Belonging and Community #5 #cong19


A personal reflection on belonging, and not belonging, to the intersecting communities of family, class and nation, and a meditation on the concept of the homeplace.

4 Key Takeaways:

  1. Growing up in Dublin, in the 1950s and 1960s, social class was inextricably tied to the physical and social geography of the city. To be working-class was to live in certain places. To live in certain places was to be working class.
  2.  I feel little connection to the place where I grew up – the history, the culture, the land, the families – in a way that I imagine someone from a townland in Laois or someone from Cong might feel connected to their home place.
  3.  It is clear that the state needs to provide social housing but there is a need for something more than houses: a sense of place – the psychological geography of belonging, and the spiritual geography of connection to the place where you live, the place you call home.
  4.  I think the Great Famine inflicted a psychic wound on the nation which still affects the descendants of those who were displaced and made homeless and landless, in the aftermath of the catastrophe. I imagine that my family history of landlessness and displacement is a common one.

About Kevin McDermott:

Kevin Mc Dermott is a writer from Crumlin in Dublin City. From 2016-2018, he was writer-in-residence with the City of Dublin ETB and is involved in many school-based, writing initiatives. He is the author of five novels for young adults. Kevin has written plays, feature-length documentaries, essays, poetry and short stories for radio. He has a background in teacher-training and is an adjunct lecturer in the School of Education at UCD.  Kevin is one of the writers on Poetry Ireland’s Writers-in-Schools scheme. He is passionate about the importance of the arts in education and believes in the creative potential of every child.

Contacting Kevin McDermott:

You can discover more about Kevin work on Poetry Ireland, Irish Times and Newstalk.


By Kevin McDermott

There is a family photograph that I particularly like. It shows a group of twenty people in festive form smiling for the camera. My mam is in the centre, with a big open smile, her hair slightly wild and unkempt. She is thirty-five years of age, vivacious, energetic and beautiful.

The photograph was taken in 1951, five years before I was born.  It is an image of my family, without me, indeed, with little need of me. It shows the family functioning beautifully, just as it was then, in its existing network of relationships.

When you come, as I do, at the end of a big, sprawling, Irish, working-class, Catholic, family, you exist on the margins, both part of and sperate from your tribe. And being part of and separate comes to define your way of being in the world or, at least, it has come to define my way of being in the world.

And that’s what I want to explore – the ways in which I belong and don’t belong to the intersecting communities of family, class, and nation. (I am going to leave religion for another day.)

Take the nation part of that description of my family, ‘an Irish, working-class, Catholic, family’. In April 1966, the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Rising was celebrated. And the commemorative events helped define a version of Irishness that was influential, even pervasive, in defining a communal, national identity. I was nine years of age at the time. I remember the television series Insurrection,a docudrama, that aired on RTE that Easter. It was written by the late Hugh Leonard, and was, by any standards, daring and inventive. With great skill, it brought the events of 1916 to life. I remember, in particular, Ronnie Walsh’s  James Connolly and Eoin Ó Suilleabháin’s Padraic Pearse.Yet, despite the fact that I attended a Christian Brothers School, and the Brothers rehearsed a narrative of the heroic sacrifice of the leaders of the 1916 insurrection, and we learned the proclamation by heart, I never really felt that 1916 was my rebellion. I didn’t connect to it in any deep, emotional way. In fact, from an early age, I think I was afraid of nationalism, or the version of nationalism offered to us in school and in the national celebration of 1966. As a child, I was a cowardy-custard, a mammy’s boy, in fear of a getting a hiding from some of the rougher boys in the area. I was never physically brave, and I am sure this coloured my view of the Rising. I feared and continue to fear, the potential for violence that I saw in the nationalism my school companions and I were expected to admire and glorify. In the language of my adult understanding, I feared its tendency to dehumanise the Other, whoever and however that Other was perceived to be.

In more recent years, I have attended the official 1916 commemoration in O’Connell Street, on Easter Monday and enjoyed it. Latterly, I have come regard the Rising as an elaborate piece of public theatre – politics as performance art, if you like, the declaration of the Republic a symbolic gesture that resonated with a majority of people in the country. And the willingness of the leaders to sacrifice their lives conferred a kind of purity on this symbolic gesture. But it was also a performance which involved one person taking the life of another and, in effect, saying: ‘My cause, my community, my symbolic gesture is of more value than your life.’

In her book, Frames of War, the philosopher Judith Butler poses questions about the lives that a community deem worthy of mourning, and the lives the same community deem ungrieveable. For me, the 1966 version of Irish nationalism deemed too many lives to be ungrieveable.

And, so, ask me am I an Irish nationalist, and I hesitate. I have always admired Yeats’s poem ‘The Stare’s Nest by the Window’, written during the Civil War, with its memorable stanza:

We had fed the heart on fantasies,

The heart’s grown brutal from the fare;

More substance in our enmities

Than in our love; O honey-bees,

Come build in the empty house of the stare.  

I love the image of the honey-bees tasking possession of the empty nest of the starling and beginning their patient work of creation and re-creation. And yet the individual bees work blindly for their community and follow the instrumental discipline of the hive. Images and symbols are tricky, aren’t they?

And then there is the working-class part of the description. Being a cowardy-custard also had an influence on the tentative nature of my allegiance to my class. Growing up in Dublin, in the 1950s and 1960s, social class was inextricably tied to the physical and social geography of the city. To be working-class was to live in certain places. To live in certain places was to be working class.

