by John Lonergan
Thank you very much for the invitation and honestly it’s a great privilege for me to be invited to speak at this celebration. I can identify so much with what you do and what you stand for and the work you do in terms of helping and supporting those who constantly struggle to cope with their human vulnerability, and that includes most of us.
I’ve been sort of preaching, now I hate using that old word preaching, but I have been saying for many years that all of us as human beings are weak and vulnerable at various times and stages during our lives, which is absolutely true, and like you I’ve never met a perfect human being so far during my life, (laughter) and while I’m still optimistic! (laughter) and I guess that is the starting point because it’s amazing the number of people that would certainly give you the impression that they were as near as could be to perfection.
You know, for example, some of the people who ring the radio phone- ins; just listening to some of them you would be forgiven for saying, ‘My God, that’s the perfect human being’! And I also say to people to be careful about the perceptions they have of others, because our perceptions of others are often quite wrong and very inaccurate. For example, the perception most people have of prisoners is very stereotypical; they’re all seen as baddies, as aggressive and dangerous, they’re all sorts of things, but, of course, they’re not. Indeed, that was one of the first things I learned myself all of forty- four years ago when I went to work in prison and met prisoners for the first time. They were far from the stereotypical people that I personally expected because my perceptions and expectations were very narrow: in a nutshell, my expectation was that all the baddies were in prison and all the goodies were outside. But I soon discovered that there were far more baddies outside than inside, and I’m serious. So what I met originally were mostly social misfits, broken human beings, many broken as a direct result of the tough lives they were forced to live. Many had serious physical disabilities, others suffered from mental illness, many had learning problems and not surprisingly a huge number had major addiction problems. Of course, they had all committed crimes, but few were very dangerous or vicious. Indeed, most of them reminded me more of patients in the old-style county homes than dangerous criminals. And I guess the main point I want to stress is that they were all individuals and the big challenge was, and still is, to remember this at all times.
And then in 1983, when I got to know about the women in the women’s prison, that’s exactly what I found there as well: a lot of sadness, a lot of misfortunes, mostly broken people. And so you won’t be a bit surprised when I tell you that the most used phrase in Mountjoy during my years there, and I’m pretty sure still is today, is ‘Are you listening?’. If you were talking to a prisoner for twenty minutes or so, and if he or she didn’t ask ‘are you listening?’ a hundred times, you’d be saying there’s something wrong. They were always checking to be assured that when they were speaking that they were being heard. And why? Because most of them were never listened to or heard throughout their lives and as a result they never had a voice. So I’m big into listening, and I’m sure that is the very basis and the most fundamental thing you do: listening, non- judgmental listening, which ain’t easy but that’s where real and meaningful human change begins, when people are heard.
I’ve read a lot of Jean Vanier’s writings over the years because he’s one of my heroes, in the sense that he’s given so much of his life, sixty-five years, helping and working with those with the most serious disabilities. And as he himself generously acknowledges, he has learned daily from those with the greatest and most serious of mental and physical disabilities. He has written widely on his experience and accepts that he has learned much of what he knows today from them even though most of them can’t speak. I had the great privilege a couple of years ago in Derry of sharing a weekend and doing some workshops with him, a most wonderful and special man in terms of his insights into human beings. One of the things he said I just want to share with you, because I think it’s so powerful. This is what he said in relation to listening: ‘to listen another person into a condition of disclosure, is the greatest service you can bestow on another human being’ – that is fantastic and who would disagree with him? To listen another human being into a condition of disclosure where the human being feels comfortable and safe to be able to talk about their most inner feelings and difficulties, and that’s what listening is all about. When I talk to parents I’m always saying to them, just listen, listen, the parents who listen are the parents who are fully in tune with their children.
And I want to relate this little story to you because it’s true and it highlights the vital importance of listening. I knew this little fellow when he was fourteen. In 1977 the prison service took over responsibility for children between the ages of twelve and sixteen years, the Department of Education had reneged on its responsibilities and they had failed to look after children between the ages of twelve and sixteen who required secure accommodation and the Prison Service ended up taking care of them for a number of years in the late 1970s. Some of you will remember the Bugsy Malones, as they were called in Dublin. Now the media at that time had led people to believe there that were thousands of young boys running around Dublin out of control. It transpired later that in fact the maximum number was less than thirty. They were wild and out of control because they knew nothing could happen and that there were no consequences in response to their wild behavior. And as you know, there are usually serious consequences when young people feel there are no barriers, no controls at all, and so they just ran amuck for a number of years and eventually the Irish Prison Service took over responsibility for them.
