Lampedusa Day 4…an amazing story

Popes cross red

We stopped off in Sicily to meet some people who had made their way from Central Africa to Europe. Lampedusa is only one port that receives refugees and migrants. When boats are intercepted they are brought to many different ports in the Mediterranean. When they arrive the people are brought to detention centres until they are given status if they can prove they are refugees seeking asylum. If they are deemed to be economic migrants they are usually returned or ‘repatriated’.

I met Abraham. He was fifteen when he left his country. He is now twenty years of age. When he was in his homeland he witnessed a murder of someone he knew. The killers were convinced he’d retaliate or inform so they put a price on his head. His sole relative at that time was his grandmother. Before the murder occurred he made friends with an older man who had spent time in Libya, this man was friend of his father who died when Abraham was in his mother’s womb. Following the murder Abraham decided that he had to leave his village and his country if he was to stay alive. His father’s friend had also decided to travel back to Libya and volunteered to fund Abraham’ journey. They would travel together.

The first part of the journey from his native country was traversed by bus but there was no way he could cross the border as a minor without his father and mother. Abraham and his friend had to get off the bus and travel by land across the border to avoid capture and detention. Once across the border the negotiations with the traffickers began. His friend did all the deals. The plan was to get to Libya and the traffickers promised that they’d get them there. They were loaded into a truck and headed deep into the desert. Days and nights passed until the driver stopped and he instructed everyone to get off they truck explaining that he had to go for petrol. They protested asking where he could get petrol in this place however, you cannot argue with men with guns. They had no water and no idea where they were.

The cold at night was as intense as the heat during the day. They travelled when they could hoping they were heading in the right direction. Eventually another group of traffickers arrived and began to negotiate with them. Abraham was taken to one side and a gun was put to this head. The traffickers were going to use him as an example and were ready to kill him. If the other people in the group did not pay money they would be killed. His friend volunteered to pay so they took his money and then shot him but Abraham was allowed to live. His great friend who had taken him so far, feeding him and negotiating on his behalf was now lying dead in front of him.  The remainder of the group was taken to another location where they were locked in a shed. They were continuously beaten and guns were put to their heads in a threatening fashion. The traffickers used mobile phones to contact the family members of those who were locked up trying to extort money from them. If no money was forthcoming they were killed.

Astonishingly the traffickers kept their promise to Abraham. He was brought to Libya and was kept for a long time in a detention centre with adults from many different countires. Many local people visited the centre to bring food and clothing to those who were held there. One day a man who came to visit on a regular basis spotted Abraham and asked him how old he was. He was quite shocked that one so young was in this place and he arranged to take him to his own home to live with his family. Then the war broke out. This man was a political associate of Colonel Gadhafi and as the war intensified it became clear that his life was in danger, his mother had already been killed.  Abraham foster father advised him to get out of the country.

Abraham saw the NATO reconnaissance flights during the day and saw and heard the bombs fall at night. Migrants were rounded up and put in areas to act as human shields. One night the ground shook from the bombs that dropped around him. Soon after this soldiers came to the building where they were kept. Many were ordered out at gunpoint and placed on trucks. As they left all their paper work was taken, every pocket was checked and they were left with only one tee-shirt and one pair of trousers. They were driven to the harbour side and put on a boat with no water and no food. There was one thousand and five people squashed on board a fishing boat. This boat and others like them were used as human shields to hamper the navy offensive and to discourage shelling and the use of torpedoes in the area.

It didn’t take long to realise that the man who was put at the helm of the boat knew very little about navigation. They were basically pushed out onto open water with no guidance or assistance and with no skills set to help them find their way to a safe haven. They were war fodder. For three days they headed off into uncertainty until they came across a fishing boat. They shouted for assistance and even for water but the skipper of the vessel just told them to move on and not to be annoying them. Abraham could tell from the flag that it was an Egyptian vessel. Because people rushed to one side of the boat the bow boat rose up and fell down again into the water. This sudden motion caused many on board to be thrown into the sea. The man at the helm was crying as he tried to manoeuvre the boat back to collect those who were drowning but he wasn’t skilled enough to navigate a course. The fishing vessel disappeared. A day later they were met by an Italian Coast Guard vessel that guided them to a safe haven. Over a thousand people on open water for four days without food or water until they met this ship.

Abraham was detained in a migrant centre for two weeks until he was moved to a juvenile centre. He received basic training and was given work in a hotel. At twenty he went back to secondary (high) school as his childhood schooling was non-existent. He sits with teenagers who are five years younger than him; some are racist towards him sending inappropriate texts. He works every morning from five a.m. before he heads to school. He works after school, he does his homework and he gets extra study support to help him understand the some of the more complex subjects.

