Champion of the marginalised

Second Reading
A voice for social and economic opportunity

Fr Kevin Hegarty

I started my last column by referring to an exchange in one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.
‘Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?’
‘To the curious incident of the dog in the night time.’
‘The dog did nothing in the night time.’
‘That was the curious incident’ remarked Sherlock Holmes.
My purpose in using the quotation was to illustrate the relative silence of Irish priests about the crisis that has engulfed Irish Catholicism in recent years. In the published text, the line ‘the dog did nothing in the night time’ was omitted, which rendered the reference meaningless.
This week I write about a priest who did not remain silent or inactive in the face of social and economic adversity. Recently in Donegal there were celebrations to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Fr James McDyer whose transformation of the parish of Glencolmcille made regular national headlines from the 1950’s to his death in 1987. James Dyer was born on September 14, 1910, near Glenties, the youngest son of a farmer, John and his wife Bridget. For a priest who was to lead an unconventional life he had a conventional schooling at the Raphoe diocesan college, St Eunan’s in Letterkenny, followed by his seminary formation at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, where he was ordained in 1937.
There was then such a surplus of priests in Ireland that it was the custom for young priests to minister abroad, while awaiting an appointment at home. McDyer was sent to the London parish of Wandsworth where he worked for four years. He then transferred to Orpington in Kent where he helped raise funds for the rebuilding of the church which had been destroyed in a second world war air raid. Later he also served in Brighton.
His time in England proved influential. He claimed he learned more about priestly ministry there than in the dusty academic halls of Maynooth. He also saw at first hand the loneliness of Irish emigrants. He decided he would play his part in the creation of social and economic opportunities that would give them the choice of staying at home.
In 1947 he exchanged the austerity of post-war Britain for the medieval quietness of Tory island where he worked for four years. He tried to stem the tide of emigration by trying to set up a knitting industry. He failed to get a government grant. It was his first, but not his last confrontation with the sometimes vexatious nature of official bureaucracy.
In late 1951 he took up an appointment in the historic parish of Glencolmcille, a place deeply imprinted with folk memories of its patron saint, the famous St Colmcille. Here he remained for the rest of his life.
He came to a dying community, haunted by the spectre of emigration. As chairman of the parish council he identified the ‘five curses’ of his community - lack of good roads, lack of electricity, lack of piped water, lack of jobs and lack of social activity.
Throughout the 1950’s, exuding the energy of a benign tornado, he worked indefatigably to lift these curses. He often left his parish early in the morning to drive to distant outlines to lobby government officials, usually returning home by nightfall.
In 1953 he organised the building of a community hall by voluntary labour. He collected funds to buy a community park. A road improvement scheme was started as was the first piped water scheme. He persuaded Gaeltarra Éireann to establish a factory to manufacture Donegal tweed.
His greatest achievement was his successful campaign to bring electricity to Glencolmcille. It was the key to future social and economic progress.
Rural electrification aptly-named as ‘the quiet revolution’ transformed country life from the 1950s onwards. While the government generously subsidised the scheme there was a proviso that a majority of householders had to sign for inclusion in it. McDyer overcame the objections of a minority of his parishioners who thought electricity would be too dear or too dangerous. In December 1954 electricity illuminated Glencolmcille for the first time.
Now that an improved income structure was in place McDyer devoted the 1960s and 1970s to the provision of employment opportunities for his community. Inspired by the traditional concept of the ‘meitheal’ he developed the idea of agricultural and industrial co-operatives, he convinced the Irish Sugar Company to set up a vegetable processing plant which later became a fish-processing one. Knitting co-operatives were established. In 1967 the west Donegal Folk Village, a fore-runner of our modern interpretative centres, came on stream. Some of his schemes failed or had to be amended but most of them have stood the test of time.
In 1958 an ‘Irish Times’ writer claimed ‘the doctrine of our poverty in material resources continues to plague and debilitate our people like a dark and brooding mediaeval superstition . . . This doctrine of poverty destroys hope and where there is no hope there is no courage.”
James McDyer challenged that doctrine of proverty. He has a secure place in the social history of 20th century Ireland.
A new book on Fr McDyer has just been published. Entitled ‘A Revolution on their Hands’ by Liam McGinley, it is well well worth a read. Available from ‘An Siopa Gaeilge’ in Glencolmcille.