And I grew up in a housing project in which the vision of the architects matched the ideology of the state. I am not talking about Stalin’s Russia; Tito’s Yugoslavia or Ceausescu’s Romania. No, I grew up in De Valera’s Ireland, in Crumlin, in one of the many post-war housing schemes built by the state which, effectively, eliminated slum dwellings from the city of Dublin.

In creating this scheme of public housing in Crumlin, the architects fashioned a surreal religious landscape. Seen from the air, the new housing estate, or scheme, as it was called,  resembled a Celtic Cross. Many of the roads were named after ancient episcopal dioceses of the Catholic Church: Clonmacnoise, Bangor, Downpatrick, Armagh, Clogher, Raphoe.

In its conception Crumlin was transcendent. However, at street level, things were somewhat more venal. The few public spaces created in the built environment never felt hospitable, to me. They were not free spaces, spatial gifts, something extra and generous in our lives, to use the language of Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, the curators of the 2018 Venice Biennale for Architecture, whose theme of free space set me thinking about the free spaces in Crumlin. I remember the Pitch and Toss school in the public park near my home; I remember youths lounging on the corners of cul-de-sacs, whom I feared. In memory, the public spaces of Crumlin had an air of disrepute about them, exciting, perhaps, but dangerous, too. Threatening. I don’t believe they were ever fully appropriated by the community as places of meaningful contact and exchange. Except, perhaps, for the church grounds, where people mingled after mass. At least, that is how I remember it. And I remember the wariness and vigilance which characterised the way I inhabited the social spaces of my world.

My mother and father moved to Crumlin from Ranelagh, where they had been renting a one-roomed flat, after their marriage in 1938.

I imagine my mother, walking out her door in Ranelagh, with her infant children, into the carnival of village life. Friends and relatives were all around. Her husband, my father, worked in the grocery shop down the street. Her in-laws were minutes away, in Pembroke Cottages in Donnybrook. She herself was from Newcastle in Wicklow, but in Ranelagh she told me she felt part of the community.

A year later when she stepped outside the door of her new Corporation house, she found herself in a vast complex of houses with no centre, unless you count the giant roundabout at Clonmacnoise Road as a centre. I imagine, she must have felt lost, almost like a refugee. An archetypal fear of all refugees relates to the loss of identity in a new place, where nobody knows who you are. In Ranelagh, the people who rented the room next to my parents were cousins. My father’s bother and his wife were neighbours. His extended family were all around them. In accepting a new house, my parents, like all their new neighbours, had no idea about the people with whom they would be living in close proximity, and they were far away from the part of the city and the people they knew and loved. Brendan Behan famously likened Crumlin to Siberia, when his family moved there from the inner city.

Of course, new friendships were made in the new suburb, and alliances were formed and a community, of sorts, was formed. But for me, growing up, Crumlin always had a provisional, temporary feeling, a place to be before you could move back home, wherever home was. On Sundays when my father brought me to visit his sisters, we always ended up in Herbert Park, a stone’s throw from Pembroke Cottages where he grew up and where the family still lived.

I am aware that my family, my parents and brothers and sisters, have reason to be grateful for the low-rent housing the state provided for us. But in all honesty, I feel little connection to the place where I grew up – the history, the culture, the land, the families  – in a way that I imagine someone from a townland in Laois or someone from Cong and its hinterland night feel connected to their home place or a Venetian might feel connected to their quarter of the city.

The Corporation scheme was a pop-up project that erased all traces of what had been there before. We might as well have been living on the moon. And I think you need to feel an emotional connection to a place, and a sense of psychological security, to truly belong there.

And I did try to belong. I played soccer for the local club. And when I was sixteen or so, a young priest, Dave Roughneen, came to work in the parish. He was a community activist. Under his prompting, a local development council was established. I got involved in some of the council’s activities, co-ordinating the first two Summer Projects, in 1977 and 1978, while I was a student in UCD.  Looking back, the experience put me in touch with good people while, simultaneously, strengthening my resolve to escape the constrictions of life in that place. It convinced me that there was a better world elsewhere, though I had no clear conception where ‘elsewhere’ was.

I think my mother also believed that there was a better world elsewhere.  When her family was raised, she moved back to Wicklow. She wanted to be near her surviving siblings but also close to the landscape – the mountains, the sky and the sea – that she remembered from her childhood. Crumlin provided her with a house, sturdy and well-built, where she and my father raised their children. But, for her, it was a place without deep roots, that invisible network of rhizomes that bind people to a place.

It is universally acknowledged that now, in Ireland, the state needs another systematic programme of public housing to tackle the current housing crisis, such as those undertaken in the 1930s and 1940s. We need affordable houses for families, especially in Dublin where the crisis is most acute.  We are told that there is enough state-land available for this purpose. But I think we will need something more ephemeral but no less vital, than houses: a sense of place; the psychological geography of belonging, and the spiritual geography of connection to the place where you live, the place you call home.  And creating the conditions in which a sense of belonging and connection can flourish may prove the greatest challenge of all.

And so, I envy friends and acquaintances whose family have lived in the one place for generations; who know the lie of their land; the sloping hills and marshy borderlands; the fields they identify by name; the fairy fort and the ancient trees; the network of paths and trails that crisscross, and pull together all the strands of the land, and the landscape, that they call ‘home’.

In the Outer Hebrides they have a word for a deep-seated sense of belonging to the family place, the place of your ancestors; the place where your roots run deep: The word is ‘cianalas’.