I asked him about his understanding of God. He said he could not have made the journey without God. Every day he wakes up the first thing that comes to his mind is God; every time there is a problem he knows God will sort it for him. He explains that whenever he thought the end was nigh, God always sent some one along to help him. He cannot understand how a world can live without God. ‘Where in the world would you most like to live?’ I asked him, ‘wherever there is peace’ was the immediate reply. His prayer is always for peace in the world, he cannot understand how people who say they believe in God are at war, ‘peace is God’s way’, he said. Spontaneously he said that he thinks Papa Francesca is a man of peace and a man of God whose words will last for thousands of years. When he reads what his hero says he feels so blessed and is awe of the man who speaks from God with such authority. Every day and sometimes twice a day he looks up Papa Francesca’s Facebook page to see what is saying. Abraham considers Papa Francesca to be a man who is a leader for all faiths. Abraham, he should know, after-all he is Muslim!

migrant boat graveyard red

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Lampedusa Day 3

graveyard lamp 2

Borders have been around for a long time. In the past they were predictable and defendable now they are appearing in the most surprising and unexpected places.

Talking to people who have worked with those who arrived in Lampedusa was a very humbling experience. The overall sense they had was one of their short-comings, of not doing enough no matter how much they did. One word I heard over and over again in Lampedusa was ‘occhi’. It is Italian word for ‘eyes’.  Looking into the eyes of those who had just arrived was personally challenging. I also heard deeply the frustration of those who tried to help. ‘Being among them I felt a pain driving though my heart…I could see fear in their eyes and they were so close to me… they were shaking from the cold weather and the fear…they seemed lost ..they were not demanding…they asked for nothing…some of them were just crying because they were split from the rest of the family…it was just about feeling with them…you are powerless…you are just a piece of a very big mechanism…bigger than you’.

Looking into the eyes of the person who arrived after a hazardous journey was difficult but not as difficult as trying to look into the eyes of the systems that have been created around those who are moving across our globe. There is no doubt that people who looked into the eyes of these migrants were transformed by their helplessness, their fear, their undemanding presence and the pain of women holding their children but they spoke of rings of military wrapped around migrants even on ferries. In these situations individuals were writhing in pain or just needed to use a bathroom but they weren’t allowed. No one judged the military because they have to do their job however the operation need not be an entirely military one. Sadly this is emerging as the primary emphasis today and maybe this is the way it has to be it has to be for many reasons that some of us many not understand fully. However, European decisions makers do not necessarily have to compromise on the humanitarian dimensions of the crisis and the basic needs of those who arrive.

Sadly, the borders we are creating now are not just on extreme geographical locations but between people. Welcoming the stranger and loving your neighbour now needs a permit, a permit which disempowers you because you are not allowed to say unsavoury things or make comments on human rights infringements. We heard of the United States Military embedding journalists during the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have got to the stage now that those who want to offer a cup of water are facing borders that vary in their penetrability. Isn’t it strange that looking into the eyes of another is so counter cultural and a threat to prevailing systems? Its not that strange really. Ed Ayers who was nominated for Pulitzer Prize for History once said that in order to cope with the issues emerging in our world today the general pattern of behaviour is that we will be encouraged to become a more blinkered people and less focused on the heart of the crisis at hand.

There are ongoing changes in the management of the whole migration system that a place like Lampedusa witnesses over the years. From the perspective of the locals many have seen a gradual shift from the tender welcome of a local fisherman to the emergence of a vast military operation. Migration and specifically the management of migrants has become a vast industry. We often hear about the outrageous sums of money that traffickers make from migrants but there are now enormous businesses involved in security and detention whose budgets and profits are increasing at the expense of the public purse. We are all too aware of this in Ireland following various investigations into Direct Provision Centres whose owners now do not have to file accounts.

In Ireland today little is known about the plan for the resettlement of refugees. There is no evidence that the larger community is welcome to assist with the task. This goes against the principle of integration which states that all integration is a two way process between the long term settled and those who are newly arrived and the less interaction between both groups the more damage is done to the integration process thus damaging the overall cohesion of society. We have many people who are willing to help and support those who are arriving. Their energy needs direction; it will be good for everyone.

Lampedusa Church red 2

One of the people we met in Lampedusa told us of how she understood the mission. Relating to a story of Jesus in the Gospels she said that when the crowds came to see him it was often the disciples that rebuked him. Those who came from the surrounding areas knew his power and they longed for him to look into their eyes and make them whole again. This is not unlike today where those who have been given authority are often becoming a barrier or constructing borders between those in need and those who have something to offer. Another person described one particular occasion when she was bending down to give water to many who were seated on the harbour side. It was a particularly hot day in mid-July. The water they were giving out was warm and not very refreshing. When this person bent down to help people drink from the bottles a cross that she was wearing was hanging from her neck. Despite their great physical thirst many of the migrants reached past the water to touch the cross. This moment underlined for her that the people who made the journey across desert and water hunger for something deeper.

