It has been a difficult week in rural Ireland. Of incidents reflecting the reality of rural living. Of rural strife in terms of mulricultural integration. A week in which tensions have been allowed to fester. Locally and globally, listening to the news has not been pleasant.
So it was timely that Wednesday evening's programme launch of Galway 2020 European Capital of Culture, (a designation that impacts in the entire West of Ireland ) has happened when it did. When we look at the importance we attribute to arts and to culture, there has always been a contrarian attitude that doubts the benefit it brings us individually, and as a community. There are questions asked if there is anything that can be taken from all that masquerades as culture. But if we have learned at all from the journey of the past few years, it is the defining of what is seen as culture. That we are a culture; that we are not just consumers of a culture, but creators of it, and curators of it.
And central to our culture here in this region, has been the concept of meitheal. In the words that followed after last night's programme launch, there was much talk of meitheal. For those unfamiliar, a ‘meitheal’ describes the tradition in which people in rural communities gathered together to help each other with labour intensive tasks, on the basis of a sense of community and reciprocity. In his words, President Higgins said that he feels that Galway 2020, through its spirit of team work, inclusiveness, and participation, can become a celebration of the ‘meitheal’ of the local, national and European communities of which we all are part.
The concept of meitheal is a noble one, if aspirational. Every day in every town and village in the country, people come together for the betterment of their communities. They coach football teams, they direct traffic at funerals, they line pitches when nobody else will; they browse WhatsApp groups to make sure the local hall is ready for Irish dancing classes; they perform at LipSyncs or run a few miles with a sponsorship card,
In this way, we make sure we all hold one of those colourful threads that goes to make up a patchwork quilt which our towns and villages and cities have become. And it is the most fulfilling thing you can do in your life. By doing your bit for your community, you are creating a space for others to feel included, because after all, life is short. Everyone needs a helping hand at some stage. In most communities, everyone does their bit; everyone who is permitted, or who is able to. But not everyone gets a thread, while in some cases, people don't use theirs.
With such a network of mutual dependency and respect, there ought not be any place for language and actions which divide us; it takes just a spark to light a fire. And as we know, fires spread and cause untold damage.
Chairman of Galway 2020, Arthur Lappin said at the opening how he hopes that this 2020 programme will be a catalyst to help us reflect on how we see ourselves; how we relate to our neighbours - near and far; how we embrace our native culture and assimilate the cultures of those who have come to live here; and how we relate to our environment. It will help us to see things that were hidden and to rejoice in the discovery of our diversities.
And with that, the curtain opened on a year of possibilities — a period of hope that we can see beyond the hate and see the potential; that we can offer the respect of genuine consultation so that together, a positive consensus can be agreed, so that everyone can live life with the maximum of opportunity.
Words we all should heed.