- Make a List;
- Take the first step.
Monsignor Horan, late parish priest of Knock, County Mayo, was a great inspiration for solving community problems. His philosophy could be summed up in two bullet points:
§ Make a list;
§ Take the first step.
Could a parish council build an airport? No: but they could put it on their wish-list and then take the first step towards achieving this goal.
Horan led the community in cleaning up Knock, building a Basilica and magnificent church grounds on a former bog, replacing trading-stalls with attractive, viable , premises, building an international airport, arranging the Pope’s visit and building a quality road to accommodate it.
You can imagine Horan’s first meeting with the few weary, old members of the long-suffering old parish council (I am making an assumption here). He would have said something like: “If we are to clean up Knock and build a Basilica, we will have to canvas the community and bring them along with us. We will have to have a fully representative parish council.”
So his original list was, presumably:
§ Set up a representative parish council;
§ Canvas community opinion and support;
§ Tidy up Knock;
§ Build a Basilica.
We, therefore, see that his model for community development can be elaborated into the following model:
§ Make a List
§ Take the First Step
§ Set up a Structure
§ Canvas Opinion
§ Go back o Step 1
The model is iterative. Each step taken feeds back into the previous steps, so that:
Canvas Opinion leads to Making a (new) List, and (fixing or) making a new structure. Each First Step taken leads to canvassing opinion again, and so on. Each item on the list has its own First Step, and potentially its own Structure, and so on.
To Canvas Opinion
Canvassing opinion is not simple.
Canvassing opinion takes two forms:
§ knocking on doors and
§ holding a general meeting.
When I became chairman of Claremont Residents Association, I was aware of this kind of model of community action.
I was, also, aware that discussion at general meetings is often taken over by one or two articulate members pressing their individual opinion to the detriment of giving a hearing to the silent majority. Most people, indeed, refrain from speaking and leave the meeting without having bared their chest. Indeed, the demagogues usually put forward their opinion as a motion to be put to the meeting. This motion and its ensuing discussion usually polarises the meeting into two opposing factions. What results is discord rather than unity, and all for no good reason.
Another way meetings end up confrontational is where the Chairman thinks it his duty to answer all questions. Then the meeting becomes a confrontation between the disgruntled who do not consider the answers adequate and the Chairman and his/ her lackeys defending the status quo.
On my election, I, therefore, avoided these scenarios, by breaking the general meeting into small groups of four to six people in each, and handed each group a sheet of paper on which to list the things they considered the Residents Association should be doing. After a while, when all groups were ready, I called on a spokesman from each group to read out its list. Far from being polarised into two groups, there was unanimity from the groups. All the points made were then amalgamated into a single list, which went something like this:
§ Tidy up the estate
§ Make specified improvements
§ Bring out a regular community newsletter
§ Run a community festival
§ Set up a Youth Group.
I suggested to the meeting that, to do an effective tidy up and make improvements, we should have target dates. For this reason, I put a motion to the meeting that we enter the Tidy Areas Competition, which we did. This focused us on completing the necessary by a certain date, which we accomplished and were over-all winners in the competition that year and the next.
Having a list of things that needed to be done not only helped us do what was on the list, but also helped us win the prize, since the list encapsulated what we achieved and made these improvements visible to the judges.
We also achieved the other things on the list: monthly newsletter, community festival, and Youth Club, which morphed into Claremont Foroige Club. What distinguishes a Foroige Club from other Youth Clubs is that the members themselves have to organise their own events and make their own lists of objectives: how to make a difference.
Finglas Road Action Group
Claremont Residents Association’s list expanded to include improvements to areas outside the estate: the Finglas Road and the Glasnevin Area. Following the model for community action, we canvassed other community associations and formed a group representative of a wider area: the Finglas Road Action Group, as well as working with the Royal Canal Water Rats, a group set up to try and clean up, and canvas the improvement of, the Royal Canal at Glasnevin/ Phibsborough.
The Finglas Road Action Group soon had its own list of targets:
§ Canvas improvements of Finglas Road;
§ Canvas good development of the waste ground — now Clareville estate;
§ Canvas improvements of Glasnevin Cemetery as a National Treasure;
§ Canvas improvements of the Royal Canal;
§ Canvas improvements of the National Botanic Gardens, another local treasure neglected for many decades
The youth in Claremont Foroige soon added their own impact.
They did a project on Glasnevin Cemetery, finding and cleaning up the first grave, that of a teenager, drafting a potential information leaflet on the cemetery, and calling for improvements.
They did a project on the Royal Canal, working with the Water Rats.
They did a project on Smog and decided to make representations to Mary Harney, then Minister for the Environment. They met the Minister, who assured them: “I will do something about this.” Reviewing the visit, they were not confident that anything would be done, but Minister Harney surprised us all, bringing in the coal-burning ban. If you don’t put a thing on your list, you will never achieve it. If you do, you may achieve the impossible (or at least the unexpected).
Bertie knocking on doors
Bertie Ahern, one of our local politicians for many years, was a master of canvassing opinion by knocking on doors. He came onto the scene around the same time I was Chairman of Claremont Residents Association (but kept at it for many years, unlike myself who ceded the chair after two one-year terms).
From the start, Bertie and a group of his supporters knocked frequently on doors canvassing opinions. Then he had constituency councils and area councils that met to consider matters requiring attention and a secretariat to follow things up. Unlike other representatives, who represented their own opinion, he took on board the community’s targets.
Our objectives soon made their way into Bertie’s own lists. Over the years we saw results we never really dreamed of:
§ The Botanic Gardens were magnificently restored and upgraded as a tourist attraction, with Restaurant, exhibition space and all;
§ The Cemetery Committee was funded to do a complete restoration of the cemetery, restoring graves, re-doing paths, re-grassing, pruning, re-planting, restoring the idea of a Garden Cemetery, opening a museum, bookshop and restaurant, doing daily tours and Patrick Pearse’s speech;
§ The Royal Canal was taken in charge by Waterways Ireland and wonderfully restored;
§ Now a gate, which we had called for, has been opened between the Cemetery and the Botanics, to the benefit of both.
Bertie’s government also funded the Zoological Gardens and the National Museum, opened up new branches of the Museum in Griffith Barracks and the Museum of Country Life near Castlebar, built the Port Tunnel and the Luas (after years of dithering by previous administrations), assisted Croke Park and the Aviva Stadium, built the National Aquatic Centre, all these items, of course, being outside the Finglas Road Action Group list, built new roads, fixed all the potholes, as well as multiple other improvements all around the country.
He initiated planning for the Dublin Metro, but this was put on hold by his successors.
It is part of the iterative function of Community Development to keep re-drawing lists.
Next items on the Finglas Road Action list (I guess), and promised to come pretty soon are:
§ City bicycle stands near the gates of both Cemetery and Botanic Gardens;
§ Opening Glasnevin’s Eye: access to the top of the O’Connell Monument, from which visitors will have a panoramic view stretching from the Cooley Mountains in the north, right down the Dublin Mountains in the south;
§ Cemetery celebrations of historic events, including 1916.
Community Solutions in Brief
Achieving community objectives, however remote they appear to be, requires that we pursue the following steps:
1. Make a List
2. Take the First Step
3. Canvass Opinion
4. Build a Structure
5. Return to step 1