Those who integrate the perspective of others into their own lives learn more about themselves as well as about others. Beck, U and Edgar Grande, (2004, reprinted 2008) Cosmopolitan Europe, Cambridge, UK Polity Press pg. 14

Alan Hilliard, 27th October 2015

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Lampedusa Day 2

boats lampedusa red

One person that I met described Lampedusa as a life-raft for the migrant. A life raft as you may well know is a small craft equipped with emergency supplies which is launched from a bigger vessel when the larger ship is in danger. The island measures just over twenty square kilometers and is therefore slightly bigger than Inis Mór which is the largest island of the Aran Islands lying off the west coast of Ireland. The total area is just over nineteen square kilometers. The image of a life-raft is appropriate as most other countries or regions in southern Europe could be compared in scale to fishing boats or luxury liners. Comparatively speaking then Lampedusa is indeed a life-raft.

The island has a long history of welcome. Locals tell stories of people from Tunisia making their way to the harbour as many as twenty years ago. The locals knowing that these people had made a long journey would bring food and drink to them in the harbour. A fishing community is less concerned about security and it is more concerned with the well-being of their fellow fishermen. Some of these people used Lampedusa as a stepping stone into Europe not unlike the way many Irish people found ways to get into the United States illegally over the decades preceding 9/11.

In summary then Lampedusa has an ethic of helping those who arrive. They do not want to be hailed as heroes because as they say ‘this is just what you do’. Those who work on open seas know that while others have the luxury of arguing over what is right or wrong or who should or shouldn’t  be rescued a fisherman when he is alongside someone in the water knows that you have the choice of letting that person live or  die. Furthermore, being fully aware of the hazards of the sea, they know that no one would willingly get in a crammed makeshift boat, especially women with children, unless they were leaving behind a life that was unbearable.

In every sense then this little island is a life-raft which gives initial and limited comfort to refugees and migrants as they make their way to the larger vessel we call Europe. Each and every person who arrives lives with the hope that they will be permitted aboard.

Lampedusa takes its name from the Italian word for lamp which is lampada. A guide told me that an eleventh century source relates the story of a hermit who was the sole occupant of the island. The lantern he carried at night brought many to safety. He lived in a system of caves which lay above a safe harbour. He took time to check the origin of the ships that were arriving. Some were Christians returning from the crusades, others were North Africans who traded with Europe. He had two caves set aside for worship, one was Christian the other more suited to Muslim prayer. Depending on the ship he made ready the space appropriate to the crew. The welcome was respectful and it ran deep.

Unlike the past, the welcome of the fisherman is not the norm for those who arrive. The harbour has one wall which is a military area. This is where the refugees and migrants are landed. It is a secure area and only those with permits are admitted. Those who are fortunate enough to get into the compound can offer assistance to those who have been taken off the boats further out at sea. They speak of the fear in the eyes of those who arrive. Not sharing their language means that they cannot hear their story; not sharing their culture often means you cannot offer a tender touch or hug. The sickness of those locked below due to engine fumes, salt water and human excrement leave them dazed and forlorn; those who look after them feel that they do not do enough. Both those who are above deck and below are parched with the thirst, dehydrated and unwell. Medical examinations mean that men and women have to lift clothing which makes it embarrassing for those who are present to offer help.

Any lifeboat has limited resources and it is clear that those who arrive here are moved quite quickly from the island to other towns in Southern Italy. When I hear the story of Pope Francis’ visit to this island I hear that he had three purposes. Firstly, to stand in solidarity with refugees and immigrants. Secondly, to say thank you to the people of Lampedusa and thirdly, to pray with everyone. A fourth outcome of his visit, and maybe an unintended outcome, was to show the world and especially other European countries like Ireland the intolerable and uneven  burden that was placed on certain parts of Europe in the wake of this crisis. He used the situation to move from a language that criminalised the migrants to a language that reminded the world of their humanity. He has not wavered on this and when many died off the coast of Lampeudsa in April 2015 he said as part of his Angelus message, ‘

These are men and women like us, our brothers and sisters seeking a better life, starving, persecuted, wounded exploited, victims of war; they are seeking a better life. They were seeking happiness…

Having heard many of the stories surrounding his visit to the island I think that in many ways Pope Francis’ visit to Lampedusa was a life-raft for him.  His visit to the island which is  seen as a life-raft for many migrants, allowed him an opportunity to give an important expression to his vision for the Church. Never in the history of the Vatican has a Papal Visit been organised in eight days. He didn’t go through the local Bishop but his intentions were made known to the local clergy. Word filtered out because staff in the airport were told a special flight was arriving from Vatican City. They figured this wasn’t to promote tourism to the Vatican Museum! There was no time to organise a grandiose altar or lectern; even seating proved to be a challenge. Some have said that he was so eager to visit the island that he had set about booking his own ticket on the internet before the Papal Household staff took him seriously. He made it clear that this was not an event for officials or dignitaries and let it be known that local bishops were to be busy in their own dioceses that day.

chalice lampedusa red

A local carpenter made a wooden chalice from a boat from which many were rescued but sadly on which three people lost their lives. The lectern from which Pope Francis asked us to  ‘beg forgiveness for our indifference to so many of our brothers and sisters’ was made from boats, some of which carried migrants to their hope filled futures and others were from the timbers of boats on which many died.

