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The Meaning is in the Shadows

Author(s): Fr. Peter McVerry

ISBN13: 9781853907319

ISBN10: 1853907316

Publisher: Veritas (15 Nov 2003)

Extent: 224 pages

Binding: Paperback

Size: 20.6 x 13.8 x 1.6 cm

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  • In 1974, as a newly ordained priest, Fr Peter McVerry SJ chose to live and work in the Inner City with a small group of other Jesuits. He began working with young people who had dropped out of school, were involved in crime, living in dysfunctional families and on a straight road to prison. To a young priest from a middle class background, the experience was a complete culture shock. It challenged his attitudes, revealed to himself his prejudices, opened his eyes to what is happening in our very divided society and called into question his understanding of God. A ministry intended to last a few years became a life-long commitment.
    This book contains his reflections on these experiences. He reflects critically on the structures and systems in our society which push people to the margins and ensure that they remain there. Issues affecting prisoners, school drop-outs, drug users and homeless people are discussed in a way that challenges and provokes. He also questions the structures which affect the lives of those on the margins and makes specific suggestions for change.

  • Fr. Peter McVerry


    Peter McVerry is a Jesuit priest who has spend many years helping the homeless. In 1979 he set up a hostel for homeless boys. Four years later he established the Arrupe Society to provide accommodation for over 16s. His campaigning for and involvement with troubled young people has made him one of the most prophetic voices of Catholic Ireland.


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    The meaning is in the shadows is a collection of writings spanning the career of well-known social campaigner Peter McVerry. In 1974, as a newly-ordained Jesuit priest, Fr McVerry chose to live and work in the inner city with a small group from his order. He began working with young people from severely disadvantaged families and communities. Many had dropped out of school, were involved in crime and on a straight road to prison. To a young priest from a middle-class background the experience was a comple culture shock. It challenged his attitudes, revealed his own prejudices, opened his eyes to what is happening in our very divided society, and called into question his understanding of God. A ministry intended to last a few years became a life-long commitment.

    This book contains his reflections on these experiences. He reflects critically on the structures and systems in our society which push people to the margins and ensure that they remain there. Issues affecting prisoners, school drop-outs, drug users and homeless people are discussed in a way that challenges and provokes. He questions the structures that affect the lives of those on the margins and makes radical suggestions for change.

    - Irish Catholic

  • Chapter 1: The bad old days are here to stay
    My life totally changed on September 11th. On September 11th, 1974, that is. On that day, I went with two other Jesuits to live in a flat in a tenement building in Summerhill, in the north inner city of Dublin.

    Why did we go there? We werent at all sure , it just seemed like a good idea at the time. In those years, the middle of the 1970s, the Jesuits were trying to rediscover their roots and their mission, and that new understanding was being expressed in the phrase the service of the faith and the promotion of justice. As part of that mission, there was an awareness of the need to engage much more with people living on the margins, and this gave rise to an emphasis on the importance of inserted communities, groups of Jesuits living with those who were poor. In Ireland, as elsewhere, we felt the need to establish this sort of community. It was only later that we really realised why we had gone there.

    For me, the move was an enormous shock. I had no idea of the conditions that existed there. Fortunately, the day we moved in it wasnt raining. When it rained, the rain came through the ceiling. We were some of the lucky ones , it all came together in the middle of the room and dripped down from the light bulb; for others, whole rooms became unusable. And the rats, the place was crawling with rats, rats the size of little kittens, immune to every poison that had ever been invented. Again, we were lucky; our flat was on the top floor of the house. As we lay in bed at night, you could hear the rats, all night long, crawling in the ceiling, fighting one another, squealing, dragging bits of food, sometimes gnawing through the electric wires. But families on the ground floor would often talk about waking up in the morning and finding a rat on the babys cot!

    Worst of all was the soundproofing , there wasnt any. Originally, these houses were each occupied by one family; eight rooms, two on each floor, making a very substantial home for a wealthy family. However, when the inner city began to decline, these families moved out to the suburbs and Dublin Corporation purchased the houses. Each house was made into eight flats. Eight families, some of them with six or eight or ten children, now occupied what was originally one family home. In our flat, we could hear the news on the television in the flat below. You could hear every word of their conversations.

    But it got worse! Because Summerhill was used by Dublin Corporation as a dumping ground for families with problems (although many very fine families also lived there), each house had at least one such problem family. Frequently, the familys problem was drink. Typically, the parents would return from the pub at one or two in the morning and sometimes they would have an almighty row; they would be shouting at one another, cursing, arguing; throwing things at one another which would smash against the wall or fly out through the window; the children could be heard crying. Because of the absence of any soundproofing, these rows kept the other seven families awake. Maybe two or three times a week, every family in the house would be forced to listen to one familys problems for hours on end, always in the early hours of the morning. Sleep was just as scarce as food for many children.

