Guinness. Wikimedia Commons

A Real Guinness Beer

St Patrick evangelized the island in the 5th century. In 1980, three Italian university students started the first CL community and the challenge, in a moment of economic depression, to set up an English school for foreigners.
Paola Ronconi

If you wet your fingertip with a bit of Guinness beer and hold it out to watch it drip down, you will find that the drop does not fall. The trick works, though, only with the beer in Ireland, maybe in a pub outside the city with Celtic music and a view of the sea; they say it is denser. But really, if you stop to think about it, everything here in Ireland is denser, more intense. From the green of the grass to the fog you can slice with a knife; from “Bloody Sunday” of 1972 to the red of the women’s hair; from the civil war, which by now has very little to do with religion, to the sunsets that seem to last forever. Bland, colorless middle grounds are not possible. Patrick of Armagh must have intuited this himself, when in the fifth century he went all over the island, preaching Christianity. He got to know his people and founded churches, schools, and monasteries, leaving the imprint which gave the country an identity.

Who knows what St Patrick would say today if he observed, sadly, that the proposal of salvation and happiness for which he gave his life has lost a large part of its fascination in Ireland, and has given way to a Christianity made of rules, precepts, and dying customs instead of what once was a living culture. By now, within the space of a decade, starting from a series of scandals within the Irish clergy–scandals that the mass media have shamelessly used for a veritable lynching of the Catholic Church–the “Emerald Isle” has shaken off what has been called a heavy moralizing pall, and with a couple of brilliant economic maneuvers has made up for all the years when it was the caboose of the European train.

The result: in place of the historic pub signs there is Benetton and Habitat, and instead of cows in the back rooms of dairy shops, there are little ethnic restaurants.

And the people’s roots? Maybe they need a new St Patrick.

Special correspondents
In 1978, on the occasion of a university students’ meeting with the Pope in Rome, the Pontifical Secretary of the time, an authentic Irishman, Msgr John Magee, met with Fr Giussani, and conversationally proposed that Giussani send some of “his kids” to Ireland. No sooner said than done: the following year, Guido and Nicola set out from Milan to continue their studies in Dublin. In 1980, they were joined by Mauro, a political science student from Catania. In the city of James Joyce, they led a student’s life: mornings learning English, afternoons studying at University College Dublin.

They began to meet people, and in fact went to live in an apartment with other students from Dublin (“To tell the truth,” Mauro says, “in the beginning, Guido lived in a student dorm, but he organized a pillow fight and was kicked out”). Studying Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and the international relations of Northern Ireland, they came together for School of Community or for the chapel choir of the university, and in this way met other students: Marion, Maria, Robert, and Margaret. Despite the fact that at the time the Irish were convinced that in order to live Christianity truly, it was necessary to take vows (“A somewhat limiting view of Christianity! And today the seminaries are empty,” Mauro declared), after a few months Mauro and Margaret had become a couple. The little community in the capital of Ireland never stopped, thanks also to the presence of other Italian students, but especially of Gerry, who later became a priest in the Fraternity of the Missionaries of San Carlo Borromeo.

Mauro returned to Catania, to fulfill his military duty and receive his university degree. Fr Ciccio, his priest friend in Catania, goaded him: “Where will you and Margaret live, in Italy or in Dublin?” “Oh, Fr Ciccio, we’ve only been together a month!” “So,” Mauro recounts, “I wrote to Fr Giussani, who answered me: ‘Certainly, it would be wonderful if a seed of CL were transplanted into Ireland, merging with the land, except in the clarity and passion for the faith that was there in the past and is not there now.’ This was 1982, but you see, he had already understood what would happen to Irish society a few years later,” to the point that Giussani himself, talking about Ireland, called it paradoxically “a frontier land.”

With an invitation like this, all Mauro could do was pack his bags. “Margaret and I were married in Catania and left for our honeymoon in Dublin.” A honeymoon that has not ended yet.

There are all kinds of schools
In the 1980s in Ireland, there were moments when in some areas youth unemployment reached 70%. Hundreds of thousands emigrated throughout the world, but especially to America, in those years, out of a total population of 5 million. “Meanwhile, we were bucking the tide. I was an Italian with a university degree, looking for work in one of the poorest nations of Europe.” In the beginning, it was hard. “So as not to go mad,” Mauro says, “I did a Master’s degree in Political Science. Then the Bishop of Dublin, Msgr Kevin McNamara, asked Margaret to manage a Center for the Family in the diocese. At least one salary was coming in!” In those years, Italian teachers would organize study vacations in Ireland to learn the language. “Among them, there was a couple, the Biasonis, members of the Movement, who would come regularly from Milan with groups of students. They acted as trailblazers; in fact, some friends later openly proposed to us, “Why don’t you set up an English school?” A funny idea: a Sicilian emigrant in Ireland opening an English school for foreigners. But fate took real advantage of this completely Italian sense of enterprise, because today that school is one of the biggest in Ireland and is recognized by the Department of Education. The seed had been planted, and the fruits would not be only economic ones.