I was up in Loughan House in Co. Cavan for the first two years of this project and this little fellow who was fourteen years old at the time arrived. He came from a family with a tragic background in terms of it being totally dysfunctional. His mother was constantly in and out of Grangegorman mental hospital and other hospitals and his father was a resident in Mountjoy during most of his adult life, and they had nine children and all of them had difficulties throughout their lives. And this little fellow was in the middle of the family and he was only fourteen, and he ended up in Loughan House in 1978. He had serious psychiatric difficulties and later in life he committed some very serious crimes and he continued to be in and out of prison all his life until he committed suicide in Loughrea about five years ago; he just threw himself under a passing car. But what I wanted to share with you was that he used to regularly ask to see me when I was governor of Mountjoy Prison. Over many years in Mountjoy he’d send up word, ‘I want to see Governor Lonergan’, and because I knew him so well and for so long I always went to see him. He was in an area of the prison known as the ‘B’ basement, which was underneath the main block of the prison. He always came in and sat down in a chair in the little office and usually the sessions would go on for an hour or so. This particular morning I went down to see him and he was only sitting down a few seconds when he said, ‘Mr. Lonergan, do you mind if I close my eyes today while I’m talking to you because I can think a lot better with my eyes closed’. I was delighted and I said ‘Close your eyes away’. I was thinking, well while you have your eyes closed I can relax. So as he talked my mind started to wander and there was a notice on the wall giving instructions to staff and I started looking over my shoulder reading it. His eyes were still closed and he was still talking and suddenly he said, ‘You’re not listening’ (laughter) and I said, ‘I am listening’. He said, ‘No, you’re not’. That’s the power of listening; even though his eyes were closed, he still knew that my concentration wasn’t on him. And that just tells you what listening is all about.
I honestly believe that you can’t force change on people or force people to change and I learned that in prison, you can’t force change; the only way to achieve real and meaningful change is by agreement and consent. I use the word nurturing a lot. Indeed, it was mentioned already by Sister Stan: I love the word ‘nurturing’ because there’s something powerful about nurturing, there’s something so significant, and profound about nurturing. Nurturing is all about facilitating, supporting, encouraging another human being to reach his or her potential. I always give the example of the little seed that you buy in the shop, a packet of seeds and you bring them home and you stick them into a pot, and you care for them, and eventually they grow and mature into beautiful flowers and still you can’t claim any credit for the flowers, for the colours, or for the beauty of the flowers and still without you there would be no flowers and no beauty. That’s my understanding of nurturing, and that’s why I’m so big into the whole philosophy of nurturing people. And in prison the more successful things were done on that basis, of nurturing people along and encouraging and facilitating but not dictating and you’d be surprised by all the people that believe that they know best and try to force their opinions and solutions on others. I heard a counsellor at a case conference one day make this comment: ‘I can’t get him to accept that he has a problem’, and I said ‘go easy will you’ [laughter], and some of you will identify with that – ‘I can’t get him to accept’. Actually I believe that that whole approach is a total waste of time. No, the great counsellor or therapist will work on the basis that someday the broken person will say, ‘I have a problem, I need help’, and then you’re on the pig’s back; it’s at this stage that you can really help the person.
