Dermot Fagan is from Killucan Pioneer Centre in County Westmeath. Active through the youth structures of the Association from an early age, he was chairperson of the Pioneer Youth Committee from 2003 to 2006 and was a delegate on the Pioneer Board of Management from 2003 until 2012. In 2010 his MSc thesis went on to be published as a journal article co-authored by Dr. Shane Butler, TCD entitled ‘What Are We About?’ – an organisational study of the Pioneer Association in present day Ireland. Here, Dermot interviews his friend and colleague in the Pioneer Association – Patricia Gallagher .
Patricia, can you tell me a little about how you came to be involved with the Pioneer Association?
I joined in national school around the time of Confirmation, though they were not tied together necessarily. Our priest came and spoke to us and we were ‘signed up’ and presented our emblems at a specially arranged Mass. I suppose at twelve-years-old I didn’t understand why you would drink anyway – it didn’t make sense to me as alcohol played a minor role in our family life growing up. Later on in Mount St Michael, Claremorris, where I went to secondary school – then the Pioneers took on a whole new dimension.
Sr Colombière Collins, who later died when we were in Transition Year, and Teresa Mulkeen, a young teacher, were both strong leaders in the Pioneers in our school. I remember the first meeting I attended, there were over a hundred young people present, we had only standing room. It made an impression on me. Here, I was not alone in my commitment – this was very important for me. In the first few years, the quizzes and sport were activities to be involved in but, by Transition Year, I had an active role on the school Pioneer committee. In 2002, Teresa introduced the ideal of working with the Pioneer National Youth Committee - I jumped at opportunity!
Recalling your perspective at the time, were the Pioneers more a spiritual or social organisation for a young person?
Probably social and, as I got older, I began to understand and appreciate the spiritual importance of the Pioneers and I grew more into that.
Was that an accurate reflection of what the Association really is through these social means? Was it mis-sold to you?
At that age, social aspect was important in developing friends and a sense of camaraderie. It demonstrated the ideas of good example and alternative lifestyles in a pragmatic way. It was a concrete show of support and I found it very effective.
At that time of transition from a young person exploring the Pioneers through activity to a person more conscious of a deeper spiritual ethos behind all you were involved in, what spiritual emphasis did you first identified with?
I liked the notion of self-denial and control. I saw excesses in society like teenage drinking with no moderation. Looking back, good example is something that I see as important now. I would like to be as good a role model now, as those people were for me then.
Idea of a ‘Pledge’, how significant is a pledge is for someone aged 12-18?
It varies from person to person, but for me I see the value of a promise. In my case, family and people around me informed it. I can’t remember whom exactly I made the pledge to - was it to God, the Sacred Heart, the priest, my parents or others? I took it to sixteen years initially and I found I was happy where I was, happy not to drink, there was nothing in drinking that appealed. Then, attending National Youth meetings where we would say the Pioneer Prayer – the full prayer and not the Young Pioneer Prayer, I feel I grew into the full Pioneer pledge.
If I were to ask you for your insight into one particular part of the Pioneer message what would you choose?
Good example. It is important because of what I experienced. In my personal development, I was intensely shy. Through the Pioneer leaders at school I realised I didn’t have to follow the crowd and things I wasn’t comfortable with. Their good example was good for my own self-esteem. They saw the good in everybody in the class and Pioneer group. As a shy person, I have a lot to thank them for in seeing the best in others and me. Those positions of responsibility given to me in school helped me develop my confidence. I went from being shy to speaking at a seminar for 1500 young people in Galway and then onto the Connaught and National Youth Committees – things I would never had the got involved in without their encouragement. I was never comfortable in the drinking lifestyle and here was an alternative that would make me happy.
I know it’s not the case of ‘which came first’, but in terms of your own spirituality did the Pioneers introduce or rather facilitate spirituality in your early years?
I was always quite spiritual and the Pioneer Association was one way of expressing it. Later I got involved in other things like the Tuam Diocesan Youth Council. The Pioneers also helped develop my spirituality. I remember as a younger person I liked to stick to the letter of the law.
Lets move away from the Pioneer questions for a moment. Can you give us an insight into one of you’re other main interests – the Irish language.
Yes I went to college in NUI Galway and received a Degree in Irish and Archaeology. Then I did a Postgraduate Dipolma in Translation Studies and later a Masters in Irish. I am self-employed, working with Mayo County Council as a translator. I’m encouraged by number of Gael Scoileanna which are fundamental to the survival of the language. Young people are becoming comfortable speaking Irish, quite different to experience of our parents who had 'Peig' knocked into them. I’m hopeful, and while Gaeltachs may be becoming more dilute, little ones are growing in cities. The legislation that public bodies must provide services in Irish is being challenged with studies showing that its effectiveness is in doubt and public bodies flout the laws in this regard also. There is a big change coming for the Irish language.