The Emerald Cultural Institute is in a Victorian building in one of the most beautiful residential areas of the city. It is on three immaculately kept floors. In the summer months, when the temperature rises as high as 70°F and there are little patches of sun, the school has up to 2,000 students, both young people and adults. Language lessons in the morning, homework, films, language labs, and field trips to the Aran Isles or Connemara in the afternoon. Some students work in pubs in the evening to pay for their lessons and learn English better. In a little room on the first floor of the school, next to the office where Owen’s brother Lee, Eithne, and Eleonor work, I met Jennifer, a bright girl with a light blond short-crop and blue eyes. She moved about as if she were at home. She’s Irish and works here, I thought to myself. “Are you new here?” she asked in Italian. “But aren’t you from here?” I asked her. “I’m from Florence,” she said, with typical Florentine pronunciation. “I study, and I work in the school lunchroom. I meet a lot of people. Everybody comes through here.” Jennifer was a tornado of ideas; she told me she wanted to organize a party to propose to all the students and teachers at the Emerald Institute: “I and other kids from the Movement have already organized a previous one. Everyone had a good time, they told us, but at the next one we would like to invite them to the School of Community we do each week. We have to make it clear that we are not party planners and that the fascination that they can feel in festive moments is given by an Other.”

The school is like a seaport; the students come from a great many nations. “Can you think of a better place to be on mission?!” Jennifer exclaimed.

Mauro told me that most of the students find hospitality in Dublin families. “We started out by asking our neighbors if they would like to take in foreign students as paying guests. Through the grapevine, we reached about a thousand families, to whom we propose gestures and initiatives. And the encounters–you have no idea how many encounters! For the larger foreign groups, we take over the management of other structures, like schools that would normally be closed in the summer.” One of these belongs to the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. “Years ago, the number of religious was much higher. They lived here and ran the school. Now only a few of them are left, and they are very happy to work with us and to entrust to us some of their structures, like the university dormitory.”

Catechism, songs, and tents
Raffaella, from Brescia, who is close to finishing her degree in languages, came to Dublin to work on her thesis on William Butler Yeats. Besides entire libraries on the Irish poet, she found Owen, an engineering student, who on Friday evenings had a standing date with Mauro and the others. “But after a while,” Owen recounted, “they didn’t come any more because they had ‘something’ to do. One time I asked them if I could do this ‘something’ with them. And now I’m stuck for life!”

In 1990, Raffi and Owen were married. They live just a few steps from the Emerald Institute, in a house like something out of a home decorating magazine. They have four daughters, the little ladies, Sara, Laura, Cristina, and Annalisa. Together with Margaret, Raffi organizes catechism lessons. What about the parish? “You have to understand,” Raffi explained, “that here in Ireland Christianity used to permeate every context. Thus, there was no distinction between the school and the parish, to the point that preparation for the sacraments was the task of all the school teachers. Today, if you’re lucky, you get a teacher who is a practicing Catholic. Otherwise, it is a subject like math, and your children do Communion or Confirmation together with the whole class just like they were doing a history assignment. How sad! This is why we tried to come to the rescue of our children.” These enterprising mothers have asked the parish priest for a room, and weekly they teach their children and classmates who Jesus is, His life, and all the rest. At times there is even a Sunday afternoon spent playing with the children or taking them to see The Capture of Jesus by Caravaggio at the National Gallery in Dublin.

Anyone walking down Grafton Street in downtown Dublin around Christmas would most probably come upon the choir that Raffi has been directing for years now; in December it offers its services for the AVSI fundraising “tents,” while during the rest of the year it sings at Monday Mass in the Rathgar parish church.