One of the consequences of coming at the end of a big family, the last of eight children born over three decades, is that I have few recollections of my grandparents. In fact, on my father’s side, both my grandparents had died before I was born.  Maybe this absence explains why I have become something of the family historian and genealogist, the one who searches for the roots of the family.

And my searches have brought me to interesting places. My father was reticent on the subject of his parents. Although born and raised in Dublin, my father loved horses and livestock and each year brought me and my brother to the Spring Show in the RDS. His father, my grandfather, was the stableman for the bakery firm, Johnson, Mooney and O’Brien, and exhibited horses in the Industrial Classes at the show. Before coming to Dublin, my grandfather, the son of a landless agricultural labourer, worked as a farmhand on an estate in County Cavan. My grandmother was the daughter of the Church of Ireland Land Steward, who managed the estate.  In as much as I can piece together the story, my grandfather and grandmother eloped to Dublin and married in a Catholic Church. For the rest of her life, my grandmother followed the rule of Rome, and had no contact with her Protestant family.

My grandmother has intrigued me all my life, with her crossing of religious and class boundaries. Was the life she led worth the sacrifices she made? Was the family she created compensation for the family she left behind? A few years ago, in trying to answer these questions, I traced the place of her birth to an estate near Inistioge in County Kilkenny, where her father, my great-grandfather, was then the Land Steward.

I don’t know what I expected to discover as I stood in the farmyard of the house where my grandmother was born. But, however much I wanted to, I did not identify that spot, that patch of earth, as my home place or feel connected to my ancestor, as I stood upon it.

Since then, I have traipsed the countryside in search of other places of origin. In the case of my paternal grandfather, this brought me to a wet field in a townland near Ballyconnell in Cavan, where a dwelling once stood, a labourer’s cottage, according to census records, but I found no trace of it, and felt little psychological or spiritual connection to that boggy acre.

And I have stood before a cottage in Merrion, County Dublin, that was once a gardener’s cottage for an estate that no longer exists, where my maternal grandmother was born. In Kevin Street, in Dublin, there is an empty space and the spectre of a building where my maternal grandfather was born. His mother and father died young and he was sent to the Industrial School in Artane and, later, was sent from the school to work as a farm labourer in County Meath.

An orphan, a farm labourer and a land-steward’s daughter, cut off from her family – these are my ancestors.  They owned nothing and there is little trace of their presence in the places where they were born. I have no way of knowing but I doubt they had any deep-seated sense of belonging, any ‘cianalas’, much as they might have desired it.

I often think the Great Famine inflicted a psychic wound on the nation, which has yet to be fully healed and which still affects the descendants of those who were displaced and made homeless and landless, in the social and personal upheaval, and the social engineering that followed that catastrophe. I think my family history of landlessness and displacement is a common one.

In writing about the later poetry of Patrick Kavanagh, Seamus Heaney suggests that when he (Kavanagh) writes about places, they are less real places and more luminous spaces within his mind. I often wonder is there such a thing as a placeless home? An imagined somewhere that is luminous in your mind. |And if there is such thing as a placeless home, can you feel a longing for this homeplace that never existed in the real world? Can you grieve for your imagined ancestral home, though your ancestors never inhabited such a place, except in your imagination?

In the end, is belonging a matter of will and imagination, as much as biography and family history? I have little choice but to think so. And I feel at one with the Medieval poet who made the simple declaration: I am of Ireland. Or further back to Amergin, the mythological poet of the Milesians. Arriving in the Bay of Kenmare, he stepped from his ship onto the holy land of Ireland with a poem that both claims possession of the island and twins his soul to the spirit of the place:

 I am the wind of the sea, he says

I am the rolling wave  
I am the voice of the ocean

I am the hawk above the cliff
I am the sunlit dewdrop 
I am the finest of meadow flowers 

As for me, well, I am of Ireland. And the homeplace I never knew, because it does not exist, is a luminous space in my mind.

So, where does that leave me? Well, here in Cong, for starters, engaged in making a community. And this is the kind of community in which I feel secure: a community that is linked to a place; a community that is loose-limbed, inter-personal, inter-subjective. A community that is provisional, improvised, in many ways, and temporary; a community which demonstrates a mutual commitment to dialogue, critical thinking and empathy. A community that exists for a purpose.

For me, the temporal or the temporary aspect of this community is important. When we work together on a project for a short time, we are less likely to sabotage our best instincts for empathy and connection; less likely to split off into factions and rival groups.

There is something about the scale of the gathering that facilitates the relationship-building upon which the project depends, and the sense of security, belonging and connection, which underpins it. There is something about conversations that are open, other-seeking, personal and potentiating that allow a sense of community to flourish; that allow connections to be made and sustained. And there is something about the social virtues of goodwill, good faith and friendship which cultivate solidarity.

And I feel energised by the opportunity to contribute to this temporary, robust community, a community that inspires, all the more so for being transient and provisional.

I don’t know if I have a single metaphor that adequately conveys my sense of this community.  And so I offer this one, not as an all-encompassing and definitive image but as something partial yet, I hope, no less powerful for that.

It is the image of the murmuration of starlings, that dazzling choreographed dance, where all the individual birds act in concert, with an apparent unity of purpose, that is instinctive, inspiring and beautiful. And which ends as suddenly as it began.

Until the next time when the individuals come together to Congregate, to act in concert, to inspire.

Kevin Mc Dermott, August, 2019.