And I remember a prisoner saying just that at a NA national conference held in Mountjoy a few years back. We had about a hundred people from the outside in at the conference and over one hundred prisoners also attended. During the conference one of the visitors who also happened to be an ex-prisoner went up on stage, stated his first name and announced to the meeting that he was an addict. Now, as many of you know, this is routine procedure at NA meetings. And then he added, ‘And at one time in my life I was also a scumbag’. Of course everybody was shocked, it’s bad enough being called a scumbag but to be saying it about yourself. And then he said, ‘I was a scumbag once because I robbed my Ma, and if you rob your Ma you’re a scumbag’. Naturally he had everybody’s attention at this stage. And then he went on to tell the audience of his situation saying, ‘Five years ago I was in this prison, I was committed for four years to this prison and I was a chronic heroin addict. And there was a tradesman, a maintenance man on the staff in the prison who knew my girlfriend as she used to babysit for him and because of that connection the tradesman used to constantly come to me and say “Listen, you need help”, and I used to mutter under my breath, “yeah I do, get me some heroin”. I got worse and worse and worse and eventually one day I felt so bad that I went to him and I said “I want help”, and he got help for me in the medical unit in Mountjoy, I went through the treatment there, graduated up to Coolmine Drug Treatment Centre. I did two years residential in Coolmine, got drug free, I’m back working now, I’m back with my partner, back with my child, and, if I say so myself, I have a very unique job, I’m an underwater scaffolder by trade, that means I can go down under the water and erect scaffolding, actually I’m one of very few in this country. I just want to say that my recovery all started the day I went to the tradesman and said “I need help”.’
I believe that’s the objective, to help people to the stage where they themselves recognize their reality and once they have reached that point then there’s hope, real hope for the individual and recovery is close. And it can be done and it’s being done and it’s just to say to you, ten years on, the amount of positive and wonderful change that you and your colleagues have facilitated, is absolutely brilliant. And that’s what it is all about.
I have a little bit of a philosophy that I’d like to share with you. Don’t have any expectations of others, just serve and support generously with no expectations. Having no expectations will ensure that once you’ve done your best every day you will go home happy, and you can do no more than your best. Having expectations will always end with discontentment. You know the scene, ‘there’s no thanks in them, they appreciate nothing, do they realise what I’ve done for them’ all that sort of rubbish (laughter) because you’ll never be happy if you have that sort of expectation, all going home disgruntled and even when people say ‘thanks’ you’ll say ‘well they didn’t mean it’ (laughter).
I want to share this little reflection with you. I came across it a number of years ago. I guess it’s a philosophy for those who serve others. I’m sure many of you, if not all of you, will be able to identify with this and it was written by this Chinese guy seven hundred years before Christ, that’s a long time ago. One of the criticisms that I had of the Celtic Tiger era was that a lot of people felt that this was the only era that people were intelligent (laughter); seriously, amazing sort of stuff, all about ego, Mother of God, their egos arrived an hour before them! Believe me it was all that sort of stuff, look how great and intelligent we are now!!! This guy lived seven hundred years before Christ and he put this together. It’s about working with people. It’s about leadership.
“Go to the people. Live with them. Love them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have. But with the best leaders, when the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will say ‘we’ve done this ourselves’.”
I think that’s fantastic. And when your work is done and when the people can stand on their own feet you just disappear. Off to the next challenge. But none of this stuff, not that you’d be doing it any way, but I’m just saying, none of this old stuff, ‘only for me’, ‘only for me he would never have made it’. It’s fantastic when people are supported and helped to regain control of their own lives and if you were there at the crucial stage and provided the nurturing that brought about that recovery, well that’s one of the greatest of all feelings. But in case you might think, I’m sure people will say, ‘but what about gratification and praise and recognition?’ The amazing thing is, you know the more you work by this philosophy the more thanks you are going to get. The difference is that this time the thanks you are going to get is going to be absolutely genuine and heartfelt. Just an example, you know when adults give a sweet to a little child and he takes it and runs off and the adult shouts. ‘Come back, what do you say? Say thanks’. And the little child says, ‘thanks’. Even a better example is when the child does something wrong and the adult tells him to ‘say sorry’ and he mutters ‘sorry’, but, of course, he doesn’t mean a word of it. It’s all about meaningful thanks and genuine regret and that only comes from the heart. The more good you do, the more you will receive. It’s as simple as that. I was on a ‘questions and answers panel’ a few years ago in John of God’s in Stillorgan focusing on mental health services, Sister Stan mentioned it already. As a society we have treated our mentally ill appallingly and there continues to be a serious lack of adequate facilities and resources for our mentally ill. Indeed, as a society we have been absolutely miserable in terms of providing proper support services for those with mental illness. Anyway, the question and answer session was focusing on mental health issues and services. John Bowman was in the chair, but it wasn’t for television, and there were four of us on a panel and towards the end of the evening this elderly, misfortunate-looking woman stood up, put up her hand and John Bowman said, ‘Yes Madam, do you have a question?’. She said, ‘No, I have no question but I want to say something’ and he said, ‘The floor is yours’. Then she addressed one of the panel, Dr. Siobhan Barry, a Consultant Psychiatrist here in Dublin, and she said, ‘Dr. Barry, four years ago you saved my life, I wouldn’t be here tonight were it not for you four years ago and tonight is the first opportunity I have got to say publicly to you thank you’, and she sat down. Could you imagine being Siobhan Barry, in front of three hundred people and this misfortunate woman came all the way to Stillorgan to sit in the audience, simply to stand up and say publicly to Dr Barry, thanks for saving my life four years ago. And she meant every word of it. It came from her heart. And that’s what I mean when I say thanks and appreciation is only meaningful when it’s genuine and comes from the heart. I believe that’s what it’s all about, helping people on their road to recovery, giving generously with no expectations; that’s real service.
