Working in the tourism and development sector over the past year has taught me a lot. It has taught me that when dealing with public bodies, everything moves agonisingly, achingly slowly. Patience is a virtue. It has taught me that diplomacy is the greatest untaught skill you’ll ever need, and it has taught me that in the West of Ireland, no-one ever reads emails. But most of all it has reminded me that frequently, good things happen because good people make them happen, and more often than not, in their own time and without payment.
Volunteerism is what makes the world go round in rural Ireland. From festivals to football games, funerals to fun runs, the success of community initiatives depends on people giving up their time, their energy and often their money, to work for free. They give up their time with their kids to go to meetings; they leave the fireside on dark, rainy winter nights to sit in community centres. They dream and aspire and plan and toil to make their communities better places to live. And it’s damn hard work.
Sometimes they don’t get it right. But you know what? At least they’re trying.
Volunteering is a double-edged sword. If you put yourself out there and put your neck above the parapet, you will be recognised and thanked for it. At the same time, you’ll probably be criticised if something goes wrong – usually by the perennial hurlers on the ditch who never lift a finger to contribute themselves. And volunteerism isn’t sunshine, lollipops and rainbows either. Working with a committee with people of differing opinions can be really challenging. There are times when you’ll have blazing rows, you’ll run out of patience and you’ll feel like throwing in the towel. Sometimes you will. But the sense of achievement you’ll get from being part of a successful event, and giving something back to your homeplace will generally far outweigh that – it’s a feel-good factor like no other.
I’ve heard it suggested that sometimes volunteers are only “in it for the glory”, for the ego boost, to make themselves look or feel good. And to that I say – if they are, fair play to them. There are far easier ways to get your ego boosted. And if contributing to your community makes you feel good, I can think of worse drugs to be taking.
Volunteering is a masterclass in compromising, listening and learning. The boss in the day job reminds me occasionally: “Being right is nothing – getting it right is everything”. He’s good with the lines, but there’s truth in it. You might disagree with someone nine times out of ten, but if you can find that 10 per cent of common ground, everyone benefits. Learning to put aside the ego when you’re not getting paid isn’t easy, but speaking for myself, I’ve found it’s good to be reminded now and again that I don’t in fact, know everything and am occasionally wrong about stuff.
One thing that’s struck me since moving back west is the age profile of community volunteers. At every community meeting or event I attend, with a few notable exceptions, the people giving up their time to help out seem to be the people that have been doing so for the past 25 years. Where’s the new blood? Where are the twentysomethings and the thirtysomethings? Many of those who have been active in their community for years are getting tired and jaded, and want to pass the baton on, but are often left standing on the line for the want of a replacement. And that needs to change.
But maybe sometimes, it’s just a simple matter of picking up the phone and asking someone to help, or telling them what you need. Joining a committee or putting yourself out there can be daunting; sometimes a bit of encouragement is all it takes. And at the end of the day, we all like to feel wanted.
The concept of community is continuing to evolve, but increasingly, it feels like we are becoming less integrated and more isolated. But if you live in a community and avail of its facilities, its public spaces, its amenities, you have a responsibility to contribute to that community.
And who knows? You might even enjoy it.
This article was originally published in The Mayo News on 16th August 2016.