruairí's articles published in the Irish Times, the Irish Independent, the Sunday Times, the Huffington Post, and other publications.