A young woman who was a prisoner in Mountjoy Prison a number of years ago contributed to a book called, The Junkyard. Some of you might have read it. If you haven’t read it, it is worth reading because it’s about the life stories of some people who ended up in prison. ’Twas edited by Marsha Hunt, mostly men with only one woman contributing. They were all asked to write a little preamble that meant something to them as a type of introduction to their stories and the young woman wrote her story based on the day that she had her baby adopted; a very sad and fascinating story. By the way, the thing she remembered most about that day was the gold pen that the peace commissioner handed her to sign her name on the adoption forms. She wrote, ‘I never had a gold pen in my hand before and I was hardly able to hold it because I was in such a state that my whole body was shaking and I still can see that gold pen to this day’. But anyway, that’s only a side issue, the main issue was the little preamble that she wrote ‘I alone must do it, but I cannot do it alone’. And I think every single human being should write that down and reflect on it every day – ‘I alone must do it but I cannot do it alone’. And I believe that this applies to every human being no matter who they are. There are times in all our lives when we need somebody to give us a bit of support, a bit of help, a bit of encouragement, especially the days when things are bad. And life is never straightforward. I always say to people if we were asked to draw a graph of our lives in terms of ups and downs, I bet it would be up one day and down the next. I very much doubt if anyone would have a steady and consistent graph line.
I’m sure some of you have read Tuesdays with Morrie, a lovely little book which is all about life just before death. For those who haven’t read it, it’s all about an old professor on his death bed talking to one of his former students, Mitch. When Mitch saw Morrie on television talking about his imminent death Mitch contacted him and visited him every Tuesday until his death. And one Tuesday Morrie spoke to him about death. I know that’s a bit morbid now but this is worth listening to. Mitch asked, ‘What is it like to be on your death bed?’ and in Morrie’s response there are two things I want to share with you and that I found really profound. The first thing he said was ‘what you realize on your death bed is that you regret that you weren’t on your death bed when you were starting out in life (laughter) because’, he said, ‘if you were, you’d have lived your life quite differently’. That takes a bit of reflection but when you think about it you can see the wisdom. If you had all that experience and information at the start of life I bet you would live your life quite differently. I say to people now that there are few pluses in getting old and just in case you were thinking, a few perks, well don’t be rushing it, take your time, enjoy the journey, but there’s a few little benefits and one of them is that as you get older it’s a lot easier to put life itself into perspective, honestly, the things that would be driving you crazy when you were twenty and thirty, sure you’d laugh at them when you are sixty or seventy, as you realize that they don’t really matter at all. But back to Morrie. The other thing that he said which was equally challenging was ‘you realize on your deathbed that it’s not the things that you accumulated in life that are important to you, no, it’s the things that you gave away’. So isn’t it a great consolation to know that when you are on your death bed you couldn’t care less about how many houses you own, or how much you owe AIB Bank (laughter). You’ll be as happy as Larry. Isn’t it fantastic? You won’t be the slightest bit worried about the property you didn’t buy or how many thousand euros you’ve in the bank or any of that aul rubbish, isn’t it great. No, the things you’ll be concerned about are ‘did I do any good? Did I make a difference to anybody? Will anybody miss me?’. The human things are the ones that matter most. And still we give a huge part of our lives accumulating materialistic things and then on our deathbed we couldn’t care less about our wealth or assets, really amazing. And so I suppose it’s about recognising that. I’ve mentioned already about feeling superior to other human beings. If you feel superior or more important than the person you are working with then you’ve lost. Matter of fact the real test is can you sit comfortable with another human being irrespective of his or her social status. And if there’s a secret, that’s it. Can you operate at their level wherever it is and be comfortable there, that’s the challenge, because if you can’t the people concerned will be the first to notice. You won’t pull the wool over their eyes.
