Once Was A Man

Donegal Democrat

Jim came from Donegal. He was born in 1910 & so reached the age of sense just as the Irish Free State began to find its feet.

He was the youngest of seven children, his father a local farmer, heading up a reasonably prosperous family from just outside Glenties. Growing up in the time & place he did, he naturally absorbed the plain nationalism around him, the sense of Irish identity & self-sufficiency that accompanied the fledgling steps of the newly sort-of-independent State, & the belief that Ireland should be able to provide for its people.

Unusually for his time, Jim got a third level education, & graduated in 1937. Then, like many of his generation, he headed to London. He spent eight years there, surviving the Blitz unscathed. Jim had a bit of the social worker about him, & he spent his time in London working to improve the lot of the Irish there, many of whom lived in the direst conditions. As well as the horrors of total war, he also saw the lesser horror of the dead ends presented to Irish emigrants in London.

In 1946 he returned to Ireland, despising the uselessness of politicians who shed crocodile tears about emigration, but did nothing to stop it, & warning against the lies about the grand life to be had abroad. He worked all over Donegal, until in 1951 he arrived in Glencolmcille. Glencolmcille at the time was a community on its last legs. Emigration was outstripping the birth rate, Port -a village at the northern end of the Glen- had become a ghost town, & the rest of the parish was heading in the same direction. He decided that something had to be done, somebody had to shout Stop!, and so he set about the task of agitating, annoying, nagging, moaning, pleading, & canvassing any politician who would listen, until he could get electricity service, or clean water supply, hard-topped roads, or a single telephone in an area of two thousand people. All the basic amenities easily derided as “parish pump politics”, and without which parishes were dying.

Jim’s politics were peculiarly rural. Part communist, part free market entrepreneur, he had sense enough never to say “communist” out loud in 1950s Ireland, but he would talk about communities, about co-operatives, about the tradition of the “meitheal”. He distrusted politicians, but lobbied them for everything they could do. He detested centralized government, believing power should be devolved down as much as possible, to county councils, even to town & parish level. Nowadays the EU calls that Subsidiarity, he just called it Democracy.

He helped establish co-operatives for the farmers, to buy in bulk & keep costs down. Once the area got electricity, he was instrumental in setting up a local factory, first for vegetable processing, then switching to fish-processing. Another scheme involved weavers producing tweed cloths for Magee’s of Donegal. Better after all, to add value locally & keep jobs at home than simply to sell commodities. He recognized the value of a tourist dollar or pound, built a complex of holiday homes where they could stay. He built a folk museum containing everything he could find lying about the homes of the parish, things that were rusting & would have been thrown away, so that today you can see there artifacts of three centuries of ordinary life in the west of Ireland, everything from soup kitchens, corner beds, & spinning wheels, to an old blunderbuss. He had a hand in buying & refurbishing the local hotel. He canvassed tirelessly, wrote books & pamphlets.

He used to quote someone who once said “You can curse the darkness, or light a candle.” He’d then smile, observe that the Atlantic gales were fierce in Donegal, & he’d had to light a lot of candles.

He was a priest.

There’s an easy reflexive attitude that says everything was grim then. Everything was grim, & ’twas grim in large part because of the dead hand of the Church choking every aspect of people’s live. There is some truth to that. And there is a lot of a lie to it too. The Church wasn’t just some Purple Prince in his palace ranting & fuming about the godless education in Trinity College. Whatever McQuaid said didn’t affect too many people in Glen anyways, since few had a second level education, never mind third level. The Church was also people like James McDyer, who came from communities like the ones they served, and worked furiously & passionately for them. McDyer taught religion for half an hour every week in the local schools. Not once can I remember him discussing Ne Temere, or Transubtantiaion, or Humanae Vitae. He was the best economics & civics teacher I ever had though.

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