Sister Stanislaus Kennedy, often called Sister Stan, is a well-known social innovator, campaigner and writer. She is the founder of Focus Ireland, the Immigrant Council of Ireland and The Sanctuary. I interviewed her as she prepares for The Sanctuary’s annual mindfulness conference on May 10th in Dublin Castle.
How is life with you these days? What is your main focus or is every day different?
Life is good thank God. My main focus is with people in need, mainly people who find themselves homeless, immigrants and people who are marginalised in our country.
Can you tell us a little bit about what life was like for you as a child and your influences and inspirations?
I was reared in the Dingle peninsula and enjoyed the beauty and simplicity of life on a farm in a beautiful place. The place itself was an inspiration.
You set-up Focus Ireland back in 1985 to help end homelessness. What are your feelings on the situation now and what needs to happen?
In my 30 years with Focus Ireland I have never seen, and never imagined I would see, the situation of homeless people as awful as it is today. Last night 900 families spent the night in hotel rooms and B&B’s including almost 2,000 children. They were there the night before as well and will be there tomorrow afternoon. It is shocking and appalling.
You also co-founded Young Social Innovators, which is a great organisation. How important is it to empower young people in your view and why?
Making young people socially aware and inspiring and empowering them to become active citizens is one of, if not the most important thing we can do for Ireland’s future.
You founded the Immigration Council of Ireland. There are a lot of issues these days around race, racism and the refugee crisis. What are your views on this?
The crisis with refugees today is a wake-up call for this part of the world and for Ireland. The plight of men, women and children risking everything to reach safety is a loud speaker shouting out to our smugness, self-centeredness and our greed challenging us to rediscover our humanity and respond generously and fairly and justly.
A lot of people are moving away from religion these days. However there seems to be a growing interest in spirituality in general. How important do you think this is?
This is a sign of the times! And it is natural that people are interested in spirituality as the spirit in each of us is calling out to be listened to and responded to.
You are a great advocate for mindfulness and meditation. What do you think these practices have to offer people?
Mindfulness helps people to be aware, to be awake to the present moment. It is our capacity to be aware. Mindfulness gives us choices, allowing us to step outside our automatic thinking processes so we can see new possibilities.
How can people get started with mindfulness and meditation?
You can start by giving time each day to practice. But to practice you need help and it is better to starts with an Introduction to Mindfulness course. The Sanctuary runs many introduction to Mindfulness courses.
Self-care is another thing you talk about a lot. Why do you think this is important?
Self-care is about taking a personal responsibility for our life and accepting ourselves as we are, offering us inner peace and resilience. In order to care for others we must first of all care for ourselves. It is also preventative as it prevents burn out which is common today.
As if you weren't busy enough, you founded The Sanctuary in 1998. Can you tell us a bit about that?
The Sanctuary is a spirituality centre based in Dublin city centre. It is a place of beauty which touches into the beauty in each of us. It is a place of peace which touches into the inner peace in each of us. It is a place to learn and practice Mindfulness and Meditation and contemplation, in various ways.
What are your feelings in general about where Ireland is at as a country?
Ireland is at a crossroads. It can decide now to develop economically and socially in a way that leads to equality, justice and fairness or it can continue as it is and develop a society divided economically and socially.
If you had a magic wand, what would be your one wish for the world?
World peace and justice
The Sanctuary’s annual mindfulness conference takes place in Dublin Castle on May 10th and features world renowned meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg. Tickets can be booked online here. More information on Sr Stan here.
I was honoured to be asked to act as MC for the recent Artist Without Borders fundraising concert in Dublin's Unitarian church, which raised much needed funds and awareness for the Calais refugee camp.
Blown away by people's generousity. I set up this fundraising effort and within 48 hours it raised €4000 for this young woman who I know from her work as a mental health advocate. Disgraceful that necessary state supports aren't in place but the kindness of people shows how there is hope from within the community.
From the Irish Examiner Feb 21st:
A fundraising effort has been established to aid a single mother whose open letter on her life of poverty went viral this week.
The woman, who states that she lives in Mayo, just 15 minutes from Taoiseach Enda Kenny, gained national attention in an online post in which she describes how she would greet the first election canvasser to come to her door.
“I have maybe four tea-bags in my cupboard and no coffee, so I hope if someone comes they will be content to drink tap water while I show them how the tagline ‘Let’s Keep the Recovery Going’ is simply a fantasy for those living on the poverty line,” the woman wrote.
“I will tell them how my young child went to bed last night with two pairs of socks on and a hat; while I wore my scarf under a hoody because we had no oil or coal to heat the house. I will show them how draughty my rented accommodation is and let them see their own breath as fog as they speak to me. I will tell them how I’ve been juggling single motherhood and my education for the last seven years and how I am now qualified with a CV packed with voluntary work and community involvement.”
I had a busy Christmas period after President Higgins called a Council of State meeting for December 27th to discuss the International Protection Bill. You can read more about it and see TV news footage here. Below is a photo of those present before the meeting. I am in the back row to the right.
