Ceifin 2006

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Shortly after we got to Ireland, we of course began haunting the local library. On my first trip there, I found a great book called Working Towards Balance that explored the changes in Irish society due to the booming economy. Reading the book, I learned that it was actually a collection of the papers presented at an annual conference in Ennis, Ireland. The conference is put on by an organization called The Ceifin Centre. Ceifin (pronounced kay-fin) is drawn from the name Ceibhfhionn, who was the Celtic goddess of inspiration. The Centre was founded by Father Harry Bohan, a parish priest with a degree in sociology. In 1997 Father Harry became concerned with the changes he was seeing in Ireland, especially rural Ireland, with modernization and major economic changes. He gathered a group of people together to discuss these changes at a conference titled “Are We Forgetting Something?” The conference was a success, and Father Harry established The Ceifin Centre and the conference became an annual event.

After I read the book, I was discussing it with one of our friends here, and he said “I believe that conference is coming up soon.” I was thrilled to learn that it was indeed. In conversation with another friend, he said that he had already registered, but something had come up and he wouldn’t be able to make it. He asked if I would take his place, and in the process deliver the speaker gifts which were being donated by Waterford Crystal. I of course jumped at the chance.

The general theme of the conference every year is discussing challenges and opportunities facing Irish communities. Each year also has a more specific theme to guide the discussion. This year’s theme was “Freedom, Licence or Liberty? Engaging with a transforming Ireland.” It was to be a discussion of whether the newfound prosperity of Ireland was causing people to become more concerned with their own individuality at the expense of their engagement with their community - certainly a topic of great interest to me.

The format of the conference was a two-day series of talks by a very wide range of people and a few panel presentations, with Q & A and discussion time following each talk. The evening of the first day there was a nice reception and dinner where The Ceifin Centre presented their annual award. The range of attendees and speakers at the conference was wider than probably any conference I’ve ever been to. There were of course a lot of religious people attending, priests and nuns (I’ve since been to enough events here to know that’s simply a fact of life in Ireland!). There were a lot of attendees from non-profit organizations, religious and secular, a number of attendees from for-profit companies, people from government agencies, and a lot of folks there simply as interested individuals - almost 500 attendees in all. I found that to be one of the most interesting, and most important, features of the conference. Since the purpose of the conference is discussing changes in Irish society, it’s absolutely necessary to involve every aspect of society in the discussion. I think this event came closer to that goal than any I’ve been to before.

The speaker list was just as broad. We of course heard from Father Harry, who gave everyone their orders for the two-day conference. I got a chance to chat briefly with Father Harry on the second day, and he was incredibly friendly. I was also impressed that Father Harry sat front-row center for the entire conference - it was clear that he was passionate about bringing this group of speakers together and hearing what happened from that interplay. We heard from an economics college professor who discussed some of the stats about modern Ireland. A psychologist discussed the changes that community psychotherapy services in Ireland are seeing. The crime correspondent for RTE, the Irish public radio/television stations, discussed the increasing crime that is coming with the wealthier society. The head of a social and health-service provider (who would later that evening win the Ceifin Award for her service) for homeless people discussed her work in both urban and rural areas. A newspaper columnist described changes in morality and religious life in Ireland, a writer/poet discussed the philosophical effects of change on rural Ireland, and the tax commissioner for Ireland discussed the role that government revenues have on service provision in a welfare state.

For additional perspective, there was one panel discussion featuring four immigrants to Ireland: one from Brazil, one from Kenya, one from China and one from Poland. These folks all had interesting stories to tell about their own journey to Ireland and what life is like day-to-day for an immigrant. These people had all integrated into their community, learning varying degrees of English, helping other immigrants to settle in and volunteering in many ways to help their new communities.

A second panel presentation brought together four young people to discuss their roles in a changing Ireland. Ireland today is a very prosperous nation, but that’s only happened in the last 15 years or so. For many years, really since the famine in the mid-1800s, Ireland has had a very poor economy. This has led to a lot of Irish emigration, as we in the States know very well. When we meet people here, they of course notice immediately that were American. We’ve rarely met someone who hasn’t then said “I’ve got a cousin/brother/uncle/whatever that lives in X in the States.” For generations, this country has seen their youngsters move elsewhere to build a life. Now, with a prosperous economy, that’s changing. In talking about the new economy, you very often hear people remark that this is the first generation of Irish youth that hasn’t been forced to emigrate. There is a clear sense of pride and happiness at this, which is certainly understandable. In listening to this panel of young people, they definitely saw many opportunities for themselves in Ireland.

The other very great part of the conference was the chance to meet a bunch of new people. Folks were very interested to learn how I came to be at the conference, and what I thought of the discussion. I got to sit with a table full of college students at dinner, and got all kinds of suggestions on places to visit during our year here. Since the conference was taking place the day of the mid-term elections in America, everyone was very eager to talk about American politics - I was an especially hot commodity at lunch the second day, as people wanted my impressions of the early results.

There was one encounter that really hit me, and I imagine will stick with me for a while. In the lunch line on day two of the conference, I got chatting with a young lady from Dublin who works for Amnesty International. It was noisy in the room, she heard my accent but didn’t figure out where I was from, so she asked me. When I told her “The States,” she frowned a bit and said “Oh, my, you’ve certainly got some human rights issues there, don’t you?” I debated about how to write this part, as I know most people are following this blog for stories about our travels in Ireland. But c’mon, if you know me at all you know that anything I write is going to be laced with opinion, right? I think it’s very important for people in the States to take notice of that remark, and the general culture around it. Growing up in America we certainly thought of ourselves as the shining beacon in the world, the great democracy and benign force in the world. We’ve always liked to believe that’s how the world viewed us. Perhaps much, or some, of the world did at some point. But I can tell you, that’s not the case anymore, certainly not here. Kathleen and I have never been anything but incredibly warmly welcomed by the Irish people, even strangers we meet at pubs. At the same time though, the Irish people are very displeased, and I’d say confused, with what’s become of the U.S. We’ve both been asked, more than once, “What the feck are Americans thinkin?” (Note: the Irish use “feck” rather than “f*ck”, and they tend to use it liberally!) It’s not a nasty question, and it’s not asked to blame us, but they’re truly trying to understand what’s going on with America. I wish I could answer them, but I don’t know the answer myself.

So that’s all the politics, at least for this post…

Obviously I found the Ceifin conference to be an incredible experience. In the States, both my experiences with the Wisconsin Rural Leadership Program and Wisconsin Rural Partners have been similar - discussions about really important topics that involve a broad range of people. I’ve no doubt in my mind that these kinds of discussions are the best way to build strong and successful communities.

The Ceifin Centre sells books that contain the proceedings from past conferences. I invested in several when I was at the conference, and the ones I’ve read so far have been great. If you’re interested, you can purchase them from the Ceifin web site. I’m not sure if they ship internationally, but if not get in touch with me and we’ll find a way to get them to you.

Many thanks to our friend Senan Cooke, in whose stead I went to Ceifin!

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