Ger Clarke, one of the best-known faces around Dalgan, has just retired after 26 years working in Dalgan sharing the Columban vision with thousands of school students through Columban Mission Outreach.
Tribute from Fr Pat Raleigh:
It is never easy saying goodbyes but at least we know that we can call on Ger for his expertise as he lives quite close to Dalgan. I first met Ger in early 1995. Through the initiative of Columban Brendan MacHale and the support of the then Regional Director Norman Jennings, a Mission Awareness Visitor Centre was opened in Dalgan. I was asked to promote the Centre and encourage people to visit. I was very fortunate in having Michael O’Sullivan around who was the Mission Education Officer. We both felt that the newly opened Mission Awareness Visitor Centre was an ideal opportunity to raise people’s awareness on Mission. It was then I was introduced to Ger Clarke whom we appointed the Mission Awareness Development Officer. It was an appointment that I will never regret.
Interview with Ger Clarke:
Speaking ahead of his last day, Ger told columbans.ie, “I’ve had a wonderful 26 years. I learned so much, and I appreciate the opportunities that were given to me to grow and develop in my job. While I will miss working with the schools and miss the company of some great Columbans, I am more than ready to move on.”
Originally from Mayo but living in Meath since 1980, Ger had made two interesting plans for retirement, one of which has had to be postponed due to the pandemic.
“My plan was that a week after retiring I would start on a hike on my own to Istanbul for six months. This would give me time to remove myself from 45 years of being a working, tax-paying adult and become a person looking forward to the next 20 years in retirement doing something else. That was my plan, but because of Covid I can’t get to get to Istanbul for a year or two. But I will do it.”
Ger’s other plan is not on hold. “Three years ago, I bought a local carpenter’s/joiner’s workshop; I bought the lathes and everything else. I wanted to take up woodworking – not so much as a pastime but as a way of expressing myself. I’m interested in writing, in art and always wanted to work in wood. I wanted to become more creative once I had the time to do it. So I have the lathes and the workshop ready to set up in a few months’ time.”
When Ger was interviewed it was only his second day in the office in Dalgan since 13th March 2020 thanks to Covid. While working from home, he explains, “I tried to work as much as I could on behalf the Columbans and I tried to continue to develop myself and did some wonderful courses, knowing that I was coming up to retirement.”
Ger was speaking to columbans.ie as he cleared out his office in Dalgan. Asked if he was daunted about this new moment in his life, he explained that his brother-in-law had inspired him. “When he retired, he started producing these beautiful watercolour paintings; he had never painted in his life before. He decided to wait to start painting until he retired so that he would have something to look forward to. He has now moved on to writing plays, short stories and books. So that made me start thinking about what I would do in retirement.”
Looking back over his working life, Ger explained that he has worked in four different professions and has a variety of qualifications. “I ran a pub in Dublin. I trained as a geologist and zoologist at university and worked a bit in geology. I worked for 10 years underground as a miner. Then I worked as a tour guide at Newgrange and finally I came to Dalgan to work for the Columbans.”
“Each move was a complete shift in perspective and in the kind of people that I worked with, and the kind of work that I was doing. In one, it was the pub culture in Dublin, and that was quite revelatory. In mining it was all-male. One of the guys that I worked with, I used to have to fill out his time-sheet, because he couldn’t read or write. Then I worked at Newgrange and the Hill of Tara as a tour guide and I was working in an all-female society, many of whom were very feisty feminists. I was coming straight out of an all-male underground mining situation. Each time I moved, I had to learn new visions of what society is and new vocabularies…. There were new learnings and new routes for me to go down. Then, I ended up in Dalgan.”
While Ger was initially involved in the visitor centre in Dalgan, he found that he was able to develop his job. “I was given a freedom by Fr Pat Raleigh who was very supportive, and a person who had a vision for Ireland.” Ger, Michael O’Sullivan and Claire Carey saw the Mission Education Department develop into the Mission Education Office and finally become Mission Outreach.
He speaks warmly of the Columbans. “This is a group of people, both men and women, who are very intelligent without lording it over you. You can be relaxed in their company. That’s due to a confidence that they have in the journey they are on in their own in lives. They welcome you to join them on the journey but they are never critical of your choices. They would always listen respectfully to everything that you had to say. That openness and generosity of spirit I’ll bring with me. The vast majority of those I came to know were very happy people.”