I just want to share this with you because it just links into some of the work you do. There was a survey done in Mounjoy Prison a number of years ago by an outside agency to identify some of the needs of the prisoners. One of the questions they asked the prisoners was, ‘if you had a personal crisis in your life in the prison, who would you go to?’ At the time over four hundred and fifty people worked in the prison made up of many different professionals, teachers, probation officers, nurses, doctors, psychologists, prison officers, etc., and there were four chaplains (two of them were nuns, two sisters) and when the results came back the two sisters were the first choice of over 90% of the prisoners. Honestly, all the rest of us weren’t mentioned, most of the prisoners would confide in the nuns. And a follow-up question was ‘why the nuns?’ The two main reasons were: ‘confidentiality’ – ‘if I go to the nuns I know it will be treated with confidentiality’. And in an institution, that is hugely significant and you can appreciate why. And believe it or not, the second reason was, ‘their non-judgmental approach’. You see when the nun was going around the prison and when she called at the cell, for instance, of a man in for murder and she asked, ‘What are you in for?’ she probably never asked him anyway because she probably couldn’t care less, but if she did and he said murder, you see, she’d have just carried on. Imagine if she’d jumped back and said ‘Oh my god’ (laughter). What would the prisoner’s immediate reaction be? Well he would probably say just keep going, keep going. It’s amazing the simple stuff that connects with people and that people respond to.
And I guess I have to mention tonight the huge amount of negativity that is so prevalent in Ireland at this time. God, us Irish are, I suppose, negative by nature and the current recession is just extra oxygen for us (laughter). Seriously, I can remember the few days’ warm weather we got in April this year, the first and second week of April we got five or six lovely days, and, believe it or not, I met several people who said things like ‘Yeah, yeah that’s our summer now, we’ll get no summer’ (laughter). Now this week we have a few warm days and what are they saying? ‘You couldn’t stick the heat’(laughter). Isn’t it astonishing how negative we are as a people. We have created a culture of negativity and it’s dragging everybody down. And while we have economic difficulties at the moment and we have, they’re not disastrous, honestly, I’m pretty certain nobody will die from hunger. Sure most of our problems are around materialistic things, mainly auld money, and money must not be seen as the be all and end all. We have some fantastic gifts and advantages and most wonderful things at the moment, for instance, in terms of technology: transport, roads, food, clothing, health care, education, only to mention a few. And even when young people have to emigrate today, at least they can fly to any part of the world in one day and they can come back in one day. And most of our young people who are emigrating are well- educated this time around, unlike previous generations who had to leave Ireland poorly-educated. People who went in the ’fourty’s and ’sixty’s, it took them weeks to travel to places like America and when they got there they had nothing. And then you go back another one hundred years to the time of the famine; that was real recession, people dying from starvation. Could you imagine people who lived during the famine coming back to Ireland today and being told that ‘We’re in a recession?’ Have you lost the plot? (laughter). But seriously, it’s all relative. And the one thing that I know from my life is that people do not respond to negativity but they do respond to a bit of positivity. I think it was Mark Twain who said that ‘one compliment would keep you going for two months’ just one, six a year (laughter). Seriously, I bet if you ask yourself ‘how often do you get a compliment?’ Well I’ll tell you this, you’ll be criticized far more often, perhaps at the rate of twenty to one. In the prison, one word of praise would light up a prisoner’s life; many were shocked when somebody said, ‘you’re great’. And activities like the creative arts were brilliant at that; I’m a great believer by the way in the creative arts. For instance, the drama projects in Mountjoy were fantastically successful from that end alone because it allowed people to perform, it allowed people to be affirmed, and you’d be really surprised the difference it made to people when they felt respected and appreciated; just simple stuff really. And I also believe that nothing beats a bit of kindness, human kindness, not materialistic kindness, kind words, kind gestures, just kindness. I even go so far as to say, ‘if kindness doesn’t work and get the best out of another human being then nothing will’. Believing in people, that’s also crucial, belief in the person, and being there when the going gets tough, being there for the long haul, the ones who are there for the long haul, they’re the real heroes.