The Door is Always Open #4 #cong19


The Door is Always Open is about why we explored our values in the context of moving to a new community, what we were looking for and how we moved to a completely new community. Once we had moved the next step was to ensure we took responsibility to integrate and how we have been rewarded this year when we have needed help.

4 Key Takeaways:

  1. Prioritising what’s important to us in a community
  2. Participating in the community
  3. Giving and receiving
  4. Appreciating others

About Carol Passemard:

moved to Ireland from the UK 10 years ago; along with my husband and it was the best thing we have ever done. I have lived in many different places both in the UK and the Middle East and been through the ‘University of Life!’ In moving to Connemara I finally feel as if I have come home even though I am not Irish. I also moved my business, Breakthrough Retreat. Most of my clients come to work on a 1:1 basis (or as a couple) – they usually stay in Clifden for 2 to 3 days. Why do they want my assistance? because they are stuck and at a crossroads in their life. They come from all over Ireland, UK, Europe and I even had a client come from Brazil last year. What I do is help them discover the tools and techniques that can help them to build a better life for themselves. Despite the challenges clients have to deal with clients they usually leave here knowing what they need to do in make change happen. My approach is holistic and it is not counselling. Should they require further assistance after their Breakthrough Retreat we work online. It is very rewarding and a privilege to work with clients who then go and make a significant difference to their lives.

Contacting Carol Passemard:

You can follow Carol on BreakThroughRetreat or contact her through email.


By Carol Passemard

During 2005 we started to think about our Autumn years and to explore places that we might move to when our own much loved home would be too big and difficult for us to manage.

We wanted to be near the sea and although we loved the countryside where we were living, in the Pennines between Manchester and Leeds, we were a good two hours drive from any kind of sea.

At the time I was completing some training that focused on the importance of values in peoples’ lives. Using the techniques I was trained in we started to discuss what was really important to each of us and where we dreamed of living.

  • What would it look like
  • Were there any sounds that were important to us
  • Were there any feelings we had
  • What would we say to ourselves when we finally found the place of our dreams?

The list we came up with was as follows:

  • Big skies (we had those already)
  • South facing – Light was important to us (in the Pennines we had learned about the lack of light in the deep dark valleys around us)
  • Sea view – not something we had
  • A place we could renovate and make it 3 bedrooms
  • Close to a community (we had had a taster of community but never really felt that we belonged)
  • Have somewhere close to where we could put a boat in the water.

Little did we expect that this wish list would take us to Ireland and Connemara!  In January 2008 we took possession of the keys for the house of our dreams in Clifden. It ticked all the boxes and we felt very excited about our move.

Community we decided was something we had to work on: We were very conscious of being regarded as ‘Blow Ins’ and decided it was our responsibility to reach out to the community and gain rapport with them. Why should they have to come to us?

They assumed we were just going to have a holiday house here but once we established that our intention was to live here all the year round they were more welcoming – shaking our hands and becoming far more chatty.

We would walk around the town; make conversation with the shop owners. Ask them about their business, listening to their concerns about the economic crash that had recently occurred and empathize over their worries.

We joined various organisations and found out about the various activities that were available in the area. And of course everyone was very curious about who we were, where we had come from and why had we chosen Connemara?

The first year living here was like the honeymoon period – people welcomed us, questioned us, entertained us and we in turn made an effort to reciprocate. We discovered the things and the people that we enjoyed and the things we decided were not for us. We made our own choices.

During the following years we made our mark on various committees and took on various roles that we believed would contribute positively to the community.

And here we are now in 2019 when in May we had the biggest shock of our lives:

During the first May bank holiday, my husband, Paul was feeling unwell. We discovered there was a walk in clinic in our local hospital and decided to take advantage of it. We were quickly seen by the locum doctor who advised us to go straight to the University Hospital in Galway.

After many hours of waiting in A&E Paul was admitted to the short stay ward and I drove home alone. I had trained as a nurse in the early 70s and through my training, although very out of date! I knew and trusted that Paul was in the best place.

Throughout the following two weeks I started to learn the true value of being part of a community.

While we had been waiting in A&E I had contacted one friend to tell her about our demise. She was someone I knew I could call on as a listening ear, she invited me for meals, she, and her husband were there for me.

During the next two weeks. I was in and out of Galway everyday and gradually others offered to feed me, provide help in anyway or generally be there.

At first I felt I could do everything for myself – being an independent soul! I cut the grass and realised I was 10 years older since I had last done that in Yorkshire and it wasn’t quite so easy anymore. The next time it needed to be done a friend came and did it for me. I was contacted by someone else whose son ran a gardening services business and he offered to come and see what needed doing.

Now he comes regularly and helps us out. Eventually Paul returned home and then came the diagnosis. His consultant invited us to Merlin Park where he felt we could have a quiet conversation without the hussle, bussle and demands of the teaching hospital. He explained to us what they had found and that he had already set up an appointment for us to meet with the Oncology Consultant – 2 days hence. It all came as a huge shock but we both appreciated the sensitivity of the consultant and the hospital staff as they were there supporting us.

We made a conscious decision then to share our news in our community. We did not want people talking behind our backs and wondering what had been going on with Paul and possibly misleading others with information. We chose to be up front with them and the response we got was phenomenal.

All the ladies gave Paul a hug and words of encouragement – of course he loved all that attention! Men shook his hand and said how much they admired his courage in being so open and honest about his situation.

