The Irish and the meaning of life

Saol: Thoughts from Ireland on Life and Living

by Catherine Conlon

(The Collins Press, €12.99)

Barbara Pierce

What does it mean to live a useful life? What is the meaning of life?

These are two of the five questions which the author of Saol, Catherine Conlon asks of 66 Irish people, all well known for their work as writers, academics, teachers, preachers, activists for charities and human rights, politicians and others!

Each contributes one or two pages eloquently setting out their beliefs and how these affect the way they live. It would be impossible to generalise or to summarise such stories of personal convictions, but it can certainly be said that all, believers, agnostics, atheists have used their (God given?) talents and have become well known in their chosen work. Is it the doing of this work that gives life meaning?

Mark Patrick Hederman, Abbot of Glenstal, believes that the only thing that matters is doing what you were created to do, whether it is a lifetime’s work or a single task and we must listen for the ‘small voice’ of God to discover our mission. Perhaps for Chris Hadfield going into space was his major mission? John Crown’s life derives meaning from working with his patients and from love of his children.

“I am here to serve,” these are the words which “popped into” Breda O’Brien’s head at the question: ‘Why am I here?’


To love, to serve, to seek justice for the disadvantaged, to leave the world a better place, to inspire the imagination with music, poetry and literature – these are some of the ways to live a useful life.

Love is the word most used when considering the meaning of life – particularly love of children, love of nature, love of God.

The author also asks about being alive in the 21st Century, the legacy those interviewed will leave, and how belief or non-belief in a life after death affects how they live. In essence: ‘What’s it all about?’

Is there life after death? Again, a great variety of opinions, from ‘yes’ to ‘no’ through many shades and degrees of belief. John Waters thinks that life transcends death, Peter McVerry believes that God wants him to focus on the work here rather than on getting to Heaven. Vincent Browne does not believe in an afterlife and thinks the idea of one distracts from the promotion of justice here and now.

There is much anxiety about our planet.

It is very courageous to ask these philosophical questions and more courageous to look inside one’s heart and intellect to find and verbalise their thoughts.

Although no two person’s thoughts are identical, all have engaged with the task of looking into their own beliefs and coming to conclusions based on their own values. All have generously shared the results of their reflection with the author and with us.

Such self-revelation challenges the reader to do likewise.

Catherine Conlon, who won the Young Scientist Exhibition when a teenager, has compiled a most interesting and readable collection of personal statements. A very good addition to a new year booklist, the short chapters allow time to pause and reflect and maybe a new understanding of the meaning of life.