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Dublin: 14 °C Tuesday 17 July, 2018
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Meet the man hitchhiking around Ireland to listen to people's stories

Ruairi McKiernan is spending one month hitching around Ireland talking to people about their lives – and learning a lot about what Ireland is really like right now.

Ruairí McKiernan
Ruairí McKiernan
Image: Hitching for Hope via Facebook

RUAIRÍ MCKIERNAN HAS spent most of the last two weeks listening to people.

There was the cattle farmer who has sold off the last of his animals, is taking anti-depressants and has to move back in with his mother. There was the woman worried that she’s going to become a Skype grandmother when her children emigrate. Then there was the thoughtful 16-year-old boy who decided to travel from Dublin to Galway to work on a farm.

“It’s been intense,” the  35-year-old says.

The story began earlier this year when McKiernan was asked to speak at the MacGill Summer School in Donegal at the end of July. It’s an unusual event: for more than 30 years, it has brought together a mixture of academics, journalists, politicians, campaigners, and anyone else who wants to go along to talk about the state of Irish society in the remote town of Glenties.

McKiernan, a freelance consultant who founded youth organisation SpunOut.ie and was invited to sit on the Council of State by President Michael D Higgins, was asked to speak on the loose theme of citizens’ view of democracy – but something didn’t feel right.

(hitchingforhope/Flickr)

“For some reason I just felt uncomfortable speaking on behalf of people,” says McKiernan. “I had a sense that maybe there’s been too many great speeches, too many times where experts or leaders have stood up and talked about what’s going on in Ireland without actually connecting with what’s going on.”

I’m from Cavan originally and spent a lot of years in the west, and Dublin can be very disconnected from the rest of the country. The reality in the rest of the country can be very different; more rural, more community-based. Life is different outside the capital city.

McKiernan was tempted to decline the invitation to speak, but instead sat on it for a month.

“I figured it would be stupid to decline because it’s a great platform but I decided that there had to be a more creative way of doing something more interesting,” he says.

He considered some kind of internet-based engagement (“not very authentic, really”) but began to think of how he could meet people in “random and strange ways I wouldn’t be used to.”

Ruairí being interviewed in Northern Ireland late last week (hitchingforhope/Flickr)

That’s when he was reminded about how he used to hitchhike as a teenager.

“Lots of people used to hitchhike and it’s a great way of meeting people, of getting stories,” he says.

The idea began to take shape. He would hitchhike around Ireland on what he calls a “listening tour”, getting people’s stories, hearing how their lives have been affected by the recession, and looking for signs of hope where he could find them. Then, at the end of the month, he would give his talk at MacGill Summer School based on what people – the citizens – had told him, rather than his own impressions of the mood of the nation. He calls it ‘Hitchhiking for Hope’.

“It’s back to basics,” he says. “There’s a lot of talk but not a lot of listening going on right now about where Ireland should go next.”

The rules

He started off in Galway at the start of July, relying on hitching lifts from one destination to the next. The rules are straightforward: he has to hitch. If people offer him food or somewhere to stay, he can accept it. He has to record stories, but is also blogging and tweeting about what he hears on the road (when possible, at least – one of the biggest and most predictable problems has been the frustrating lack of internet access in rural parts of the country).

“It’s much easier than I thought to get lifts,” he says. “I had some trepidation at the start because I hadn’t done it in 17 or 18 years. The sunny weather may or may not help. Sometimes it’s easier when it’s raining because people feel sorry for you. Also, the most rural areas are generally easier; there’s less traffic because you’re so far away from everything so people are more likely to help out.”

So far, there have been some common themes among the people who stop to pick up the hitchhiker.

Most people who pick you up are on their own and they’re on for a chat. They ask me what I’m doing and I tell them. Often they’re fascinated at the start and then gradually they lose interest in my thing and start talking about their own things. That’s when I often ask if I can record them.

