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Filling the vacuum

30 November, 1999

The Ceifin Centre for Values-Led Change is about holding a mirror up to the reality of modern society in Ireland, reflecting and questioning the changing trends and scenes of Ireland. Harry Bohan edits this collection of essays looking at sport, globalisation, prophets and profits and the Good News in Ireland today.

159 pp. Veritas Publications, 2005.  If you wish to purchase this book online go to





Harry Bohan

A View from the Chair

Rachael English
Counting on Community

President Mary McAleese
Employment in the Future: How Globalisation will Impact our Working Lives

Eoin O’Driscoll
Prophets or Profits: Who Fills the Vacuum?

Marie Murray
What Value do we Place on Sport?

Pat Duffy
Responding to Spiritual Hunger?

Peter McVerry
The Media: Is there a Place for Good News?

Denis Bradley
Living Scenes Intergenerational Learning – The Céifin Link

Mary Surlis
Telling My Story – Panel Interview  Facilitator: Cian O’Siocháin

Alan Kerins; Jean Butler; Caroline Casey



The Ceifin Centre for Values-Led Change is about holding a mirror up to the reality of modern society. Based in Shannon, it has been doing this in different ways ,since its foundation in 1998. One of these ways is through its annual conference, which now attracts over 500 people from a cross section of Irish society and is the focus of widespread media coverage.  Because of increasing prosperity in Ireland, there is also a growing sense of isolation and disconnectedness in Irish society. For that reason the theme ‘filling the vacuum’ was chosen for conference 2005 to discuss what interventions are needed to establish and promote a strong sense of belonging within Irish society today? Harry Bohan edits this very readable collection of essays on sport, globalisation, prophets, profits, and the Good News in Ireland as it is today.


Chapter One: A view from the Chair

On the radio a few days ago I heard a commentator getting quite worked up about the state of the nation. It had been, he opined, a disappointing, dispiriting few months. In fact, he reckoned, it all started to go downhill when Ireland failed to qualify for the World Cup. I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who stared at the radio and said, ‘My, haven’t things changed.’


There was a time, and it wasn’t that long ago, when we tended to use the term’ disappointing’ to describe phenomena such as double-digit inflation, spiralling unemployment and the like. Dispiriting was when all your friends had emigrated.


I remember going to the States (Boston, to be precise) as a student in the late 1980s and being absolutely knocked out by the fact that as long as you didn’t expect too much money you could toil away for as long as you could stand up. In the era of the Massachusetts miracle, if you could handle three jobs they were yours for the taking. When you’d finally finished work you could go to the 24-hour supermarket and laugh at all the different types of food. None of us ever thought that something similar could happen here.


I do not pine too much for the 1980s. Nor, I reckon, do those of previous generations spend too much time lamenting that Ireland has moved on somewhat since the 1940s and 1950s. On a recent trip to Ennis, a friend expressed astonishment at the sheer volume of new houses, and wondered where all the people had come from. And when you think about it, most of them haven’t really come from anywhere. They are the people who haven’t had to leave.


But I also believe that you would have to be very naive indeed to imagine that wealth brings only benefits; that there are no new questions, no new responsibilities. One of the great modern cliches is that the new poverty is time poverty. And like a lot of cliches it probably has a fairly solid basis in truth. We all know people who are constantly harassed by work, by travel, by life.


Listening to the speakers’ contributions on both days of this year’s Céifin Conference, it is apparent that the word drawing all of them together was’ change’ – even if this isn’t always immediately obvious. Take for example the Living Scenes project spoken about by Mary Surlis of NUIG. It is a scheme through which secondary school students get to meet regularly with older people. It was prompted by the changing nature of families, in particular the demise of the extended family.


The last decade has seen a wave of change. And, clearly, we are still grappling with its rapid pace. It is also true that much of this change is somewhat different from the predictions of the professional crystal-ball gazers. Genuinely, nobody told us there would be days like these. Twenty years ago, work, particularly of the well-paid variety, was a scarce commodity. And according to many of the experts more of the same lay ahead. Do you remember all those types who would turn up on the Late Late Show to tell us about the changing nature of work? Apparently there was going to be less and less toiling and more and more leisure time. Instead, we have arrived at a point where significant sections of society are overwhelmed by work.


However, I think it is worth stressing that most of the conference contributions are not mired in doom and gloom. They are not about glorifying the less-than-rosy past. They would not be as thought-provoking if they were. Many of the presentations have quite a positive theme – albeit with an edge.


President McAleese warns of what she calls ‘the cul-de-sac of complacent consumerism’. She also speaks of the thousands of volunteers whose work often goes unnoticed; the people who make a massive contribution to the life of the country but who rarely feature in any newspaper article or radio discussion.


There is a fascinating contribution from somebody who is best known for his skill as a hurler and footballer. Alan Kerins speaks of his voluntary work in Zambia and about what he has received in return – perspective. Again, he makes a point of how people are content to give money to such causes but can’t, or won’t, give time.


Eoin Q’Driscoll speaks from a different starting point to some of the other contributors in that he is best known for his business achievements. But he too concentrates on the change we have seen and what might be to come. He refers to Irish people getting over our ‘cultural aversion to making money’.


For me, one of the great values of the Ceifm Conference is that it provides a bit of time to think, to talk and to listen. And given that the conventional wisdom has it that the attendance at such gatherings feels that the country has gone to hell in a handcart, it is also intriguing to be collared by several people who are strongly of the view that the Irish media are overly negative.


I have mixed feelings about this myself, especially as in contemporary Ireland it’s all too easy to lapse into stomach-churning smugness and to ignore those who have not reaped all the dividends of the boom. But there’s no doubt that some telling points were raised by several of the conference speakers. Jean Butler speaks convincingly about the media’s need to oversimplify. Caroline Casey voices similar views, giving the (uncomfortably accurate) example of the way we tend to portray people with disabilities. They’re either ‘poor helpless craturs’ or ‘wonderful inspirations’.

Away from the media, Mary Surlis, who runs the Living Scenes project, gives a potent example of cliches being confounded. To begin with, many teenagers were a little sceptical about the value of regular conversations with older people. What interests could they possibly have in common? Would the gatherings descend into awkward silences? A couple of weeks later the doubts were dispelled. ‘Who would have thought’, said one girl, ‘they have so much to talk about – not just hip replacements!’


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