At 26 years-of-age, you have spent your most formative years in the midst of the Celtic Tiger. How do you view this time and where to for Ireland from here?
Well, we lost run of ourselves, there’s no doubt. There was no problem getting wealthy, but we lost many of our core values; we got lost in materialism. From here, I hope that we get a revival in community spirit, down to the basics of caring for neighbours and volunteerism.
Now, I hate to see austerity and people have difficulties and, as a society, we need to help and support each other. Unfortunately, I now have as many friends in Asia and Australia as at home. I count myself lucky that I have a job.
As a young person actively involved in the Church today, how do you view things?
The Church is in a time of transition. If you take away what is in the media, and that not to hide, deny or diminish the hurt that has been caused, there is a lot of good and positive work going on. The Tuam Diocesan Youth Council now has clusters of youth councils and there are great experiences to be had through these, meeting other young people at youth Masses, retreats and pilgrimages. I was at the World Youth Day last year in Madrid – you don't feel at all isolated at it, standing in airfield with two million plus in prayer to hear and see the Pope. Change is important and we must keep informed of what is happening, keeping and eye on what is happening at the ground on a local basis, as well nationally and internationally.
A stand-out experience for me has to be the two World Youth Days in Köln and Madrid. There, you were so far removed from the controversy that you had the opportunity of a pure experience of faith, love, joy, the atmosphere of a festival but with joy and love – joy in Christ, views of how other cultures express themselves, a whole world together. We can have the experiences at home, the chaplaincy at college, youth Masses and retreats will refresh and restore your faith. Focus on the good and you will see the good. We also need to support our priests; it’s nice for them to see young people climbing the reek of Croagh Patrick and expressing their faith in public – to show good example, as I mentioned earlier.
You spoke about the World Youth Day – I would be negligent in my role as interviewer if I failed to ask what other fringe benefits arose out of the experience?
I got a boyfriend! Paul Murphy, a good Irish name, but he is from Scotland. We met at WYD in Madrid last year, his first time attending, and my second. We met on the street prior to the Pope arriving one morning. These three Scots arrived and, seeing we were Irish, started singing the Fields of Athenry, and a bit of a sing-song developed. The rest, as they say, is history. He knew very little of the Pioneers prior to us meeting. He might have heard of a Lenten Pledge and possibly knew of a neighbour that was a Pioneer. He drinks little or nothing really and is strongly considering becoming a Pioneer. He came to National Pioneer Ball in Sligo earlier this year. He loved the night and really got on with people and he was struck to see the friendships and camaraderie. He could see how important the getting together was. A unique experience and he’ll be back next year for it, a good few times in between! Minus the network of events and friends, his consideration to become a Pioneer taken more based on the spiritual ethos and an appreciation the merits of the Association.
I have heard you speak of many times your completion of the Camino de Santiago. What stood out for you in this experience?
I did the Camino in 2009. Thirty-three days, starting at the foothills of the Pyrenees at a place called St Jean Pied du Port, a 800km/500miles walk to Santiago. I was struck by the amount of sharing. People had great belief in the Camino and it was certainly a pilgrimage for me, though not for everyone. However, people were taken by an unavoidable spirituality, a belief that the Camino or God would provide. You can only carry 10kilos on your back so if you were short of something someone would help, whether you needed a Physiotherapist or a pair of sandals. I had the experience of meeting villagers who shared food with strangers – such humility, openness and goodness in a way you don’t find in every day life. If everyone did the Camino and brought this back the world would be much the better. It’s very, very special.
Before we finish up can I ask you about your current role in the Pioneers, as I know people are keeping a keen eye on your work at the moment.
I am Chairperson of the Pioneer National Youth Committee, my second year in this position. I also chair the Renewed Action and Youth project. This project is working towards the full and successful implementation of the Pioneer Child Safeguarding Policy – steps we need to achieve if we are to return as an organisation to working with children/ teenagers. It is a work in progress but one I and the whole team are desperate to complete.
These are two significant roles with lots of responsibility – do you enjoy your positions and what in particular makes it worthwhile?
I love talking and meeting people through these roles. To meet such enthusiasm, people really want to see a place in the Pioneers for children and teenagers. Our job now is to channel this eagerness into something productive. I particularly enjoy working with an older body of people in the Pioneers. I respect their experience and knowledge; they are invaluable to the organisation. Listening to the stories, great craic and witticism – it is an asset of the Pioneers and such a positive message to society that people can work hard and enjoy each others company so much irrespective of age. The Pioneers are such a large organisation full of different interests and perspectives. I think we need to find and build on that mutual ground of spiritual and socialising, particularly to build spirituality into the social. What is needed for young people are friendships, peer-to-peer support. The spiritual basis as to why they should take the pledge is a seed to let grow and develop into lifelong membership. Though it strikes me that there is nothing in the pledge that says you have to be active or organise. All you have to do is take the pledge, wear the pin and say prayer. All else is really above and beyond our initial promise and is a bonus.