I'm proud to share my birthday with whistleblower Chelsea Manning. Pics of a vigil I organised alongside friends from Afri, Amnesty, Transparency International, 5 members of parliament and others.
A poem by my friend, the amazing poet Sarah Clancy from Galway, Ireland
At 22 I wasn't much more than a playground for ideas
other people fed me.
I was three years away from even being brave enough
to explore my own identity.
It was years more before I stopped that navel gazing
and took a quick look outwards
and I’m still failing to come to terms with that at forty,
but you, at that age could gather the courage
and the words to say that as a solitary soldier
washed up in an army of macho war porn and murder
you wouldn’t stand for it,
as a loner in a theatre of torn up conventions,
of water-boarding, of torture,
you wouldn’t stay silent.
At twenty two, a kid, and right in the thick of things
you made it clear you hadn’t been fooled
by the all pervasive culture that says
there are times when it’s AOK to re-name humans
as nuts and bolt collateral.
Chelsea when they charged you in the military court
you made no Nuremberg excuses
of how someone made you do it,
and you didn’t spout on about flags or orders or duty
at twenty five you could condemn
an army for its war crimes for
its murders of civilians and children
and you could act on it despite the consequences
you could reclaim the meanings for us
of words like courage and justice,
now that’s what I call service;
someday I hope your country (and ours!)
will grow up and deserve it
happy birthday Chelsea
lets hope that for your next one you’ll be free.
And P.S Edward Snowden, keep on running!
Written for Chelsea's 27th birthday (Dec 17th, 2014)
The Irish Times, November 13th 2015.
Don’t wash your dirty linen in public. This has been a mantra that has kept Ireland buried in shame for too long. It has caused untold hurt and allowed a culture of silent suffering to prevail. Why the collusion? Why do we not want to talk about the national secrets that call out to us from the mirror?
Natasha Eddery Dunsdon, daughter of celebrated jockey Pat Eddery, helped change this when she posted an emotional tribute on social media following her father’s recent death. She lifted a veil on what many knew but few were prepared to mention, that her father, the national hero, had been consumed by years of alcoholism.
“The last time I saw him face to face was when I brought him home from rehab and he drank straight away. I turned to him and said “dad if you choose to drink over health and family, I can’t be part of that life for you.” Sadly his addiction was too strong and he couldn’t overcome it. My sibling and his close friends did all we could to help him battle his illness, but we lost in the end.” she wrote.
“It has been so sad to witness his decline and my siblings and I knew that we would lose him to his demon drink. But that said, I loved him so much and I had probably the best childhood anyone could ask for. I was so proud and still am so proud to be his daughter, he was an amazing jockey, father and husband, but in the end he was taken over by a terrible disease. I don’t think of that man, the alcoholic, he wasn’t my dad. My dad was kind, sweet, emotional and, while he never said much, I know he loved us all very much.” she concluded in the moving post which has gone viral.
In her courageous sharing Natasha has opened up a conversation about the challenges of what it means to be human and the suffering that this brings with it. It is no surprise that her tribute has struck a chord and shattered the silence surrounding her father’s struggles. This is a silence that permeates the country’s consciousness. It pretends silence is the same as respect, while pushing the pain deeper into the crevices of the national soul.
Alcohol abuse plagues this land and affects every family. Right now there are men and women in villages, towns, cities, and sitting rooms all over Ireland who are numbing the pains of life that they find too much to bare.
Every night our over stretched ambulance staff deliver hordes of half conscious, battered and intoxicated bodies to nurses who are already at breaking point. At weekends, fifteen year olds gather in dark parks, downing cider and vodka as a corrupted rites of passage into adulthood. Elsewhere masses of underage boys and girls down shots in pubs and clubs while parents, publicans and Gardai look the other way. Meanwhile, phone lines ring late into the night at Childline and at Rape Crisis Centres, while Garda stations and refuges deal with the fall-out from alcohol fueled domestic violence.
Be ‘drink aware’ say the soft alcohol industry campaigns while continuing to pump out advertising targeted at young people at concerts and sporting events. Booze culture is everywhere. Visiting dignitaries are forced to hold a pint of Diageo’s finest for the obligatory photo call and national legislators down a few scoops before voting on late night legislation. “Lighten up” we’re told. “Shure it’s all only a bit of craic”. Except it isn’t.
Alcohol isn’t the problem here. Addiction is, more so the denial of it. Ireland is an addict and alcohol is just the tip of the iceberg. We have one of the highest rates of heroin addiction in the world, a growing epidemic of gambling addiction, a problem with food, sugar and obesity, not to mention tobacco, pain killers, internet addiction and pornography.
Addiction is complex. It has many origins and forms, none helped by the prevalence of loneliness and isolation in a world that is supposed to be more connected. Commercial interests and policy makers play a role, as do the market driven evangelists who are stripping back services and destroying the social fabric. Take away our dignity, demonise dissent, and sell us pills and poisons to take away the pain. In a nation ravaged by sexual abuse, and where wounds go unacknowledged and untreated, it’s no wonder so many need to self-medicate.