There were offers of help and one particular person offered the use of her house in Galway during the times when we had to be in for treatment. That has been incredibly helpful because it means we are able to drive to Galway the afternoon before, go out for a meal (at a romantic table for two) and then be in the outpatient oncology unit the following day for 8am.

We also told everyone we wanted life to continue in as normal way as possible and for as long as possible. We continue to be invited out for meals, entertain and have fun. Knowing that the community is there for us when times get more difficult.

During one particular evening; as we were departing from another enjoyable evening meal I was taken aside and told to remember that “the door is always open”.

This year we have both recognized that we are in the right place. There is a very special kind of love in our community. People want to help and support each other and for this we are eternally grateful.

This is the community we dreamed of and we have found it here in Ireland.

How to build a community illustrative image

How to Build an Engaged Community Online #3 #cong19


Social media is not about blasting out ads and posts. It’s about building relationships and using your knowledge to add value to drive traffic to your website and show you are the expert in what you do. Building a community around you is a powerful way to get an army of marketeers pushing out your content. People buy from people. If they know like and trust you they will share your content and recommend you.

4 Key Takeaways:

  1. People buy from people
  2. Surprise and delight your community
  3. Use Twitter lists to drop in and engage with people you want to keep in your community

About Samantha Kelly:

Samantha is a leading social media strategist, speaker and trainer. Samantha owns and operates Tweeting Goddess and the Women’s Inspire Network. With the support of her team, Samantha plans and delivers effective social media strategies to businesses and entrepreneurs, harnessing the power of social media and the online community.

She is passionate about teaching businesses how to leverage social media effectively and add real value to their business. She works with clients to progress brand growth, defining social media strategy with clear and precise targeting. Ultimately, increasing the correct audience reach for business.

She is a dynamic and engaging speaker and trainer, and has been sought after to deliver training courses to many businesses including Hewlett Packard, HSE and Microsoft. She has spoken in New Zealand, USA and Hong Kong.

Samantha is the founder of the Women’s Inspire Network, a support network which connects and empowers female led businesses. It’s an online support network, which supports Women who work from home mostly or feel isolated where they work. The community is a subscription model with weekly webinars where women can learn social media skills, sales skills, self care, etc. Women’s Inspire Network now hosts bi-annual national conferences for female entrepreneurs and female led businesses.

Contacting Samantha Kelly:

You can follow Samantha on Twitter, connect with her on LinkedIn or send her an email.


How to build a community illustrative image

By Samantha Kelly

Anyone can build a community. It takes time though. There are a few simple ways to start. Social media, especially Twitter, is about building relationships and using your knowledge to add value to drive traffic to your website and show you are the expert in what you do. Building a community around you is a powerful way to get an army of marketeers pushing out your content. People buy from people. If they know like and trust you they will share your content and recommend you.

Have a plan – What do you want to achieve? Do you want a small group or do you want a global reach? If you want a global reach then you need to know how to use social media.

Get to know your members individually. Make time for every single one when you can. This means not ignoring anyone and sharing THEIR content.

Create a group that you want to hang out with. No point in just adding members without actually liking them and what they are doing. Decide who are the audience you want. Are they a certain age group? Are they on a certain social media platform? Do they need you and can you learn from them also?

Create opportunities offline for them. e.g. webinars and video calls. Take the relationship offline as much as possible.

Social listening: Keep an eye out for opportunities that they might not be aware of e.g. awards and #Journorequest

  • Give them a call on their birthday or when they achieve something like winning an award – They definitely won’t expect that.
  • Keep your community engaged by including them in tweets and photos as much as possible.
  • Share their content and recommend them.
  • Be kind and assist them when they reach out for help.

Building an engaged community takes time and passion. Keep it simple by assisting others, sharing your knowledge and think about how you will make that person reading your tweet feel.

Community – a Disability Perspective #2 #cong19


Community can have a profoundly positive impact on people living with disability but current structures and vocabulary needs rethinking.

4 Key Takeaways:

  1. 1 in 7 people in Ireland live with a disability and most of them acquired that disability at some stage in their lives. Any person who is disability-free today may have a life-long disability starting tomorrow. That is a fact of life.
  2. Once you have a disability, “community” is a much harder thing to access for a whole host of reasons ranging from physical access to prejudice. For people with intellectual disabilities – be they congenital or acquired – it is even harder still.
  3. In endeavoring to support people with intellectual disabilities, we as a society, take away the very things we ourselves most cherish in our lives. Most of these things come about through, and because of, community

About Sean McGrath:

Sean McGrath is a 35+ year veteran of the IT industry. He holds a first class honours degree in computer science from Trinity College Dublin. He is co-founder and CTO of Propylon, where he now heads up the R+D group focusing on computational solutions in the legal and regulatory domains.

He is the author of three books on markup languages published by Prentice Hall and has lectured in Trinity College Dublin and with the Open University.

He runs one of Ireland’s longest lived blogs at: Sean lives in Galway with his wife and three children. When not working in IT he is an avid amateur musician.

Contacting Sean McGrath:

You can contact Sean by email.

By Sean McGrath

According to the WHO about 15% of the worlds population lives with some form of disability. According to the National Disability Authority of Ireland, 1 in 7 people in Ireland has a disability. That’s about 13%.

It may come as a surprise to learn that the majority of that 1-in-7 number represents acquired disabilities. i.e. once healthy people who became disabled people at some point in their lives. It can happen to any of us at any time and will happen to a goodly proportion of us at some time in our lives.