The Bishop of Rome travelled to Lampedusa to show that the Church must  be a voice for the voiceless and a voice that inspires local gifts and talents for the service of others. He had just taken over the helm of the Universal Church, some might say the Church in Europe was loosing it’s course and was heading for the rocks. He got down from the heavy and awkward barque of Peter and stood among the people of the island of Lampedusa, an island that is recognised as a life-raft of opportunity for people on their way to Europe. In simple gesture of solidarity he held a lamp of opportunity before us all. This lamp casts a  light that leads a way for  members of the Church and members of the larger human family as we all seek to find a more even and secure route through the stormy waters of our contemporary world.

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Ps the carpenter who the chalice for the Mass made a chalice for me from the wood of one of the boats. I pray and hope that I am worthy to hold it.

Alan Hilliard 26th October 2015

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Lampedusa Day 1


I’m thirty thousand feet above the earth heading to the island of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean Sea. When I told people where I was going I knew by the look on their faces that the name rang a bell with them. It might with you. Lampedusa is three hundred kilometers off the coast of Libya yet it is part of the Italian nation. The island is the first port of call for many migrants who traverse the sea in open, unsafe and crushingly full boats. I am feeling a little cramped on this Airbus 321 flight to Rome but there is no comparison with the conditions of those who head for Lampedusa at the hands of traffickers.

I am meeting some colleagues from Notre Dame University on the island. All of us have a keen interest in migration and we are taking time on this tiny island to see first-hand how the migration crisis has impacted on this normally busy holiday location for Italian tourists. We’ve heard that the community on Lampedusa has opened its doors and hearts to these migrants from many countries which lie to its southern aspect. People have come from Eritrea, Sudan, Ethiopia, Angola and many others failing or failed nation states.

Those I know who have made this hazardous journey have the utmost respect for the community on this island. They gave them sanctuary, clothes, food and most importantly a welcome. However, Lampedusa and Italy generally felt abandoned by Europe. The Dublin Convention means that asylum has to be claimed in the country that you first set foot in. This also means that when migrants were apprehended in any other European country, including Ireland, they were sent back to Italy. Noting Europe’s internal wrangling and Europe’s Pilate like approach to the problem, Italy solved the problem the Italian way…they stopped registering those who arrived! This left many migrants free to seek a new home elsewhere in Europe.  Part of the failing in this present system is based on the  naïve assumption that policy in fact controls migration. When it comes to refugees and asylum seekers who are leaving horrific situation no amount of policy can dictate who goes where. The ‘Italian Solution’ to the ‘Dublin Convention’ has only served to reveal a Europe that is not in touch with the present realities.

Eventually the challenge to save human lives from the waters surrounding Lampedusas was heard. The challenge is becoming more evident as people arrive in many cities in Europe. Some countries build bigger walls to keep people out, others are at wits end trying to find more and more housing for refugees as winter approaches. While some are extending a gracious welcome to many, other countries like Ireland are trying to keep a rather insipid response out of the gaze of the public and the media. Ironically Ireland is about to go on a rather nostalgic period of reflection on migration with the release of  Colum Tóibín’s novel Brooklyn onto the screens of cinema’s up and down the country. I am a fan of the story and I hope the movie does justice to both the longings and decisions of its main character Eilis.

The book is an epic in the world of Irish emigration. Tóibín’s characters are slowly built up to reveal the complex impact of emigration on the main character and also every other character in the story. Eilis, like many migrants today sought happiness. The reasons why she left Ireland maybe different to the reasons why people cross the Mediterranean today, nevertheless migration was an option for her as she sought to live a happy and fulfilled life. How is it that we in Ireland can conveniently ignore the link between the life giving opportunities that were afforded many thousands of Irish people and dodge the life-saving opportunities we are asked to afford to our brothers and sisters across the globe?

Our President Michel D Higgins announced this week that he is going to make migration a special theme of his remaining time in office. Maybe he feels compelled to do this as he sees the lack lustre institutional response to the issue of migration in Ireland. Though many on the ground want to assist there are very few options being put before them as to how they might give assistance.  It is significant that our President and Pope Francis have both made the issues surrounding the plight of migrants and refugees important. As global leaders both see migrants and refugees as victims of a world that has lost its intrinsic order hence the subsequent impact on our fellow human beings as a direct result of many imbalances. When Pope Francis came to Lampedusa he warned against the ‘Globalisation of Indifference’. We also have to watch out for the ‘Localisation of Indifference’. There is no doubt that there are many campaigns on social media crying for our attention. It is my view that these platforms can eventually cause burnout in us as they draw on our empathy and emotion. The Christian is asked to love their neighbour not just to ‘like’ them. The face to face challenge in loving our neighbour and welcoming the stranger changes us in a way that is beyond what any social media campaign can do.

