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Fr Harry shouted 'Stop!'

FORTY years ago, the award-winning author John Healy wrote a series of articles in The Irish Times on the decline of his native Charlestown, Co Mayo. Titled “No One Shouted Stop”, it was later published in book form.

Healy wrote about how a once-thriving rural town had shrivelled to almost ghost town status. The loss of the railway linking it to other centres of population was one reason, but the haemorrhage of emigration was a bigger factor as there were no industries in the town.

It was a common feature of rural life in Ireland at that time, and Frank Duff, founder of the Legion of Mary, attempted to tackle it with his True Devotion to the Nation concept, which was a blueprint for practical patriotism.

Growing up in Feakle, Co Clare, in the 1940s and ‘50s, Harry Bohan saw for himself the effects of emigration. “The majority of those in primary school with me had to emigrate,” he recalls. “I was one of the more fortunate. I was reared in a pub – the University of the people – and went on to St Flannan’s and Maynooth.”

After ordination, he completed a Masters in sociology at Cardiff University, and on his return to Ireland, he set about putting the lessons of his degree into practice.

“The two concepts that kept Ireland going were family and community,” he explained. “I saw that the smaller communities were being drained of life. In 1973-4, for instance, there were only three people between the age of 20 and 40 in Feakle.”

Fr Harry, who had corresponded with John Healy, decided it was time to shout stop – and he set about doing it in a most practical way.

“In 1973 I set up the Rural Housing Organisation (RHO) to get young families to live in Feakle and built 20 houses there, not that I built them – I wouldn’t be able to drive a nail!

“Out of that it spread to 2,500 houses in 120 villages in 13 counties from Cavan to Cork, all based around the system of family and community.

“The benefits were obvious: schools that were in danger of losing a teacher were getting a new teacher, there were new people at Mass, and new businesses were set up.”

In order to facilitate the fledgling businesses, Fr Harry started a finance company – the Rural Finance Organisation – to loan money at very low interest rates. “The money came from the Church and from business and it was all paid back,” he is proud to report.

Never a man to rest on his laurels, Fr Harry was also involved with the Clare hurling team in the 1970s, ‘80s and in recent years when Anthony Daly was manager. In the ‘70s, Clare were regarded as also rans, but Fr Harry guided them to two National League titles, major events for a county that hadn’t won a National title in over 60 years.

Sociological trends were never far from his mind and, in the mid ’90s, he relates: “I began to see Ireland changing with an economic miracle based on communications technology. I realised that the changes were so enormous that if we don’t try to understand them we’ll never be able to manage them.

“The values shaping society were commercial and market-driven, but when these values started to permeate family, health and law it became dangerous. So I started the Ceifin Centre for Values-led Change. I felt debate on values was vital, otherwise we would lose the language.”

Incidentally, Ceifin is named after the Celtic goddess of inspiration, Ceidhfionn.

Ceifin’s first conference was held in 1998 under the broad heading “Are We Forgetting Something?”

“The biggest revolution in Ireland is around the family,” says Fr Harry. “A lady said to me recently, ‘who’s raising the next generation?’ It’s a valid question. The extended family was the basic community until recently, but the Central Statistics Office figures of recent years show that only 20 per cent of households in Dublin are now a traditional family of two parents and children.”

So Ceifin’s next conference in November will be on the family under the heading “The Greatest Revolution – Family Life in Ireland.” Cardinal Sean Brady will be one of the speakers and topics will include Family Law, School, and Work.

Fr Harry, who is Parish Priest of Sixmilebridge, is also Director of the Killaloe Diocese’s Pastoral Plan. There are three key areas being addressed: 1 Prayer and Spirituality (private and public). 2 Structures – Pastoral Councils in every parish, and grouping of parishes. 3 Communications.

In one of the fastest growing parishes in Clare – in five years Sixmilebridge went from a population of 1,500 to 6,000 and it’s still growing – he sees the Church as a sacred space in the middle of the community and the Mass as a counter to the busyness of life. For that reason, he believes in reaching out to where the people are, and recalls one fantastic night when he celebrated Mass on a hill overlooking Sixmilebridge.

“We have to develop a more people-centred Church,” he states. “The chapel-centred Church was only there for 250 years, prior to that it was people-centred. I have enormous hope for the Church in the way it’s changing. We’re searching now – for too long we were a Church of certitude.”

Finally, a word about another of Fr Harry’s ventures. In 1995, when the nuns pulled out of the Cahircalla Nursing Home, he joined forces with local doctor Frank Counihan and solicitor Brian McMahon to come up with the idea of developing a local hospital, combining a surgical centre, hospice and nursing home. As Chairman of the Board, he has seen two extensions built since, increasing capacity to 120 beds.

Forty years ago, nobody shouted stop as rural Ireland went into decline, but Fr Harry Bohan has been making up for lost time ever since.

© Seán Ryan, 2008

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