For anyone living with a disability “community” often means something very different than what it means to the rest of the population. For people with intellectual/cognitive disabilities – be they congenital or acquired (e.g. brain injuries, dementia etc.) – the difference is often even more striking. Once you have a disability, “community” is a much harder thing to access for a whole host of reasons ranging from physical access to prejudice.

Let us play a game. Let us pretend for a moment that I have control over your future life. Now, think about the five most important things in your life in order of priority. The things you think of as the good things in life. The things that really make life worth living. Possible entries on your prioritised list include money,  vacations, health, family, a job you enjoy, independence, better looks, friends, a place to call your own. etc.

Now, what if I tell you that I am taking away two of them. What two do you want to give up out of the five? Not easy it is? Take a moment…

Which three did you decide to keep and which did you decide to give up?

I’ll bet you chose not to keep the vacations or the money-related items. I’ll bet you chose to keep family, a soul mate, your independence, friends, a place to call your own. Am I right?

Now here is the two part kicker of this thought experiment. Firstly, the very things you chose to keep above all else, are the very things we as a society tend to take away from people with intellectual disabilities. Secondly, those very things you chose to keep above all else, are found mostly in, and through, community.

For people with an intellectual disability, we take the word “community” and we redefine it. We label it “special needs” and until very recently we even used that abhorrent word “retarded”. We segregate these people from the rest of the population. We congregate these people into institutions “for their own good”. Sure, we see the odd “special bus”. We see the odd group of “special needs” going bowling at 11 a.m. on a Monday morning, but mostly we don’t see them at all. They do not live in our communities. They are not living with us.

We take away from them the very things we hold most dearly for ourselves. Do people with intellectual difficulties not value friends? Do they not value being able to make decisions for themselves? Have a place to call “home”? Of course they do but we mostly take these things away from them. We apply a so called “medical model” in supporting them. We keep them safe above all else. Quality of life? Less of a concern.

This is tragic. All the more so because it is an unintended side-effect of mostly well meaning people and systems that have evolved over centuries. Thankfully, change is afoot in Ireland – albeit very slowly.

The HSE’s New Directions policy[1] sets out a vision for how the lives of people living with intellectual disabilities can be transformed through community integration and through decongregation[2].

Ireland has finally enacted the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities[3] and has begun rolling out the Assisted Decision Making Act[4].

Grass roots initiatives are afoot such as the Inclusive Living Network [4] which aims at informing and supporting people living with disabilities to live their lives the way the “rest of us” want to live ours : in communities, accessing the simple things in life that are worth more than any amount of money to all of us.






Communities of Excellence #1 #cong19


There is a lack of awareness of what quality and excellence are and their potential for communities and society in general. This is a great loss that is even more amazing when we see many members of a community working in organisations that embrace excellence as the way they do business in achieving quality outcomes. Yet it seems that very little of this excellence leaks out into community and everyday life.

Communities are not organisations and we need new images and vocabulary that facilitates everyone in a community to appreciate quality and practise excellence.

This paper draws from a four-year primary research study of the village of Grange Co. Sligo which sought to bring organisation based quality principles into all aspects of community life.

The presentation of findings will arm you with the vocabulary, images and confidence to bring the concepts of quality and excellence into your life and your community.


4 Key Takeaways:

To help you in your own endeavours or as you work with others or communities you will leave this presentation with:

  1. A universally acceptable and readily understood definition of quality.
  2. An explanation of excellence as the desired way of achieving a quality outcome.
  3. A graphic and terminology describing fit for purpose human activity systems.

As we all become more aware and demanding of a quality outcome we must deepen our understanding of what it is and how it is achieved.

About Bob Kennedy:

Bob Kennedy is a retired lecturer from the Institute of Technology Sligo. His career in industry and academia was primarily concerned with manufacturing, mechanical engineering and design. From the mid 1990s the emphasis shifted to Quality and particularly Quality Management Systems in manufacturing industry.

The rest of Bob’s career was spent exploring how other sectors of society could benefit from the adoption of these quality principles. This culminated in a four year research project in the village of Grange, Co. Sligo to explore the practicalities of practising ‘quality’ at all levels of society. The challenge was to match the many endeavours going on in the community with the most appropriate and beneficial quality tools and techniques used in industry.

The outcome of the research unlocks the potential of quality and excellence for every individual and group in any community.

Contacting Bob Kennedy:

You can contact Bob on LinkedIn

By Bob Kennedy

Every community regardless of its size is a hive of activity. It will have families, clubs, societies, shops, businesses etc. All are pursuing their own unique endeavours but all share a common desire. They all want to succeed. They all want to achieve a quality outcome.  Unfortunately, few if any will have the vocabulary, skills or resources to achieve this in a harmonious way.

Firstly, they will find it difficult to agree on what is a quality outcome. Then of course there is the problem of how it should be achieved. Finally, they will have little appreciation that they are part of a system that will either facilitate or frustrate them depending on its makeup.

These impediments can be overcome if we can embed the following mantra into the psyche of every individual, interest-group, industry and institution in the community.

This mantra is:
“To achieve quality outcomes we must practise excellence and maintain systems that are fit for purpose”

Communities who embrace this mantra will become known as ‘communities of excellence’ communities where excellence is practised. Few people would complain about living in such a community even if they didn’t have a clue what excellence entailed. The challenge is to unlock the mantra’s potential using terminology and images that everyone in a community can relate to and encourages them to be brave and experiment with it.

