I will arise and go now and go to Inisfree
And a small cabin build there of clay and wattles made
Nine bean rows will I have there adn a hive for the honey bee
And live alone in the bee loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there for peace comes dropping slow
Dropping from the vales of the morning to where the cricket sings
There midnights’ all a glimmer and noon a purple glow
And evening full of the linnet’s wings
I will arise and go now for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore
As I stand on the roadway or on the pavement grey
I hear it now in my deep heart core
W.B.Yeats created two wonderfully opposing images in his well known poem – The Lake Isle of Inisfree, the idyllic sting-free “bee loud glade”, and the emigrant standing lonely “on the pavement grey”. The former image, built around the iconic island that made a perfect John Hines postcard that was framed worldwide by those distant from the beauties of Sligo, was a brave call to return to an economically impoverished Celtic dream that was the fledgling Irish state back then. The pavement landscape of the dreamer was the real consequence of the lack of opportunities, and the pavement was thronged with other realistic dreamers.
Today we are faced with a return to that scenario. We showed that we could climb high and we have taken a heavy fall. Unemployment is at record levels, as are debts, both public and private. Wholesale restructuring of society is ongoing silently, as pensions that were to allow for a pleasant, but not excessive, retirement have been washed out with no sign that a new tide will make them flush again. Children of the generation that made the transition to a wealthy Ireland, who previously would spurn a decent job, now despair at the lack of opportunities. To go on is to enter into competition with the genuinely anguished voices that speak from the heart and with anger on the Joe Duffy programme.
I came back to Ireland in 2007 after a ping pong of movements during my life that took me from Sligo to Galway, Leicester to Madison Wisconsin, Strasbourg France, to Galway, and Heidelberg Germany to Dublin. A lot of boxes packed and unpacked and new rhythms established. The return to Ireland was to be my Lake Isle of Inisfree moment. I arose and went there. It carried with it the promise of re-integrating (after 13 years) into the new and improved Ireland, the possibility to contribute to the next phase of the Irish economic miracle by facilitating, through my position in Science Foundation Ireland, the upward transformation of industry in Ireland, and the chance to go to Croke Park, Inchicore (or wherever Sligo Rovers were playing in Dublin), the RDS, and now Aviva for Rugby, the Gate and the Abbey for the plays, and the Concert Hall and O2 for concerts. Add in the real pleasure of frequent (not fleeting) times with family and friends and the new phase seemed as idyllic as the slow-dropping peace of Yeats’ seductive poem. The truth is that all of these briongloids quickly became realities.
But there were other realities that intruded into my green tinted view of the world. First, the economic crisis impacted the main professional reason for returning. Inevitably the projected funding curve for SFI, as outlined in the programme for 2006-2013, was abandoned and the maintenance of the funding level attained by 2008 was not possible in the 2009 budget. Few in Ireland wept about this, particularly when put into balance against providing a decent level of healthcare etc. But (figuratively), I did. This was not because of losing out in the games associated with budget retention, but because the original plan for Science, Technology and Innovation was the right one, and perhaps, the only one for Ireland’s future if we want to avoid becoming a low income economy. Happily it has been announced that 2011 will mean a return to the funding level of 2008 and SFI can get on with the job of providing the skill and ideas base for the future Irish economy. The fact that there was a cut in 2009 and 2010 and a deviation from the master plan as early as 2008 was perhaps inevitable and it could have been worse. But it is troubling that investment in Research, Development and Innovation also became a sneer target for some of those given direct and indirect responsibility for Ireland’s finances. I have written about the need to believe in the return on investment in science – view here. Even in these difficult days, the fact that the red pen was spared and an increase was given to SFI means that a lot of courage was shown by some with real influence. They will be needed in the future also if the investmetnt to date is to deliver even more than it has done to date.
The economic down-turn has also made the previously noble phrase ‘public servant’ into a label of deceit. A damaging campaign has been carried out in the media, and now echoed and amplified by the general public to villanise all who are paid by the state and, in the process, to drive a wedge into society generally. Teachers, nurses, Gardai, civil servants and people like myself who have come from outside, now find themselves in conversations where their friends and family take it for granted that we are all merely a drain on the real society.
In the last months the collective anger has driven the country to a potentially, self-destroying phase. We do begrudgary better than anybody else and we are awarding ourselves Olympic medals in it at present. But like some earlier such Irish medals, there will be an aftertaste when reality breaks through the roars of gloating over enemies slain.
In the midst of this phase where the roof of the ‘cabin of clay and whattles made’ was leaking and there were weeds overgrowing the undernourished ‘nine bean rows’, I was contacted and opportunities were presented. Apart from awaking me more personally to the doom laden atmosphere in Ireland, these contacts aroused an analysis of some of the downsides of my move to Ireland that I had tried to ignore. These included the ending of a research career that I had maintained at a good level in all previous positions prior to my return to where I thought “peace would come dropping slow” and some personal aspects that don’t need airing. The offer to become the CEO and Director of the Queensland Institute of Medical Research (QIMR) in Brisbane corrected these deficits and added the opportunity / challenge to be involved in a top research institute (largest in Australia and top quality also) at a time when translational research is beginning to deliver, on its long standing promise, to move research into clinical practice.
So, “I will arise and go” in January. Once more, there are many things lost in the move and it is tinged with sadness. Memories are great when on the “pavement grey”, but living and breathing the great things in Ireland is better. In addition to the joys I have had culturally, being with friends and family, cheering teams to victory and even being recognised when I returned to a coffee shop, there has been the fantastic professionalism, camaraderie and commitment of the SFI team and the pleasure of seeing the great progress that has been made in Irish research with consequences. I know that this is not my last move and that I will be back again in a few years time. By then, I hope that the sun will be shining here again, the states books balanced, and evenings full of the linnets wings.