    I was shocked at the conditions in which so many people had to live. But I was also appalled at the realisation that I had lived in Dublin for many years, and for several of those years I had lived less than a quarter of a mile away from Summerhill, and never knew that such conditions existed.

    I grew up in a very privileged family. We lived in Newry, a small town just across the border in Northern Ireland. My father was a doctor, so we were very comfortably off and the social status of a doctor in a small Irish town was extremely high. I went to a fee-paying boarding school, as my father had before me, and the limits of my world were defmed by the people I associated with and the lifestyle I enjoyed. My noviceship with the Jesuits was spent in a large country home set in the middle of a forest. I attended university while living in a castle, no less, in an affluent suburb of Dublin. I studied philosophy and theology living in an enormous building in the most prestigious district of Dublin. I was horrified, therefore, not only at the conditions that I found in Summerhill, but at my total ignorance of this other world that existed only minutes from where I had lived in blissful serenity. I learnt that to live a privileged life, you also had to live a sheltered life. Awareness makes the privileged life too uncomfortable.

    That blissful serenity was disturbed on September 11 th 1974. It was later shattered completely. I soon learnt that the conditions in which people lived were not the main problem. Summerhill was on a main route for motorists coming into the city in the morning, to work or to shop, and then back out again to the suburbs in the evening. Car after car after car passing by these tenement buildings, morning after morning after morning, all as equally ignorant as myself at the life that teemed and struggled behind the communal front door. But what was the message that these motorists unwittingly gave to the residents there? Well, the message that the residents picked up was that they were of no importance, their lives and sorrows and struggles were of no concern, their existence was irrelevant. Every morning, the residents of Summerhill experienced, not just the hardship of life on the margins, but also the indignity of feeling that nobody gave a damn. And every evening, the experience was repeated. The struggle in Summerhill was not just to survive , and some didnt- , but to survive with dignity. Those in Summerhill, like millions in poverty around our world, were the real defenders of human rights as they struggled to affirm their dignity in the face of relentless and persevering opposition.

    After a short while, we realised that one of the urgent unmet needs was that of the children. Most of the children had left school early, some at nine or ten years of age; they were hanging around the streets; they had no money in their pockets so they invariably started robbing; they ended up in jail. Going to jail was, for some, just as inevitable, just as much part of their life, as going to third -level education was for others. I sometimes visited three generations of the same family in prison together , mother and daughter, or father and son, sharing the same prison cell, the grandfather, in deference to his age, having a cell of his own. These were kids with no fear. I watched in horror as children climbed drainpipes to get into their flat on the fourth floor, because their mother was out and they didnt know when she would return. While other children (foolishly) poured petrol on their Halloween bonfire to get a better effect, these kids used a full petrol tank with car attached, oblivious to, or uncaring of, the danger. We began working with the children.

    It was not very long before I was questioning everything I had, for so long, taken for granted. I thought I knew right from wrong. Robbing what belonged to another was wrong; there was little need for any discussion of the issue. But here were kids who could never afford to buy a new pair of jeans robbing a pair from a large department store, which made millions of pounds in profit every year to be distributed amongst the shareholders who were already very comfortably off. I was not able to condemn these kids. What was right and what was wrong?

    They would get arrested for shoplifting or burglary and get a hiding in the garda station. Two crimes would be committed, one a larceny; the other a violent assault on a young person. But the assault was never prosecuted while the larceny was. The kid went to jail for shoplifting, but no-one went to jail for leaving him bruised and sore. The kid was branded a criminal for life, the garda was considered an upstanding, respected member of society. Where was right and wrong?

    Even worse, the garda?¡ are rightly understood to be defenders of society; their role is to ensure the safety and security of that society. So when a garda batters a kid from Summerhill, the kid understands that it is society that is doing it to him. When a garda calls a kid a scumbag, it is society that calls him that. I thought my job was to instil into these young people a respect for society and for the laws of society , now I saw that I was wasting my breath, unless I could first instil into society a respect for these kids. I never understood why someone would maliciously damage public property; smash a telephone, uproot a young, recently planted, tree, smash public lighting , now I understand the alienation that produces such incidents.

    A kid broke into a house and stole a young couples life savings, which they had been putting aside to pay a deposit on a house. The young couple were devastated, their dream of getting out of their unsatisfactory accommodation into a new house was shattered. Of course, what the kid did was wrong and even living in poverty does not make it right. But I thought of land speculators, who, with the support and encouragement of politicians, made vast profits by doing nothing and in the process shattered many a young couples dream of buying their own home. We condemn the kid, but the land speculator is a respected member of society. One broke the law, the other didnt , but in both cases the young couple ended up in the same plight. Who makes the laws, I had to ask myself? Who decides what is right and what is wrong? Certainly not the kid.