This paper draws from a four-year primary research study based in the village of Grange Co. Sligo, Ireland which sought to bring organisation based quality principles into all aspects of community life.

But communities are not organisations and new images and vocabulary were needed to facilitate everyone in a community to appreciate quality and practise excellence.

Research outcomes

The research outcomes develop the three stages of the mantra as follows:

To achieve quality outcomes we must practise excellence and maintain systems that are fit for purpose.
Research Outcome #1

Definition of Quality

Research Outcome #2

Excellence as the Methodology for achieving a Quality Outcome

Research Outcome #3

Model of Community viewed as a Human Activity System

What is Quality?

This is a legitimate question for anyone wishing to achieve some purpose. Such a person or group of people are engaged in purposeful activity. This activity might be the setting up of a group or the provision of some service. Regardless, they all want a quality outcome.

So what is a quality anything?

  • What is quality childcare?
  • What is a quality restaurant?
  • What is a quality leisure group?

Quality can be a very vague concept. Yet we all know it when we see it or even more readily when it is missing. The vague nature of quality can sometimes lead to the notion that quality is whatever you think yourself. This is how real life at community level sees quality and its ambiguity is not very helpful.  We must empower people to move their appreciation of quality to a more structured level.

All of us would agree that a quality outcome is achieved when the right things are done right.

This interpretation helps us when grappling with quality as it applies to: childcare, restaurant or leisure group? It’s liberating as everybody now knows what quality is as it applies to anything or to any activity. A quality outcome is achieved when the right things are done right.

Research outcome #1: A definition of quality that everybody can relate to.
A quality outcome is achieved when the right things are done right.

What is excellence?

Excellence was described earlier as the methodology for achieving a quality outcome. This is much more complex than quality since it is the alpha and the omega of quality. Excellence helps us flesh out our appreciation of a quality outcome and then makes it a reality for us. It is a methodology that facilitates our definition, realisation, delivery and evaluation of a quality outcome. Excellence creates the culture, the synergy that supports the emergence of a quality outcome.

Look again at our definition of quality “A quality outcome is achieved when the right things are done right”.

A cursory examination of this definition will solicit two obvious questions.
Q1: Who decides what is the right thing to do?
Q2: Who decides how it should be done?

A third less obvious question is “How do they make these decisions?” The answer to all these questions is that we must practise excellence, which is defined as follows:

Research outcome #2:  Excellence as the methodology for achieving a quality outcome.

Excellence is an evolving methodology for achieving a quality/better outcome.
It is based on voluntary on-going dialogue and agreement between the creators, consumers and complementors in the activity system, who define, realise, deliver and evaluate dynamic emerging expectations in an enlightened, effective, efficient, ethical, elegant and enjoyable manner.

This definition of excellence is of necessity long and at first glance complicated. Essentially it says that the clients involved in an activity will be the deciders of what a quality outcome is and how it is achieved. It identifies three categorises of clients [3Cs]:
1. Creators [those providing the service],
2. Consumers [those who use or are affected by the service] and
3. Complementors [regulators, interested parties etc.].
No one category can decide. These 3Cs must voluntarily engage in dialogue and agreement as they define, realise, deliver and evaluate dynamic emerging expectations. Expectations that they accept will change. Finally, they do all this in an enlightened, effective, efficient, ethical, elegant and enjoyable manner.

Practising excellence is not easy for any individual or group as most want to rush into activity and get things done. They do not want engagement or dialogue which they perceive as being problematic and time wasting. They effectively think they know best and should be allowed get on with it. But they are wrong. Excellence isn’t easy but it’s the right way to achieve a quality outcome.  It takes all three categories of client to practise excellence as well as a fit for purpose system.

It takes a system to practise excellence.

Obviously excellence cannot exist in a vacuum it needs us as creators, consumers and complementors to make this theory a practice, a way of doing things. Put another way excellence needs a fit for purpose system to adopt and practise it. What does a ‘fit for purpose system’ look like?

When a group of people come together for some purpose i.e. to achieve any task they can be described as a purposeful complex adaptive system. Figure 1 gives us an image of such a system which is fractal in nature applicable to all levels of society and complexity: individuals, interest-groups, industries and institutions and indeed entire communities. It is a surprisingly simple system of four elements: Context, Climate, Clients and Culture that operate in a dynamic flux of inter-dependency.

The Story Behind the CongRegation Themes

CongRegation has morphed and grown since the first incarnation experiment in 2013 although the fundamental structure of what makes it special has remained the same.

One of the key things that changes annually has been the theme and interestingly the original theme of ‘Social Media’ still features strongly in some people’s perception of the event.  Let me take you through the evolution to this years theme.

The first year focused on social media which as a sector was still evolving and needed lots of discussion and guidance.  We gave options to people about submissions ranging from Case Study, Tips, How to Guide through to a what was called a ‘Rant’ (positive or negative perspective on the topic).  Most submissions took the form of a leadership type piece essentially a smart positive rant, where opinions were given space to be elaborated, dissected, reassembled and made ready for discussion.  It was clear that this was the type of contribution and form that people were naturally more attracted to but is the most difficult of all the options.  It takes time to narrow down the vast choices, percolate the ideas, build a reasonable case, research, compose, edit, test, rethink and finally submit.