So what kind of things have people been telling him since he started this? The common themes are – well, they’re what you’d expect to be on people’s minds right now. Unemployment, negative equity and emigration all crop up every often. People in tough situations who can’t see a way out. Hopelessness. Unhappiness. Feelings of being trapped.

But there’s also the other side.

“People will talk about their failed marriage, failed business. But there is a theme of resilience, and people finding strength within to get by; to cling on to whatever chink of light exists, whether it be their children, or the idea of starting a business, or the idea of finding strength in community,” says McKiernan.

‘Raw sense of injustice’

He describes it as a “re-balancing of the books”. “It’s a big contrast to the individualistic policies and ideologies that have been dominant for 20 years. That path doesn’t really work, either on an economic level or on a happiness level. It has left people sort of miserable in a way.”

McKiernan is doing something distinctly political, but without any interest in the cut-and-thrust of Oireachtas politics. “My sense is that politics should come from the ground up,” he says. “I don’t belong to any ideology or party and it doesn’t appeal to me, but I’m doing what I an at that level. I feel that that’s just as relevant as any Kildare Street politics.”

McKiernan says the main theme of what he’s doing is hope. “So many people feel there is no hope, both at a personal level and a national level. I’m trying to find where the hope is.”

Repeatedly people have spoken to him about the raw sense of injustice they feel between how the rich and the powerful are treated in Ireland and how everyone else is treated.

On Inishbofin and Achill, he found small communities which understood the importance of resilience and interdependence. He deliberately travelled to Northern Ireland ahead of 12 July to get first hand experience of what it’s like to live somewhere that remains so divided. He plans to visit Ballymun and Dalkey in Dublin to see two different sides of the capital city before travelling down the east coast and across towards Clare and Cork. He has been invited to hitchhike to Moyross in Limerick by a local group there.

Practicalities

Money has been an issue. Working as a freelancer without a set income, not earning any money for a month has been a risk. He keeps costs to a minimum. He has camped out overnight and stayed in small B&Bs. Strangers on the internet have rallied to help him when he has been in a tight corner financially. So far, he hasn’t had to ask for accommodation or food – every day, when he has told people what he is doing, someone has offered him a place to stay or a meal.

McKiernan is self-aware. He is at pains to emphasise that this isn’t some sanctimonious do-gooder deed. He genuinely believes that by telling the stories from around the country that the narrative in Ireland can be changed.

“I don’t see hitchhiking around the country will change things necessarily, but you do have to take a personal leap of faith in following your own dreams, whatever they may be,” he says.

“I’ve been through hard times myself, as most people have, but there’s still so much to be grateful for. I think we’re in a transition between an old way and a new way, and I don’t know what the future holds. There’s a lot of talk about how things are bleak, but a lot of people are saying to me that it’s a choice, that it will be bleak if we don’t do anything about it.”

There’s a new generation rising who can see opportunity and who aren’t going to accept this cycle of misery. They’re not interested in old ideas of civil war politics or the elements of the media that tell young people that the country is fecked and done for and there’s nothing for them here. They’re the ones saying that they’re going to do something about it, not just accepting things as they are.

Interview with 16-year-old Ross from Dublin. (Video: Ruairí McKiernan/YouTube)

He is currently getting about five hours sleep a night as he tries to write up his experiences on his blog every night and post photographs and audio. “I could do this for a year easily, and I’d love to, but alas that’s not going to happen,” he says.

One of his most interesting conversations so far has been with a man whose marriage had collapsed after three decades and who was considering emigrating to another continent before a random encounter led to him meeting a woman he now lives with.

“I saw them together and there was something in that in no matter how hard it gets, you should always be open to the possibility that things can change,” he says. “It’s about hope, and the whole trip is about hope. We should never, ever give up.”

You can follow Ruairí’s progress on his blog community.ie, on his Twitter page @ruairimckiernan, and on the Hitchhiking for Hope Facebook page.

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