    A kid broke into a house while the occupants were out at work and robbed the money that was to buy the food and pay the bills for the rest of the week, until the next payday. The family he had robbed would, as a result, have to go hungry or borrow money to make ends meet. But the kids family lived on a social welfare payment , decided by the Government , which ensured that every week they would go hungry or have to borrow money to make ends meet, money that they could never repay. I wondered why was one wrong, and the other right.

    These kids robbed (before drugs in the 1980s began to dominate their lives) in order to have what the rest of us take for granted , decent clothes, proper food, a nice home, a night out, a few days away. I began to wonder why our society condemns them without also, and equally, condemning the obscene wealth and exorbitant incomes that others in our society enjoy.

    These young people had their own moral code. Robbing Dunnes Stores was OK, robbing an old person was not. You dont rob your own. You rob the rich, you dont rob the poor. Like all of us, they sometimes didnt live up to their own moral code. But they knew right from wrong, only it wasnt the same as my right and wrong. And sometimes they got it wrong , if you own a car or your own house, you must be rich, therefore you can be robbed. But they didnt appreciate that a person may be spending all their wages on a mortgage or a car loan. Perhaps this was outside their range of comprehension, as they could never, in a month of Sundays, get a mortgage or a loan, except from some loan shark who was robbing them with an exorbitant and illegal rate of return, but there was nothing they could do about it.

    These kids saw no other way of living a decent life, except by crime. And for most of them, there was no other way. The jobs on which they, and their parents, and their grandparents, depended were unskilled manual labour, particularly on the docks. But with containerisation, and in the wider economy with increased technology, the need for unskilled labour was rapidly disappearing. Education was not a high priority in that culture; reading and writing were necessary to survive in life (and even writing for many became an obsolete skill through lack of practice) but learning French or calculus or the names of the rivers of Russia (wherever that might be) was going to be of little use on a building site or shovelling grain out of the hold of a boat. And so when education became the only game in town, they were left behind. Crime was all that was left to them. Whole families lived on crime; parents profited from the crimes of their children; children felt valued by their contribution to the family. Real entrepreneurial skills and teamwork were revealed. In icy weather, when cars had difficulty in getting up the hill in Gardiner Street, they would offer to push your car , for a price! Everyone paid , -nobody was going to risk having to abandon their car in Gardiner Street!

    One young lad stood at the pedestrian traffic lights in Summerhill; another was on the rooftop examining the cars that were approaching. When he saw a car with a female occupant and the handbag lying on the front seat, a signal to press the button on the traffic lights was given to the kid below. When the car dutifully stopped, a third young lad, with his face covered, ran out of the flats, broke the window, grabbed the bag and ran back again into the flats, down to the basement which ran continuously along the whole street and provided a perfect escape route. The only identifiable youth, the one at the traffic lights, could not be arrested, as there was no evidence of him being involved in the crime. Later, the three would divide the spoils.

    While crime was an occupation for some, joyriding was an expression of who they were. The playground at the rear of Summerhill taught many a twelve year old how to drive. The kids drove past garda cars in their stolen vehicles and beeped the horn, hoping to get a chase. Starsky and Hutch was the police series that everyone was glued to , it featured, for its day, spectacular police chases. But it paled into dullness compared to looking out the window of the flats in Summerhill.

    And what were they saying, these joyriders? They were saying: Im not nobody, Im somebody. They were trying to convince, first themselves, but also the rest of society. The message they were receiving from society was overwhelmingly the opposite, Youre nobody, youre nothing. And they were screaming back at society: I am somebody. Driving (it had to be stolen cars as they had no other means of driving) was a skill that was highly desired and valued in their own culture, as in the rest of society. Driving at speed gave them a sense of achievement which they rarely otherwise experienced. And it gave them a sense of being somebody. Imagine, night after night, the evening papers devoted whole pages to their exploits earlier in the day; the politicians spent hours discussing them in the Dail; radio and television programmes were talking about them, even interviewing them. How else could they ever have got so much attention? Everyone was talking about them. The fact that everyone else was giving out about them didnt matter, for they didnt care what everyone else thought of them. Indeed, they already knew what everyone else thought about them, which wasnt much! But they were somebody, at least for a while.

    What they were pleading for was to be treated as somebody, without having to rob cars. But their pleas fell on deaf ears, nobody heard them, maybe nobody wanted to hear them. To be valued, to be cared for, to be given opportunities wasnt too much to ask for , but it wasnt given.

