A brave and fictional boy matters a lot more than an intellectual giant

I was going to write 1,200 words about Richard Dawkins, a man whose behaviour incensed me beyond words last week. The more I thought about it, the more I thought he wasn’t worth it. Instead, I want to write about Joe Kavanagh.

You’ve never heard about Joe Kavanagh – at least, not the one I mean. But if there’s any justice – and if you’ve any sense — you’re going to. In half an hour last week, Joe taught me an awful lot about resilience. How important it is, where it comes from, and how you sustain it in the face of big odds. In the process, he had me laughing out loud one minute, and suppressing a tear the next.

That’s a remarkable achievement. Especially since he’s only a boy. And even more especially, since he’s only a fictional boy.

So I’ll come back to Joe Kavanagh in a minute. But I have to say something about Dawkins.

The other day, Dawkins, one of the giant intellects of our day, recommended to one of his million followers on Twitter that if she was pregnant with a child with Down Syndrome she should abort it and try again, on the basis that it would be immoral to bring the child into the world if she had the choice. In a later tweet he said he obviously wasn’t telling her what to do (he clearly was), merely saying what he would do (he clearly wasn’t).

You often really discover the arrogance when someone intellectually arrogant apologises. Dawkins “apologised” on his own website by doing two things. First, he said the fault was Twitter’s. The 140 characters you’re allowed meant that he couldn’t say what he really meant. So he set out what he really meant, as follows:

“Obviously the choice would be yours. For what it’s worth, my own choice would be to abort the Down fetus and, assuming you want a baby at all, try again. Given a free choice of having an early abortion or deliberately bringing a Down child into the world, I think the moral and sensible choice would be to abort.”

There was more – that first bit, incidentally, is no more than a tweet and a half. So, by way of apologising, he repeats the essential point – the moral thing to do is to abort a child with Down syndrome before birth.

Dawkins insists on logic, always. The logic of his position is that it is immoral to knowingly allow a child with Down syndrome to be born.

The second thing Dawkins did in his “apology” was to classify everyone who had disagreed with him as a “hater”, an interesting choice of words for someone who claims to value open discourse. As it happens, I had been asked my opinion on what Dawkins said, and I had offered the view that anyone who believes that every child with Down Syndrome should be aborted believes in eugenics – like Adolf Hitler did.

The Oxford Dictionary describes eugenics as the science of improving the human population by controlled breeding for desirable inherited characteristics. So maybe, by that definition, I’m wrong. Hitler, after all, promoted eugenics to try to improve the Aryan race. But he used the gas chambers to remove all elements he considered undesirable.

If you believe, if you really believe, that there is a class of person who should “morally” be killed before birth, I don’t know where you stop. If you’re as intellectually superior as Richard Dawkins, that might be an easy question. But I have to say it will be a long time before I take any advice from him as to what’s moral or not.

Joe Kavanagh, on the other hand, can advise me any time. But first I have to declare an interest.

Joe Kavanagh is the central character in a new play called Joe Prop. The play started life as a sketch, one of series in a fundraiser for Barnardos called “Under My Bed”. It had such an effect on the audience that its creator Gemma Doorley, and the actor who brought Joe to life, Maclean Burke, decided to expand it into a two-act play.

I saw a “sneak preview” of about half of the play in the Axis Theatre in Ballymun the other day, and I can’t wait to see it all. It’s brilliantly directed by Karl Shiels, and the story is based on truth.

It’s about a boy. A boy who puts on a lot of weight because of medication after surgery, and is bullied as a result. A boy who loves his dad, who is also a figure of fun in the eyes of some. A lonely, sometimes frightened boy.

But he’s also a boy with a dream. His ambition is to be “Joe Prop” – the greatest front-row forward who has ever played for Ireland.

If you’re a fan of Fair City – and who isn’t – you’ll know Maclean Burke. He plays Damien. He seems too big to play a frightened boy in a play, but the minute you see him you believe in Joe. He’ll make you laugh and cry, and he’ll keep you on the edge of your seat throughout the play.

I don’t even know if Gemma Doorley knows how good a playwright she is. She wanted to tell a simple story, and in the process has written a powerful, funny and moving play about resilience and where it comes from.If you live in a world where adversity is a big part of your life – and a lot of kids do – resilience is one of the most important gifts you can be given. It’s the ability to bounce back, to deal with the bad things life throws up. And the funny thing about resilience is that it can’t be taught. It can be developed – and it can be crushed.

One of the academics who has written most often about this subject, Professor Robbie Gilligan of Trinity College, wrote once that “children may be able to cope with one or two fairly serious adversities in their lives, but as the number of adversities raises to three, four or beyond, youngsters may begin to buckle under the strain.”

But he also said that “a single experience or episode — perhaps the impact of a sports coach in a summer coaching scheme, or of a short-term foster carer who opens up new self-belief, or a teacher who in one year lays a foundation of confidence — can be a turning point”.

That’s what happens to Joe in this play. But if you want to know more, you’ll have to go and see it. The play is shortly beginning a sort of “out-of-town” tour (all details on www.joeprop.com!) before the opening night in Dublin. I think you’ll be inspired if you get a chance to see it.

More to the point, perhaps, I think you might discover some of the stuff that really matters – the importance of self-esteem, the value of having a dream, that impact that someone who believes in you can have on your life. And you might even conclude that the simple truth of Joe Prop matters a lot more than the self-regard of a great and preening intellectual.

Joe taught me an awful lot about resilience. How important it is ... and how you can sustain it ...

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