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irish ideas — Niall mcelwee

Shadow casting in Calgary

So, here I am writing my regular column just a week before I fly out to Calgary, Canada to meet up with so many of these people that have become familiar names to me from my daily viewing of postings on the CYC-Net. I am about to travel with an Irish colleague to the 2001 Alberta Conference of Child and Youth Care Workers with an expectant heart, a lap top full of ideas and a guitar with "three cords and the truth". We are also going to bring out some Irish traditional hurling sticks for protection against wayward child and youth care practitioners! The task that has been set for Cormac and me is to explain the Irish child and youth care system in terms of education and training. Let me assure you, this is no easy task.

Now, I have wanted to get out to Canada for years. It seems so much like Ireland. I can say this knowing relatively nothing about it in scientific terms. In preparation for my trip, I picked up a copy of Fodor’s Guide to Canada at the weekend (apparently all self-respecting travellers should obtain a copy) and what did I find? Calgary gets its name from the Gaelic "Bay Farm". So, some of my ancestors have already plotted a path out to the wonderful Prairie Provinces and negotiated the Rockies, the spectacular lakes and rivers and the oil.

Here’s the first thing that strikes me. Both countries facilitate organised slaughter on a grand scale and even promote this in schools and colleges as spectator sports. Both of these ‘sports’ involve people attempting to kill each other whilst playing with large sticks in confined arenas – hurling in Ireland and ice hockey in Canada. Oh, and somewhere along the way, a player is supposed to get a small ball or puck into a goal with no one  – bar the spectators and TV audience noticing.

In terms of physical aspects, both countries have numerous lakes, rivers, mountains and forests. In political terms, both are steeped in an historical legacy of colonisation. In cultural terms, the native peoples were robbed of property, language and culture. This has left its mark on the consciousness of our peoples and in this I feel I will find some degree of sameness.

Like many Irish people, I have images of Canada in my mind – the Mounties, Prairies, Mountains (such as the Rockies), unspoilt wilderness and the wonderful Maple leaf flag. I am sure that someone, late at night in the conference bar, is going to ask me about the ‘little people’ of Ireland and to confirm or disconfirm whether or not most of us still live in thatched cottages, wear tweed hats and Aran jumpers. The truth is, some of us do and some of us even claim to have conversed with the ‘little people’. Mind you, this is usually after a good bottle of Irish whiskey or several pints of Guinness.

From reading and responding to postings on the CYC-Net I have made new friends who have shown me that there are many sides to any representation of a people. Indeed, one of the keynote speakers at the forthcoming conference, Jack Phelan, has stayed with me in Ireland and lectured in my college where his seminar was very much appreciated. Jack even had the opportunity to play some backyard hurling whilst over here and has since been asked on to the editorial board of the Irish Journal of Applied Social Studies. Another individual known to most of you, Dr Thom Garfat has also been asked to join the editorial board and to contribute a regular column such as mine here, so the influence of the Canadians has reached over to us.

Engaging with one another as equals
Now, the purpose of me sharing this with readers is that in just a few short years the Child and Youth Care world has got smaller, more defined and more familiar for me. I now more fully recognise names when I read various academic publications and contributions to the CYC-Net. Crucially for me, I can put faces to authors and this is significant. The well-known UK sociologist, Antony Giddens, poses an interesting question in one of his books. He asks, why do people still attend conferences and stand in front of peers when it is so much easier, cheaper and less trouble to simply e-mail them and engage with each other in virtual space?

One answer, I suppose, is that we are human, involved in one of the most basic communications – talking and sharing experiences face to face. To see someone’s eyes light up when telling a story, or face beam when recounting a joke - well it is difficult to live this experience on an anonymous page. So, we travel by car, train, plane and coach and meet like-minded people. We discuss the strengths and weaknesses of our respective child and youth care systems and, indeed, of ourselves as humans on a journey, and we come away wiser, deeper people. On this theme of communication I should like to leave you with something to ponder over. A few years ago, I had the pleasure of editing a book of creative writing and opened the book with a translation of the Romanian poet, Ana Blandiana who wrote:

I never have been in pursuit of words.

All I ever looked for
Was traces of their passage
Like the long silver haul
Of sunlight sweeping the grass,
Or moonblinds drawn on the sea.

The shadows of words
Are what I hunted.
And hunting these is a skill
Best learned from the elders.

The elders know
That nothing is more precious
In a word
Than the shadow it casts
And words with no shadows to cast
Have lost their soul.

I look forward to some shadow casting in Calgary. Let us see how events unfold.