Chocolate at the port
Raffi’s husband Owen makes chocolate candy. His factory overlooks the Liffey River, in the port of Dublin, just a few steps away from the industrial building where Bono and his U2 band make their recordings. Owen showed me around the plant, where 200 people work. His handmade chocolates are sold in little elegant shops scattered throughout the city, which bear the company name. “I did School of Community with some of my employees for a while, but it was somewhat uncomfortable for them; I am their boss and they felt like they had to respond to my proposal. It was not a good idea. But since a few months ago, Caterina is on the staff.” She is Italian and came to Dublin to learn English, then stayed to work with these new friends who have changed her life. Owen recounts: “It was not a good idea to propose School of Community to everyone? OK, let’s organize dinners to get to know each other, maybe even get them involved in the life of the Movement. After work hours, it is certainly less ‘demanding.’ Caterina’s co-workers have been pleased. Alan, for example, who is French, said to me a few days later ‘I started praying again a week ago.’” Caterina is not alone in these “feats.” Stefano, too, who is from Milan but married to a girl from Dublin, works in the chocolate factory. “With Caterina’s initiatives, something is starting to happen here in the factory. Take Tano. He is Muslim and can’t understand how we can be such good friends; he is curious. Or our Chinese friend Bob. The first time we met with the others from the factory, he cooked everything. And I assure you that people are surprised at these initiatives. More than one of them has said that Caterina probably does these things because she is happy. That’s saying a lot.” French, Arab, Chinese, not to mention Italian… Until a few years ago, you would not have seen such a variety of ethnic groups on the green island of Ireland. It is the result of the economic boom. “But these people arrive,” Stefano says, “and their first difficulty is with the language. Thus, I had the idea of proposing English lessons to my foreign coworkers, with me, free of charge, after work. I think it’s a good idea.” Starting out from concrete needs, much has grown.

Traveling down a country road for about twenty miles, you come to Naas. We met at Karl and Carmen’s house. She, too, years ago, a “victim” of Mauro’s school, had come to Dublin from Spain to learn English and was living at Lee’s house as an au pair girl. Her husband Karl is the greatest joker in the group, but this doesn’t mean that he is any less serious about life. Due to his long friendship with Owen, he is now in the midst of these friends.

Anna told us about the time in 1993 when Fr Agostino, a priest in the San Carlo Fraternity who lives in Dublin, gave a lesson in the class where she taught religion–a sort of summary of The Religious Sense. Anna was struck by it. “A few weeks later,” she said, “Giorgio Vittadini came here to Dublin for a meeting, and Fr Agostino invited me and my colleagues. I was thunderstruck, and my colleagues scandalized, by how he talked about Christianity. ‘This guy can’t tell us how to be Christians,’ they would argue with me.” Hilda was also one of Anna’s colleagues, or better, one of her friends. “Something happened to her after that encounter,” Hilda told us, speaking of Anna. “She was changed. And when I too started spending time with these people I understood that they were talking about what I had learned in college when I was younger, but with them it became real.” Jimmy and Sean are their respective husbands. They saw their wives come home “changed” and for a while, they just watched. “I thought that if I remained an ‘outside observer’ of my wife’s new behavior,” Jimmy put in, “I wouldn’t risk making a mistake. But, in effect, ‘these Italians’ talked about the Church that I had known as a child but that with the passage of time did not interest me any more.”

There was also Deirdre, the wife of Stefano whom we met at the chocolate factory. She told us her own story: “I worked for more than four years in Milan, as a nurse at San Raffaele Hospital. I met Stefano, who was not in the Movement, as well as people in the Movement. Stefano had put me on my guard, saying, ‘Watch out, it’s a political movement.’ We became engaged and I returned to Ireland. When he joined me, something had happened to him about which I wasn’t quite sure.” In short, while he was working for the Region of Lombardy in the meantime, Stefano had had a chance to get to know that “political movement” better, and in the end it had convinced him, because it was not so political after all.

A people of “travelers”
Don’t think that this is all there is to the CL community in Ireland, because a good percentage of it is currently scattered all over the world. But it doesn’t take much–an e-mail message, a few minutes chatting–to uncover their stories as well: Martin now lives in London, but 14 years ago he read an article in the newsletter of his parish and, struck by the judgment on the Christian reality described in it, he decided to look for its authors, Mauro and Margaret, and since then he has never let go of them. Tom and Alicia–he is Irish from Cork; she is Spanish–met in a hotel in the Irish countryside where Alicia worked and where in 1996 the community held their winter vacation. Now they are married and live in Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands, where Tom works as an engineer.

The Irish community had been greatly anticipating this past November 13th, when the President of the Irish Republic, Mary McAleese, officially participated in the presentation of The Religious Sense in one of the most prestigious hotels in Dublin. Already in 1998, this woman born in Northern Island had visited the exhibition “From the Land to the Peoples” when it was in Dublin, and since then has kept up a friendly and close contact with Margaret.

Clearly, everything here possesses a special density, starting with the Guinness.