This week I told one man that I was going to Lampedusa. I asked him should I see anything while I am there. He said he’d prefer not to think about it. You see he crossed to Lampedusa in a boat from Libya. He said ‘since Lampedusa I cannot go for a walk on the beach’. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Because when I look at the water I see the faces of my friends who drowned on the journey’. He continued, ‘these people became my friends on my travels, we became brothers and sisters to one another, both Muslim and Christian. I would not be in Ireland today without them and some of them died’. I was with him one day as we stood by open water and he just broke down with deep sobs. I didn’t know why at the time, I now know why.

Alan Hilliard 25th October 2015

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Parish Response to the Refugee Crisis


A number of parishes and groups have asked my advice on engaging with refugees from a local parish perspective. I’ve prepared the following document. Church Refugee Crisis Response 2015FINAL

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Locked-In and Locked-Out. Europes Humanitarian/Migration Crisis


I’ve written quite a lot on the subject of migration but now I find it difficult to put pen to paper. The events in Europe at present are beyond what words can capture.  Writing feels like self-indulgence when more is needed.

To be honest writing and speaking on the subject of migration in Ireland falls mostly on deaf ears unless of course it is about tragedy that befalls Irish people abroad or the subject matter revolves around the plight of groups of Irish emigrants who are suffering under the weight of a seeming injustice abroad. I am often perturbed that a country like Ireland with such a tragic history of emigration cannot draw the parallels with contemporary European migration. The simple wish to live in place where one can find safety, security, even happiness is the key to every migratory journey whether that is a journey out of Europe or a journey into Europe.

A recent program on RTE on the subject of return emigration reported on people struggling with the question of returning to Ireland to live. The burning issues for them was whether they could have the same standard of living as they currently had in the UK. Their future depended on choices of restaurants, quality of housing and a general ‘above average’ standard of living.  People have a right to a life and an appropriate standard of living but those who cross into Europe just want to ‘live’ and sometimes the crossing takes away the very breath from their body that  gives them life.

I once got locked into a wardrobe when I was a child. I can remember the fear that took hold of me when in one irrational instant I thought that I’d be there for ever. The door had closed behind me and locked itself and there was no one around to hear my cries. Eventually, after what was only a few seconds, I managed to kick the door open but for me, as a young child, those seconds were akin to an eternity. I was uncontrollable when I found my mother and sobbed deeply into her belly.

This memory filled my being when I read about the plight of the people whose badly decomposed remains were found on a truck in Austria. A local newspaper reported that ‘the lorry’s lining was ripped from the inside suggesting the victims had tried to escape the truck before suffocating’ FT 28/8/15. On the same day two boats sank in the Mediterranean. One had fifty passengers, the other had four hundred. Over half have died. The words of Pope Francis ring through yet again. From the perspective of our globalising world he said that migrants have to be more than just pawns on the chessboard of humanity.

Our history should bring us closer to the struggle of these people and not just at the level of a warm fuzzy empathetic feeling but a desire to change things for them. In a short book entitled Nana the author recounts the story of her Irish nurse who travelled from Ireland after the famine and was employed by her family. As a young girl the author was enthralled by the adventure filled stories of the Atlantic crossing that her Nana related to her.

‘When you were in steerage you were expected to have everything with you, like a soldier going to war. But we didn’t know that, and, anyway, we didn’t have anything, nor any money to buy anything. We put our little bundles of our best clothes in our bunks and put them under our heads for a pillow and we never undressed at all….Were there any port-holes or windows, Nana?…No, and it was so terribly dark’.[1]

It is but a sliver of time that separates our reality from the reality of those who migrate into Europe today but it is an expanse of privilege and politics that separates us from their need and their plight.

I have to admire Angela Merkel and her country for their decision to take in so many migrants. Whether their motivation is to replace the falling birth-rate or whether it is to set themselves up as leaders in the modern world I can’t know but they are to be admired. Maybe people like Angela Merkel are influenced by their memory of time spent in East Germany when life was limited and political freedom was but a dream.

Ireland is an embarrassment at the moment. We are couching behind political correctness to an alarming extent. I feel grossly unrepresented and unspoken for. In short  e are leaderless.  A country that once prided itself as central to human rights campaigning no longer knows right from wrong. Weaving between Schengen Area diplomacy and the Common Travel Area with Britain, Ireland acts like a lost child. The fear of rocking the diplomatic boat and the on-going political positioning is evidence of a nation that has lost its moral compass. The present tactic of acting incrementally in step by step diplomacy bears sad tidings for those whose boats fall apart and who do not die ‘incrementally’. It’s time for Ireland to act unilaterally using its history and isolation to make a difference. This last year in Ireland many a long day and night was spent arguing and canvassing for equality. Let us remember that the original rainbow was a sign to people that is was safe to leave their boat and step onto dry land.

