Against the tide

Peter Hegarty

In a homespun, congenial account of his life as a priest and community activist, Harry Bohan poses searching questions about power and governance. Change – for the better, for the worse – is his theme: his adult life has coincided with a period of wrenching social transformation in Ireland.


Change comes, in many forms, but – and this is his key point – is rarely accompanied by consultation with those it will affect.  As Ireland became an urban industrial society, country people watched helplessly as housing estates engulfed the landscape; they were not asked whether they wanted to move to a city; they had no say in economic planning; they did not decide where factories should be built. Policy was the preserve of bureaucrats in Dublin and later Brussels.

Local campaign

It being unlikely that this Government or its successors will begin consulting citizens about their needs or wants, Bohan calls on people and communities to assert themselves, to make demands. He adduces instances of people deciding what they wanted and successfully lobbying for it. The development of Shannon happened because people pushed for it. Bohan’s favourite example – lovingly recounted – is the long local campaign to buy and reopen the cattle mart in Sixmilebridge, Co. Clare. The building is now central to the local economy, doubling as a social outlet, a point of contact for people who often live isolated lives. 

The economic vicissitudes of recent years have enlivened political and economic debate in this country. The Catholic Church is a marginal voice in the debate. During Bohan’s lifetime it has grown increasingly out of touch with a changing society: “uninterested” is his term. The Church is widely regarded as irrelevant. Is it irrelevant because it has not been alive to its own social teaching, as expressed in the various encyclicals on modern industrial society? As Bohan points out, these documents stress subsidiarity, consultation and co-operation between the various social and economic groups; they emphatically do not recommend the sorts of ‘top-down’ changes Ireland has been subjected to in the last five decades: was the decision to rescue busted private financial institutions in accord with Catholic social teaching? Surely not.

Pope Francis

Bohan attaches great significance to the election of Pope Francis. He admires his refusal to condemn what some would consider errant morality, his disdain for ostentation, and above his pragmatism. He suggests that the Church could take a cue from his openness to change and consider some practical steps to improve its functioning, and boost morale among the faithful.

It could cease bemoaning the lack of vocations and instead consider delegating more duties from clergy to laity. One lively ‘community Mass’ on a Sunday morning could replace several poorly-attended services. Bohan fondly recollects saying Masses out in the countryside on summer evenings, the music and gaiety that ensued, and the strong sense he had of an act of worship deepening people’s sense of community and belonging.

Bohan’s gentle book is a reminder of a truth too easily overlooked: an economy is not a society. More tech jobs in Dublin won’t keep rural schools and pubs open. Prosperity does not necessarily bring well-being, or give us more control over our lives.