This single choice of submission was carried into year 2 but the theme broaden out a bit to include digital media, partially as a reaction to the broader nature of year one submissions.  Rather than just document work done, attendees wished to dig deeper and ponder the topic at a more challenging level, rather than just deliver a blog post that could have featured on a regular social media blog. This was the what I saw as the emergence of what I called the ‘Mental Itch’.  We are surrounded by all the theme areas but we rarely really question them or construct our thoughts into a robust argument or stance.  In a world of twitter, microcontent and limited attention span long form content forces us to consider things with a bit more depth, sometimes to quite personal self reflective areas.  We are also all incredibly busy and possibly don’t reward ourselves with higher debate and thinking when stuck in the now.

Year 3 became a bit more challenge focused with the theme exploring the impact of technology on work and personal lives. This evolved from conversations at year two as personal impacts were questioned.  As the diversity of attendees expanded and as the curious nature of attendees grew there was a collective desire to look at something bigger and tap into the collective mindsets.  If my observation from year two was around the general willingness to tested (submission and conversations on the day) year 3 taught me that the more meaningful content frequently involved peeling back layers of the onion to really see what, who was ticking.  This happens naturally during the day in Cong but year 3 contributions contained not just smart insights but also deeper personal perspective.

Year 4 ‘The Future’ emerged as a natural extension of the Year 3 theme of the impact of technology on our lives.  Technology has a role but it’s not the only player in town and year three surfaced a lot of fears and reservations that people had about the future direction we were heading.  An attempt to capture on the day insights in the form of an open challenge to create a better future was also attempted but these themes are so big, multi faceted and broad that consensus is almost impossible to achieve.  In fact, we could not even reach consensus on who should get the award for best contribution (the crystal ball is still sitting in my office).   Addressing the final challenge on the day of producing ideas on what would make a better future proved difficult as the more views on the future that emerged the more questions that accompanied it.

The ‘Innovation’ theme of year 5 reflected the emergence of ‘meta themes’ and could be viewed as an additional component of the convergence between technology and future.  This allowed the flexibility to explore experiences, expertise and scratching of the mental ‘itch’ – something that was always nagging you at the back of your mind that you wished to explore more deeply.  The compliance aspect of the submission (ie cannot get a ticket without it) was replaced by sometime cathartic release of energy and focus on a blank canvas topic.  CongRegation creates a peer based, trusted environment to explore areas and it was heartening to hear challenges to conventional wisdom and counter intuitive approaches.  As the attendee profile also broadened so did the entry point and background perspectives. The range of angles, perspectives, commentary, guidance and strong opinions reinforced my own internal view that everyone has a piece of the jigsaw puzzle and no one has all the pieces.

Last years theme of ‘Ideas’ proved difficult for people as not alone do we rarely think about ideas in an external inquiring stance but we generally live in the moment of having an idea and the problems it poses. Ideas is related to the Innovation theme but interestingly many felt that Innovation had become abused as a concept due to over use – words matter.  Similar to innovation, executing on an idea was a key exploration thread.  In normal life this theme gets superficial treatment and is often interwoven into bigger fabrics.  David Gluckman’s presentation in Ashford Castle and his comments about Ideas alerted me to this rich vein – if we just viewed it differently and pondered it more deeply.  Rather than a collection of idea pitches the submissions contained a mix of well thought out reflections and probings.

Informally the theme has come out of conversations after each CongRegation and this year was no different involving late night (strike while the iron is hot) chats in Danaghers after the huddles and ukulele session finished.  Four key suggestions emerged:

Fear: this popped up in a lot of huddles, would connect in a very deep way but also risked becoming very personality focused.

Imperfection: This was viewed both as perfection and imperfection and could produce fascinating divergent views

Transition: This originated from a conversation where it was felt a lot of people at CongRegation has experienced change or were undergoing deep self reflection (career, life).

Community:  In its seventh year is CongRegation becoming a community that takes place in a rural community.

The date and theme were put out as a Twitter poll (not the most scientific way but I wanted to make it a bit more objective) and Community was the clear winner.

Over the last year I have had many conversations with Tracy Keogh about community from a business perspective from how do you define it, to the different perspectives to the joys and problems of working with communities.  I have lived in rural and city communities, in communities in different culture China, Spain, Canada.  I worked with different work communities and communities of practice.  I have watched online communities grow from the early email lists and the fascinating worlds that evolved and have become the tail wagging the dog.  I live in a rural community but see multiple levels, complications, fantastic endeavors, open mindedness, closed mindness to completely unconnected groups.   Everywhere I look I see tribes, formal/informal groups of people and witness the same people behaving in completely different way.  Community surrounds us, united us, it drives and moulds us and we rarely question it deeply.  My curiosity is only now starting and I like all the contributors have permission to think, reflect, express and share our insights.

Only starting also is the awareness of how much I have to learn about this arena.  Since agreeing the theme I have had fascinating conversations with sociologists about community and place, the evolution of communities through migration and the view/power of filtered, collated research to explain what I see daily but do not necessarily understand.   As per Joan Mulvihills comments I have become hyper alert to community related topics to the point of having email conversations with a poet who featured on RTE Sunday Miscellany, straight after the show as he had a unique perspective on a community where I lived.  Coffee time discussions have uncovered doctorates who have tried to implement industrial standard on to a rural community to try improve the community.  Psychologist friends fascinate me on the way the thread multiple theories and thinking into explain how and why we operate in groups and communities.

Personally I am really excited about this theme, I am looking forward to being challenged, reflecting, researching , wondering, writing, scrapping, sharing, testing and I hope, like all the contributors, that this process along will enrich me a little bit more.