It is also time to call Europe to task over its interests in countries that are countries of origin for many migrants. Countries where business and trade interests are supporting despotic overlords. Aid should longer be about easing our conscience but it should relate directly to the security and stability of the citizens of the receiving countries, especially the poorest. Like the recent purge of the Vatican Bank the aid budgets should be purged by Europe and aid should relate to a wide range of indicators. As David Brooks of the New York Times said;

’you can cram all the non-governmental organisations you want into a country; but if there is no rule of law and if the ruling class is predatory then your achievements won’t add up to much…in short, there’s only so much good you can do unless you are willing to confront corruption, venality and disorder head-on[2]

It’s absurd to think that our aid is encouraging migration but in certain instances it is. While aid may claim to improve the living conditions of people in various countries, efforts to transform the criminal justice systems and to address political corruption to protect the poor from violence and vicious predators has largely failed. It is a fact that most of world’s best police forces were once plagued by corruption until they were challenged and rebranded. Furthermore businesses that act with impunity in counties should also be taken to task by European countries that have stricter regularity regimes.  Ethics in business should be globalised; it should not vary depending on what one can get away with. There is need for a common European voice on these matters.

Mainstream political parties say they are fearful of a growth in right wing parties due to immigration into Europe. This language permits an anti-immigrant rhetoric. Nowhere in Europe in recent times has the rise of the right influenced major political decisions.  This fear has only nudged middle ground parties from their centrist outlook and wetted the pages of newspapers. If any wing of politics is losing out it’s the left as it was once called. Lost of all economic ideology and with a distinct inability to confront the excesses of present economic models the left now finds its purpose in a cosy liberalism that has little to do with those who are disenfranchised in their own jurisdictions never mind in other parts of the world. The divergence in local politics now reflects our global divergence which is that of a liberal elite and your ordinary Joe Soap.

As for the Church, it’s time that it became even more unpopular. Ireland sees the Church running at an all-time low with vocations bottoming out and attendances at Church settling at historically low practise rates. The fallout from sex abuse scandals and a growing secularism has had its impact but nothing can account for the mediocre Church that has been brought to attention by the bright lights of Pope Francis’ simplicity and forthrightness.Surely the role of sound doctrine and good liturgy is to inspire the Christian/Catholic Community to make a difference? Is not the mission of the Church to transcend tribal identities and unite all the baptised within the promise of the Kingdom? Why can’t the Church now become infinitely more unpopular by transcending the polite politics of our nation state? Why can’t the Church, like Churches in other countries become the main agent for the resettlement of refugees and asylum seekers? Why can’t every parish in Ireland volunteer to take a family from Syria, Afganistan or Eritrea – again not just to ease the consciences of the parishioners or to feed a feel good factor but to educate the local community as to why migrants are forced to leave in the first place. Someone has to present those who migrate as human beings who are educated, professional and gifted and who love and cherish their families.

Is it not time to turn on the pressure on our elected representatives some of whom represent us in Europe to stand up for what we believe? Do we need to be continuously reminded that the subsidy for every cow in Europe amounts to the per capita annual income of many millions of people in Africa? Or are our cows so sacred that these facts don’t matter.

I was wondering how to conclude when I was present at a funeral where a man spoke. His young son had died tragically, taken before his time. He thanked God that in the midst of the tragedy he felt he lived in a Christian community, a community who rallied and supported. He asked us to pray for those who have no such community to offer support and comfort and he asked us to especially remember those who were crossing the Mediterranean. It’s strange that one in the midst of grief can think of others and others in the midst of plenty are devoid of ideas.

[1] Harriet Ide Keen Roberts, (1936) Nana A Memory of and Old Nurse, London: Gill and MacMillan & Co. Ltd.

[2] [accessed 28th August 2015]

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A-Z of settling into 3rd level college

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A Reflection on the Berkeley Tragedy … ‘Who do we belong to?’

A Gathering in the wake of the Berkeley Tragedy.

cross bran

(Photo taken on Mount Brandon looking out over the Atlantic Ocean towards the United States)

DIT Aungier St.

Thursday the 18th of June 2015

Remembering Eoghan Culligan and all who are affected by this tragic event.

Fr. Alan Hilliard, Coordinator of the Chaplaincy Service.

Last Tuesday was a day in DIT that I’ll not forget for a long time to come. My Facebook page saw many students delight in the fact that they were now graduates, qualified to pursue their dreams. Another stream of information that was opening up saw an awful vista where dreams were falling apart.  My own week was punctuated with extremes. On Saturday we marked my own father’s ninetieth birthday. Today I stand with you trying to mark the passing of Eoghan who is a student of this institute, Nicollai, who was a student here for one year, Ashley, Olivia, Eimear and Lorcan. There is not a lot of difference between the  sum of their ages and my father’s age.