“My experience was with a lot of the older guys who were retired. They would have been going through a period of reflection on their lives in retirement. That’s the way I would like to be in my retirement – still open to learning new stuff but happy that good things had been achieved. And to be welcoming and generous. Those are the things that stand out in my mind.”
While he pays tribute to many Columbans, there are a few that stand out for Ger. These include Bishop John Howe, who served in Burma. “There was just something about him. When you were in his company you knew you were talking to a great person.”
Another Columban was Fr Bill Halliden who used to teach in Dalgan and would bring students to Luxeuil where they would work on repairing the monastery in Annegray in the 1950s and 60s. “He spoke French fluently and because I spoke French, we used to converse together in French and he enjoyed that because it brought back good memories to him. He was such a gentleman.”
He described Fr Sean Holloway as “another great man” who never really asked permission to do anything. “He just went ahead and did it and then told people it was done. He always had a smile. There wasn’t a critical bone in his body.” He adds, “Fr Pat Fahy – you miss people like that.”
When he started in Dalgan in 1995, the “big movement” at the time, Ger recalls, was the drop the debt campaign as well as Burma Action Ireland.
“I was brought in to make a success of a visitor centre and luckily they put me into the education department. There were many very active justice and peace groups meeting in Dalgan at the time. It was all about change and Dalgan was a focal point for a lot of what was going on. It was a great time to be part of those campaigns. But all of that has gone. There is nothing happening now that is inspiring either the Columbans or local groups. A lot of the big issues have either been solved or the situation has changed. Ireland has moved on. Back then you had lots of young people, middle-aged people, and older people who were idealistic, and who were willing to be active and get involved. Now there’s an apathy or a ‘me féinism’ of ‘doing my own thing’.”
“I realised that we weren’t going to get busloads of tourists coming into Dalgan to just look at a visitor centre about missionaries. It wasn’t going to be the big draw that people had hoped. So I began to look at where my talents and skills lay, and they were in talking, storytelling, and in nature, ecology, the environment, history and archaeology. So I began to work with schools and put together a schools programme.”
“Michael O’Sullivan and Fr Pat Raleigh bought into that and we developed a really fine model of how a Missionary Society can become part of an education programme that schools didn’t realise they needed but as soon as it was introduced them, they really loved it.”
“We sold it to secondary schools as a retreat. But it was a retreat in the whole area of JPIC – justice, peace, and integrity of creation. Between six and eight of the top 10 schools in Ireland sent their kids to Dalgan for the programme and eight out of 10 of the poorest schools in Ireland came here as well. We were getting 2,500 to 3,000 students visiting us a year over a 15-year period.”
Asked if he is concerned that his retirement will mean that all of this networking with schools will be lost when he retires, Ger observes, “The future of Dalgan as a location is now mapped out. The future of the Columbans in Ireland is a different question. It’s a different conversation.”
“The Columbans themselves have played their role but I think there is still time for a discussion on what is the future of mission here from a Columban point of view. I’ve always felt that there is a potential for Ireland to become two regions, rather than one. One region would have responsibility for the care and maintenance of the retired and ill missionaries. Another region would be a proactive missionary group, active in justice, interfaith dialogue or ecology.”
He adds, “There is still some hope that the headquarters in Hong Kong will see the possibility that there is space for a mission in Ireland, but it cannot be located at Dalgan because Dalgan is for retirement.”
His own retirement is bitter-sweet because of his concern that all the bridge-building and outreach to schools will be lost.
“I have encountered anything up to 40,000 students over the last 25 years, and I have had the unique experience of meeting every fifth year class in one particular convent here in Navan over the last 20 years. Every young woman that has gone to that school since 2001 has met me on at least one occasion as part of an introduction to Columban spirituality. The hope is that whatever you say and do with them will open their eyes to the Columban message.”
“I was very lucky to also develop a relationship with the local teachers’ Education Centre over a 15-year period and I would have had up to 50 primary school teachers for one week every year for instruction mostly in ecology. I always managed to bring Sean McDonagh in or bring Bobby Gilmore in or bring one of the lay missionaries in to introduce other aspects of Columban mission. So there’s probably about 800 primary school teachers who have encountered the Columban message. I think that the fact that people kept coming back to us again and again showed that we were doing the right thing.”
Wishing Ger good health, fulfilment and a long and happy retirement!