Irish summer schools must move with times

It’s Tuesday night and dotted around the bar is an EU commissioner, a former education minister, the secretary general of a government department as well as a scattering of local and national politicians.

But this is not the marble-clad counter of some sumptuous five-star hotel close to Leinster House, instead the location is an isolated village in wildest Donegal.

It’s midnight on the third day of the annual MacGill Summer School in Glenties.

While some say the summer school format is stale, dull and has long served its purpose, it can also be argued that in an age of instant news, push notifications and online updates, such events provide a welcome relief and allow for a broader analysis of society and proper discussion on where exactly we are going as a nation.

Summer schools can revolt against instantaneous, throwaway and reactionary news — they are a holiday for the mind.

The latter is obviously the view pushed by those trying to fill stuffy halls with political junkies and intellectuals in the dead of summer.

“The aim of the summer school is to keep on trying to improve the institutions of the State which leave a lot to be desired,” says MacGill director Joe Mulholland.

“If you look at the incompetence that we are seeing, if you look at the number of tribunals, commissions and so on that we have, there is something wrong with our governance and we are trying to improve our governance.

“It has a lot going for it this country, but it needs to be governed and government needs to be questioned,” he says.

This view is echoed by Noel Whelan, who runs the Kennedy Summer School, which takes place in New Ross, Co Wexford, in September.

“The concept of physically gathering people in a hall might seem out of date but I think summer schools are going to be even stronger in the years to come,” Mr Whelan maintains.

“Now more than ever, when media and debate has to reflect what is happening at that moment, it’s even more important to have a more thematic and broader look at things and to take a longer-term look at things.”

He adds that the summer schools force individuals with polar opposite views to sit down together for up to three hours and thrash issues out — all in front of a questioning audience.

There is no hiding behind tight diary schedules or other engagements, no ducking and diving or dodging questions.

Glenties, the homestead of the ‘Navvy Poet’ Patrick MacGill, is one of those places that is so out of the way that once you get there, it’s difficult to leave.

Although the school attracts a small pool of national journalists to cover the event, the quaint village is about as far away as you can get from Dublin’s frantic media hub of reporters who must feed the Twitter conveyor belt and the constantly hungry online news beast.

Of course journalists still tweet and produce copy, but everything is slowed down and the usual two-minute media briefings with politicians are elongated to two-hour debates.

“Politicians here are questioned and they do respond, politicians like coming here because it gives them a good forum that is orderly,” Mr Mullholland says.

“It provides a once-a-year institution where people can come up here, enjoy Donegal and at the same time express themselves, because so many people can’t express themselves, it gives them a forum.”

Summer schools, such as MacGill, have traditionally lured bookish, civil servant types, looking to still perhaps feel relevant.

They have offered access to political heavy weights and the chance to listen to their opinions at length and question them.

However, this year the line-up — with only two senior ministers and for the first time no appearance from the Taoiseach — was a bit jaded.

A tiresome 12 months in Leinster House and a change of leadership in Fine Gael may have put some off attending this year — next year will certainly decide if the event is waning in relevance.

Over the six days, Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe, Sinn Féin Deputy leader Mary-Lou McDonald, EU Commissioner Julian King and Labour leader Brendan Howlin were the most high-profile speakers.

In between, the sessions were filled with a smattering of academics, and many speakers with the “former” title before their name, such as Ruairí Quinn and Pat Cox.

Perhaps the journey up to the Highlands Hotel aged many, but the audience was decidedly grey — with one man in a sky-blue shirt down the back, taking the opportunity to get in a mid-day siesta.

One diplomat, who has been here on four previous occasions, claims the only difference this year is that at just past midnight “no one is on the floor”.

“I remember coming into the bar and by 10pm everyone would be full of drink,” he regales.

But, those memories probably related to a decade or so ago, when the attendees were also a decade or so younger.

If summer schools are to survive and attract the social media generation then they will have to cobble together juicer line-ups.

But MacGill like many other similar events is run “on a wing and a prayer” and the funding and facilities to go out and attract a new generation simply isn’t there.

Likewise, it takes a huge effort from the local community and organisers to keep going each year, and as Mr Whelan points out, it also is highly reliant on the contacts book of those involved.

But perhaps the grey brigade who make the annual trip up to Glenties are only a small part of a far wider problem — an overall disinterest in politics among the Kardashian generation who are consumed by pop culture.

“Young people aren’t even voting and this is a big problem, this goes way beyond the MacGill summer school, they are not interested, anything that reeks of politics they shy away from,” says Mr Mulholland.

He suggests that different sections of society must now be targeted whether that be young parents, particular trades and professions or age groups.

“The other alternative is to have a school on the future of young people in Ireland, or some such. You certainly could talk about it here in terms of rural Ireland and young people need a lot of help here in rural Ireland, the other problem is that they are gone.”

It’s a long, long way from Dublin to Glenties, it’s an almost impossible trip from Australia or Canada.

Summer schools do provide a breather from the usual political treadmill and if they are working well, they should help influence the direction our country takes and encourage public discourse.

But to survive they must find a way to entice a new generation away from their smartphones.



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