We spend our lives trying to live at one extreme; that of laughter, fun, achievement and flourishing. And so we should. These extremes are what we might call the default setting of our age and for this we are very fortunate. However, sometimes the energy required to live at these extremes is stolen from us. Events occur that turn everything upside-down and we can sometimes wonder if darkness is the place where we shall dwell minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day and even week after week. The default setting collapses and we don’t know how or where to reboot.

The events his week are particularly extenuating caused by what Australians used to refer to as  ‘the tyranny of distance’. Families, friends and support are separated by airports, miles and untold emotional barriers which cannot be solved by multimedia mediums. I spent many years working with Irish emigrants many of whom were successful and happy but many of whom experienced loss and tragedy. Some were unable to relate their difficulties to those at home. As a result I watched as people artfully and creatively put other systems of support, care and love in place. Where friends became family and tragedy became a foundation for a new way of living and a new default setting. I do not wish to promote tragedy as away of redefining life; in truth I would love that each and every person’s default position was the one of laughter, fun, achievement and flourishing and I am quite convinced that the God I believe in would want that too.

As we gather today we know that as much as we’d wish for this default position we cannot promise or guarantee it to one another. However we can assist one another as we try to find a comfortable place from which we can begin to view or even glimpse a road towards contentment again. Experience tells me that times like this beg one question; this one question is at the heart of a lot of our struggle in the face of this tragedy today. Those who are directly and indirectly affected by this event ask ‘who do we or I belong to?’ The nature of this tragedy and the tyranny of distance make this question ring with even louder decibles in our hearts and minds. This may be particularly the case for those of you viewing on-line.

The answer, like the question, is not necessarily verbalised but it is being asked and it is being answered. The desire to be with someone or with many tells us that first and foremost we don’t belong on our own. The work of officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Pastoral Care Centre in San Francisco are actively involved in answering this question by connecting those who were affected in varying degrees by this tragedy. They may not be using words but they are answering this precise question; ‘who do I or we belong to?’.  These organisations were and are working diligently to bring together those who belong to one another.

Today’s refection is a small and simple outreach from DIT to those of you who belong here. We remember Eoghan and all who have died. We struggle to articulate how those have died ‘belong’ to us now. We reach out to you physically present, those watching on our live stream and we want to let you know that we can help if the default position has slipped. The services are here for you and even if is only to drop in for a cuppa to the Students Union or the Chaplaincy or if you need to avail of the counselling or medical service please feel you are welcome. For those of you who knew Eoghan and Niccolai you are especially welcome because your belonging here was shared with them in a special way.

As you are aware I am the chaplain here and am privileged to share this post with a wonderful team of Chaplains and colleagues in Campus Life and Student Services. As a Chaplain who happens to be a Catholic Priest I’d like to share something with you. One thing I notice in my faith tradition is that the stories after the event referred to as The Resurrection are stories about belonging. They tell stories of people who felt emotionally, physically and spiritually isolated who were gathered together so that they could feel that they could live again. That couldn’t happen until they felt that they belonged. Whether we view these stories through eyes of faith or with eyes that are not of faith they have a very important message for us. This message is that the journey back begins with belonging. They beg of us to create places and spaces of belonging in this world that are safe, secure , enriching and life-giving for our fellow human beings with whom we belong.  Those associated with a third level institute have special responsibilities to inform the world how each and every sector can place human belonging at the pinnacle of its discipline.

The line at the back of the booklet is one that is often used to refer to those who have died; it reads ‘Life is changed not ended’. If we are honest a tragedy such as this changes us all. This change may even be that we name and cherish those to whom we belong. When we go home this evening or when we return from abroad we may find that there is a difference in the way we engage with those to with whom we belong. A hug or kiss may be a little longer, a visit to a parent may not be as rushed, the coffee with that friend who always listens may develop into a second cup , the person who has been struggling and who we’ve been meaning to visit for a while may open the door and find standing there smiling. In a particular way we hope that through our actions that those who have experienced life changing injuries may feel comfortable enough to come home in the knowledge that they sill belong to us and that we can find ways to nurture and accommodate their sense of belonging. And to those who have lost a loved one let us be inspired by those stories I referred to earlier and let us walk with them at a pace of their choosing.

We remember especially Eoghan and all those who have died. Though we’d prefer to have them among us we live in the hope that their life has not just ended but has changed in a manner beyond our wildest imaginings; where the default position is one of love and joy without blemish and  for ever. May they rest in peace.