I’m going to finish off with a short reference to Mickey Harte, the county Tyrone football manager. As you know the Harte family are going through a terrible time just now with the trial in Mauritius of the people accused of murdering Michaela. And last year, 2011, they went through a horrible time when Michaela was murdered. But even before his terrible personal tragedy I was a fan of Mickey Hart and it’s not just around his football stuff, it’s his philosophy on life that I admire. When Tyrone won their third all-Ireland Senior Football Championship in 2008, immediately after the final whistle a television reporter ran onto the pitch and stuck a microphone in his face and said, ‘You must be the greatest football strategist ever’, and Mickey Harte instantly dismissed the comment, he said ‘not at all, it’s like this every year at the start of the year, I get a hand of cards’ – meaning the panel of players that he got in Tyrone, and he said, ‘that’s the hand of cards I get every year and I make the best use of those cards’. That was fantastic, first of all, ‘this is what I have and now I’m going to make the best use of them’, no complaining like ‘well it’s a pity I haven’t a bigger mid-fielder and a better full- forward, no, this is what I have and I’ll make the very best out of that hand’. Then he said, ‘We work as a family, we all have a role, we all have a function and we work together on the basis of family’. And then his final comment was the most profound of all, the reporter said to him, ‘But you never seem to get excited, and you never seem to enjoy your success’. Now if you ever observe Mickey Harte, and if you haven’t, you’ll have the opportunity this summer, during matches he will probably be lying up against the sideline wall or just standing still on the sideline, and even if Tyrone are only a point up or a point down, you still won’t see him getting excited. The reporter pressed him by saying, ‘you don’t ever seem to enjoy your success, you don’t appear ever to get excited when Tyrone win’. ‘Ahh,’ he said, ‘I’ll tell you what I enjoy, I enjoy observing the Tyrone supporters enjoying the team’s success’. I think that’s fantastic, ‘it’s not about me, it’s about other people enjoying themselves’. That’s what I call leadership, that’s what giving is all about.
And now I have this little reflection to conclude with. I just think it’s great and very appropriate especially nowadays, it’s not as bad as it was, people rushing around during the Celtic Tiger era, sure we hadn’t time for nothing but ourselves. God people even had to run into the local shop to get the newspapers, ‘Ah I can’t talk, I’m too busy’. If you weren’t busy during the Celtic Tiger, you were frowned upon. Honestly, people didn’t have time for one another, there was no connection. And this little reflection highlights some of the simple things in life that so often pass by without us even noticing. It’s a nice way just to finish off the evening; it’s called The Slow Dance.
THE SLOW DANCE
Have you ever watched children on a merry go ’round? Or listened to the rain fall upon the ground,
Ever followed a butterfly’s erratic flight,
Or gazed at the sun fading in the night. You had better slow down, don’t dance so fast,
Time is short, the music won’t last.
Do you run through each day or just let it pass by
When you are asked ‘how are you?’ do you hear the reply? When the day is done, do you lie in your bed with a hundred chores running through your head? Ever told your child ‘We’ll do it tomorrow’ and in your haste not see their sorrow.
Ever lost touch; let a good friendship die because you haven’t the time to call and say ‘hi’. When you run so fast to get somewhere you miss the fun of getting there.
When you worry and hurry all through your day
You’re like a gift, unopened and thrown away.
John Lonergan is a native of Bansha, Co. Tipperary. He served in the Irish Prison Service for over forty-two years. He was Governor of Mountjoy Prison for over twenty-two years and Governor of the top security prison at Portlaoise for four years. He retired in June 2010 and later that year his autobiography, The Governor, was published. His philosophy is that change, personal or otherwise, cannot be enforced on people, and he believes that real and meaningful change only comes about through dialogue, consent and agreement. He is convinced that people change from the inside out. He suggests that the big task for all of us as human beings is to find the humanity in others and then to nurture it. He argues that the more we are in touch with our own humanity the more likely we all are to treat others with humanity.