Ireland’s Leap over the Generation Gap

Post date: 05-Jun-2015 14:03:54

I have come to the conclusion that we need real compassionate leadership as we create together the Ireland of today which is fit for purpose in an uncertain and fast changing world. I realise that this conclusion on it’s own comes somewhat starkly out of the blue so I wanted to share some of the thinking that led me here.

I’ve been thinking about the pace of change a bit lately. Undoubtedly this has been prompted by the amazing and historic change we voted into our constitution not quite two weeks ago. I’ve had conversations with people younger than me by a decade or more, reflecting on that fact that within my lifetime, the ban on married women working was lifted and within my memory contraception, divorce and homosexual acts have been legalised. That’s a whole lot of change in a short space of time.

Then today, in conversation with a very wise friend, I was recalling another reality. Almost 48 years ago my parents, who met in Iowa, moved to Dublin. My father is from a farm in Limerick and my mother is from a small town in Iowa, born a month apart on opposite sides of the Atlantic.

I grew up in a house full of stories. The story of how my parents met (which included, rather improbably, a mad Irishman riding his bicycle in the snow), the story of how they married and moved back to Ireland (my father’s studies were complete and he had to return to his secure semi-state job in Dublin). We also had a stock of favourite stories revolving around my father’s childhood which included him walking barefoot and in short trousers to school nine months of the year, near death scrapes in deep wells and tractors driven by twelve year olds as well as classic comedy incorporating the sacred “front parlour” and visits by the Parish Priest. When it came to my mother’s side of the family however, it was her father, my grandfather, we turned to for the stories which, in many respects, were very familiar. You see, my father and his father in law - while a whole generation apart in age - actually shared remarkably similar childhoods.

Both made their own way to school (on foot or horse respectively), both remembered seeing their first motor car, both helped their parents to electrify their family home. This is not some spooky coincidence that is unique to my family. It reflects the reality that, as recently as the late 1960s, Ireland was a full generation behind the US (and quite possibly other countries in the developed world).

That, in itself, is perhaps not so remarkable given our geographical remoteness, agrarian economy and traditional religious social norms. What is remarkable is the speed at which we have grown up! For all the distance between my mother’s upbringing in middle America and my father’s in Western Ireland, the experience of my siblings here in Dublin and our cousins across the US has been increasingly similar. The Ireland of 2015 may still feel culturally different to a visiting American, but it is essentially on a par in terms of access to technology, availability of diverse goods and services (even including multiple ethnic food choices), access to high tech employment and opportunities. In short, we caught up. In fact, by being the first country in the world to legalise marriage equality by popular vote, some might argue we’ve taken a leap ahead in some respects.

Rather than being intended as self-congratulatory, however, I’ve been reflecting on this by way of being perhaps a little more understanding of those who find themselves resistant to the changes and hanging on for dear life to “how things used to be”. We know that, as humans, we are not wired for change and the humans on this island have had to adapt to an awful lot of it in a relatively short time! If we can find compassion for those who are playing catch up, perhaps we can also find the leadership to bring them with us rather than excluding them as “no hopers”.

Ultimately, that is the insight prompted by various recent conversations, the need for real compassionate leadership as we create together the Ireland of today which is fit for purpose in an uncertain and fast changing world.