    September 11th challenged my understanding of God. God is the one who rejoices in what is right and is crucified by what is wrong. If right and wrong are clear and obvious, then there is no confusion about whose side God is on. But when what is right and what is wrong become confused, then our image of God must change. These children were unjustly deprived of those material resources which God has given to be shared with every human being, their dignity was taken away, they were ignored and unwanted , and this was done to them by those who had authority, respect and sometimes more than their fair share of the earths resources. These kids were doing nothing right, the rest of us were doing nothing wrong. But to believe in a God who identified with the latter and condemned the former became impossible. The kid who robbed or assaulted the elderly (an old man or woman who was made in the image and likeness of God and whose suffering God, in Jesus, identified with) had himself been robbed of his dignity and assaulted by the rest of us , and maybe by his father as well! This kid too had suffered for most of his fourteen or fifteen years. Victim and perpetrator, oppressor and oppressed, the distinction began to blur, the two images kept changing place in a kaleidoscope of movement. Whose side was God on?

    I began to see myself in that kid! I hadnt robbed or assaulted anyone, but my privileged and sheltered background, with loving parents and an excess of opportunities, was maybe more responsible for that than any moral virtue I might possess. I began to wonder, if I had grown up in that kids home, and if he had grown up in mine, would he be the priest coming up to visit me in Mountjoy Prison? And the more I asked myself that question, the clearer the answer became. And the Gospel command: Do not judge and you will not be judged jumped out of the page of the scriptures at me. Indeed, the scriptures took on a whole new meaning in this new context in which I found myself, post September 11th.

    And I discovered a God who is on the side of all who have to suffer, who are unwanted, cast out, robbed of their dignity. These kids, robbers and all, were very close to Gods heart , God surely had a special place for them in Gods Kingdom. And I wondered if I, a respectable, responsible, law-abiding and religious person, who condemned others so easily, would be looking up at them in the Kingdom from the place allocated to me in the basement!

    These kids didnt believe in God, because they couldnt believe in God. They were taught in religion class that to rob was bad, to hurt people was bad, to damage property was bad. And since they did all that, and more, they believed that they were bad. If there was a God, and God knew the truth, then God was looking down at them and thinking Theres a scumbag, I couldnt possibly love him because he is bad, bad, bad. That was the message that society was giving to them all the time and the message was often reinforced by religious teaching and Sunday sermons (which they sometimes attended , there was little else to do on a Sunday morning). And so, they (rightly) concluded that it was intolerable enough to go through life being made to feel that you are unlovable, but the thought of having to go through eternity being made to feel that you are unlovable was too much to bear. And so the Good News for them was that there is no God , death brings an end to the pain that is inside, as well as the pain that is outside. And if these kids, who rejected the God we preached, had, as I came to believe, a very special place in Gods heart, what does that say about our preaching of the Gospel for the last 2,000 years?

    So now, almost thirty years later, what has changed? Well, the people are scattered , exiled to the four corners of Dublin by a deliberate decision of Dublin Corporation. These people are considered undesirable, so lets dilute them amongst the wider population, was the (unspoken, at least in public) thinking of the Corporation. The people themselves didnt want to go , they would have put up with the rats if only they could keep one another. But they had no choice , they were given no choice , their wishes were irrelevant. So they now live in houses with roofs that dont (usually) leak, the rats are (more or less) gone, and their homes are soundproofed against all but the most unholy row. But they still feel that they are on the margins, that nobody cares, that this society has no place for them.

    Joyriding is still a major problem for society, for these kids still have to convince themselves and the rest of us that they are somebody, not nobody They are, some of them, staying on longer in school because they know, from experience, that today you must have at least your Junior Cert. to get the basic unskilled jobs that their parents used to get with no qualifications. It wasnt their choice to stay on in school -they never have a choice about anything , and school wont get them a better job, but they wont get any job without it. Those who rob, rob now to feed their drug habit, to stop themselves feeling sick , no longer to enjoy the lifestyle that we others take for granted. They are now doubly trapped, trapped by the lack of opportunities that this society gives them to earn a decent living, and trapped by their own addiction. Even if this society were to offer them equality of access to education and to opportunities, that, on its own, is no longer enough.

    What did I do for the people of Summerhill? Probably very little. I had little to give them. They, especially the young people, got plenty of my time, they learned a few new skills, they went on a few trips away. All my philosophy and theology was irrelevant to them. They wanted their dignity as human beings to be acknowledged. I hope I was able to acknowledge that.

    What did they do for me? The people of Summerhill changed me, they turned me upside down and inside out. They shattered my illusions and my complacency. They opened my eyes to what is happening in Irish society and to which I had been blind for so long. They helped me to discover a God who is passionate about the suffering of Gods own children. They were Gods call to me to conversion. And for that I am, for ever, grateful to them.
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The Meaning is in the Shadows