Ireland’s national recovery has to be about more than short term economics. It must explore the underlying cultural, psychological, and spiritual dysfunction that is costing us billions in health care, and much more in lost potential and shattered lives. For this we need courage, to have uncomfortable conversations and to smash the shame, stigma and silence that are holding Ireland back.
Ruairí McKiernan is a social campaigner, founder of SpunOut.ie and member of the Council of State. His website is www.ruairimckiernan.com
My wife and I managed to get ourselves wee slots in this great music video - a nice feel good uplifting tune promoting positive mental health. Fair play Flynn Johnson.
I've been doing a lot of campaigning this year to expose the alcohol industry and their attempts to frame the debate around alcohol abuse and to help shape legislation. Contribute a comment as part of article below on new industry funded report.
Industry group criticised over plan for drink
A controversial Diageo-funded alcohol awareness campaign has been criticised for not recommending a ban on alcohol sponsorship of sport.
After a 10-month research and consultation period, the Stop Out-of-Control Drinking campaign’s report recommends a new, national Foundation to Reduce Alcohol Misuse to achieve a “generational shift” in drinking culture that will deliver a 30% reduction in alcohol misuse by 2025.
The independent foundation would run for 10 years and be chaired by a government appointee. Its remit would be to co-ordinate public services, health groups, industry, education institutions, and others to implement a wide-ranging set of recommendations focused on changing behaviours and attitudes towards alcohol.
The report also advocates an inter-generational approach to cultural education, and school alcohol education from primary level up to university.
It also calls for more support services to allow parents and peers to take a leading role in the fight against out-of-control drinking. The campaign has been widely criticised since its inception amid claims it is a “smokescreen” to take the political focus away from wider legal reforms around minimum pricing, marketing, alcohol promotion and alcohol availability.
Chair of the campaign and Barnardos chief executive Fergus Finlay defended the report’s decision not to call for a ban on alcohol sponsorship of sports saying health experts “were divided” about the effectiveness of such a measure
“I want to see the link broken between sport and alcohol. I don’t want to see it happen at the expense of sport. I don’t want to see it cause a crisis overnight. I think it’s something that can only be done reasonably quickly. It is noteworthy, however, that neither the Minister nor the Oireachtas Committee [on Health and Children] has come out in favour of an outright overnight ban,” he said.
However, independent senator and former Children’s Rights Alliance chief executive Jillian van Turnhout said that, in 2012 and 2015, the Health and Children Committee members supported a ban on alcohol advertising of sports.
She said she had predicted that the report would focus on the “catchphrase” of education as a tactic to delay the introduction of effective legislation.
“The report is disappointing but not surprising. Education is the catchphrase of the drinks industry as it was of the tobacco industry. The reality is while education is fine, it doesn’t change people’s behaviour. What we need is legislation around pricing and the promoting and marketing of alcohol,” she said.
Social campaigner and founder of youth organisation SpunOut.ie Ruairí McKiernan questioned the recommendation for a new foundation, considering there are already plans to relaunch the drinks industry-funded DrinkAware.
“It will be interesting to see what the link is between this and the plans for industry-funded organisation DrinkAware to relaunch. In April the HSE stated that there should be no role for the industry in public health awareness as there is a clear conflict of interest.”
“The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill will soon go before the Dáil and it will be worth watching to see how health minister Leo Varadkar responds to the continual efforts by industry to frame the debate and prevent meaningful change,” he said.
From the Irish Independent (Aug 15, 2015), feature on Irish education
Twenty years ago I headed off to university in Scotland. I was 17 and frustrated by my school experience. I did have some good experiences but in general I felt school was stifling. I remember contributing to a government consultation on education reform.
I know there have been reforms but it seems the approach remains the same. The Irish education system is mainly geared towards a cruel memory test followed by an outdated process of college entry. The cutbacks to guidance counseling hasn't helped things. Students are taught more about random facts and figures than about life and finding their true calling.
While the government likes to pretend that we have free third level education, the reality is different. The €3000 'student contribution' means we now have among the highest fees in Europe. In much of Europe education is truly free. Many parents have financial pressures and it can be hard for students to self fund their education. Youth unemployment levels are at over 20%, a rate that has grown recently despite emigration.
On top of that we're now witnessing a housing crisis, spiraling rents for what is often substandard accommodation. All of this has created a pressure cooker environment that is putting a huge strain on young people, parents and teachers. Where is the leadership on this? Where is the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs James Reilly?
For me a lot of it has to come down to the need for a compelling vision for what kind of country we want as we prepare to commemorate 1916. Young people should be at the heart of this and they need support, mentoring, opportunities and investment. It's been said before but we really need to consider what Finland did back in the eighties. They stood back and asked what kind of society they wanted and then set about a thirty year project of radical change that created a trailblazing education system at its core. That's what is needed, a long term vision with the courage to bring it about.
Various bits of news, photos and updates from Ruairí. More on Twitter and Facebook.