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Irish Times Article – Return Migration


Returning to Ireland? Don’t expect things to be as they were

While emigrating is difficult, moving back home can be surprisingly harder. Feeling like a stranger in a place you once felt totally at home can be very unsettling and shocking…




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My Father’s 90th Birthday Mass

mam and dadMass of Thanksgiving for Bill Hilliard’s 90th Birthday

Saint Brendan’s’ Church Coolock

6.30 pm 13th June, Vigil Mass of the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time

A lady in a parish in Dublin was overheard asking a friend on a Holy Thursday night last ‘is this the night that Jesus was in the garden trying to say his prayers and his mates fell asleep?’ The friend replied in the affirmative. ‘Know how he felt’, continued the lady, ‘I do be trying to say my prayers and himself at home does be snoring his head off on the chair and I can’t concentrate on my prayers…it’d wreck your head…I feel sorry for poor Jesus!’

From all my travels I notice one thing about what you would call the real Dub…they ‘get’ the humanity of Jesus and they relate to that humanity deeply. They find in the human Jesus a fellow pilgrim who inspires, understands and supports. There is a mutual empathy that sees one through crisis after crisis whether that crisis is in the church, the state, in family, in friend or in self. Every so often and more to the point, when necessary, that humanity of Jesus falls aside and the divine aspect of Jesus’ nature is glimpsed.

This divine is not something remote and aloof from our real needs and concerns but it lies in a moment when things make sense, the realisation that there is a plan and there is a life that is considerably richer and more worthwhile than that which the daily drudge deals out. In this moment there is great consolation and strength. If the truth be told these insights don’t spare you any relief from the tough hand that can often be dealt to you but it does give you a way of playing that hand better.

This common sense approach to life can be seen in the images that Jesus uses in this evening’s Gospel. They are all images that are accessible; images that an industrial farmer or a humble gardener on Tonelgee Road can perceive and see beyond. This ability to see beyond and to be informed by what is beyond the ordinary is there for all to engage without price. Some choose not to, some through no fault of their own are unable, some choose to say nothing but just live out of what they find there, and others do it in such an exceptional way that they are called poets.

One such poet is Seamus Heaney, a great poet only because he sees deeply into things. This is one of my favourite poems and maybe it captures what I am trying to say better than I am saying it myself. If describes a trip to the West of Ireland and how we live in that thin veil between the ordinary and the extraordinary; where humanity and divinity are interwoven. One often eludes the other but sometimes both work in tandem to reveal beauty and goodness. The poem is called Transcript

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightening of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully-grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park or capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open .

Today is the Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time. After the multiple feasts of Easter, Pentecost, Ascension, Corpus Christi, we are asked to settle down and find the joy of the ordinary. In a sense the liturgy shifts to where we are most comfortable…especially for ‘the Dub’. We hopefully move from a heightened sense of the divine to more a comfortable contemplation of humanity; our humanity and that of Jesus. Those who have moved on from life with the church miss these well-crafted reminders of life and well-being. If there is any theme for Bill’s 90th birthday it is simply ‘the ordinary’. If you want to live till ninety without getting yourself up to ninety well leave the bling aside and in the words of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux ‘do the ordinary things extraordinarily well’. Simply put, in doing the ordinary things well the extraordinary makes itself know. One informs the other making life deeply worthwhile.

I think what is being said this evening and what we need to hear is that a long life can have its own pressures and crosses but it doesn’t have to be unbearable. Through grace and good fortune, (especially with regard to our health) life can be immensely interesting and full of fun. As with any age one has to draw on ones God given resources of physical health, mental attitude, spiritual depth and create a dance between emotional detachment and engagement to celebrate the ordinary. That is why I think this 90th is being marked at the ‘ordinary mass’, where the ‘ordinary’ chores are carried out (taking up the collection), and an ‘ordinary’ cup of tea is being served afterwards in the parish hall. It is another day but any day in which there is nothing to celebrate is a sad day; and if we are to learn anything this evening it is that every ‘ordinary’ day in ‘ordinary’ time has something to celebrate.

Whatever views and opinions abound about life and its values I know that there is an underlying belief in ‘the dub’ who gets to ninety that you are morally bound to serve those who may be of a similar age but may not enjoy the same sense of well-being. The greatest fear at this age is not one of health alone but that you fall prey to a growing trend in our world today, a trend which is a prison of sorts. That prison one has to aim to protect oneself from is that of disappearing into a prison of narcissism, of self-doubt, of self-loathing, of self-pity or just plain ‘self’. It was the Ballylongford poet Brendan Kennelly who wrote ‘self knows that self is not enough’.

To conclude. Living the ordinary life is not something passive as I said earlier. One of my favourite contemporary writers is Colum McCann and in one of his books he said ‘it takes great courage to live an ordinary life’ and so it does…but there are many fine examples of that courage…we don’t have to look to far. May the big soft buffetings of the ‘ordinary’ that Seamus Heaney talks about catch our hearts off-guard and blow them open so we can find our dignity, our depth and our strength as we aspire to follow that example of  Saint Thérèse of Lisieux do the ‘ordinary things extraordinarily well’.

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