A model for living the faith: Father McDyer and alleviating poverty in Glencolmcille

Christians get a bum rap these days as being bigoted and small minded. Perhaps it’s because some high-profile people who claim to follow Christ behave that way. Perhaps it’s because many people experienced a rule-based, condemning Christianity as children.

Glencolmcille. Imagery © 2016 Data SIO, NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO Landsat. Map data © 2016 Google.

But most Christians I know go quietly about their faith. The ones who live it out are involved in the lives of others, especially others in need. That’s what our faith is supposed to be: simply but actively passing along to others the love God has for them.

When Father James McDyer was assigned in 1951 to the remote Irish parish at Glencolmcille (Glen-column-keel) in western County Donegal, he found a people isolated and in poverty. Little paid employment was available. There was no industry, no electricity, no running water, and hardly a paved road. The rural people of Glencolmcille scratched out whatever bleak livings they could.

McDyer, born 1910, grew up in County Donegal. He knew this life. He saw many of his neighbors emigrate out of Ireland looking for better lives. It was part of a great outmigration; scores left Ireland in the early and middle 20th century.

Glencolmcille Folk Village

The folk village at Glencolmcille shows the conditions the people lived in when McDyer arrived. These thatched-roof huts, some original and some replicas, contain furniture and home goods typical of 1950s rural Ireland.

Glencolmcille Folk Village

To an American, “1950s” calls up images of suburban ranch houses and station wagons, televisions and refrigerators, freeways and skyscrapers.

Glencolmcille Folk Village

These simple dwellings and plain possessions are more in line with an American concept of the frontier eighteen fifties.

Glencolmcille Folk Village

McDyer set to work improving the peoples’ condition.

Irish farm life was largely confined to the family. McDyer saw that bringing people together, under common causes and in support of each other, was the key first step. He led them in building a community center, which volunteer labor completed in 1953.

He then worked to electrify Glencolmcille. He spent many of his days traveling, speaking to government officials to move his goal forward. Here he met stiff challenges, as the Irish government was heavily focused on attracting multinational corporations as the way to bring Ireland out of economic depression. This left no resources for rural areas. He was not above manipulating the system to meet his ends, and meet them he did, as electricity came to Glencolmcille in 1954.

McDyer also worked to create a municipal water supply and to pave the roads leading to Glencolmcille. In the early 1960s he spurred the creation of local industry in the form of industrial and agricultural cooperatives that processed vegetables and fish and created knitted goods. Finally in 1967, recognizing that tourism should be a vital part of Glencolmcille’s diverse economic portfolio, he led the creation of the Glencolmcille Folk Village.

Glencolmcille Folk Village

The Folk Village continues today as a tourist attraction. For a few euros, you can tour the impeccably maintained huts.

Glencolmcille Folk Village

One hut is a school. Pupils here wrote on slates until the early 1960s, when inkwells finally arrived. By this time, of course, American schoolchildren were moving away from fountain pens to ball-point pens.

Glencolmcille Folk Village

One hut is a typical home, another is set up as Father McDyer’s home and contains his personal possessions, and yet another is a general store and tiny pub. Together, they are a microcosm of centuries of rural Irish life.

Glencolmcille Folk Village

Before and after McDyer brought such life-changing improvements to Glencolmcille, the people certainly enjoyed a beautiful place to live.

Glencolmcille Folk Village

Hills and cliffs overlook the coast with its beaches. A horseshoe-shaped lagoon empties into the Atlantic Ocean. But surrounding natural beauty doesn’t feed families. McDyer’s efforts lifted Glencolmcille’s families out of abject poverty.

Glencolmcille Folk Village

James McDyer died in his sleep in 1987, leaving behind a region much improved, a people in much better condition.

This, then, is what a Christian, what Christianity, is supposed to do: seek the marginalized and help them improve their condition — and through this, help them meet and know God. Such gifts are not often given in this world. That these gifts are attached to a person doing God’s work, that they ultimately come from God, is what attracts people to the faith. It is the experience of God’s love and gifts on earth, and it is compelling.

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10 responses to “A model for living the faith: Father McDyer and alleviating poverty in Glencolmcille”

  1. Terry Avatar

    Thank you for this today Jim.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m glad it spoke to you today.

  2. DougD Avatar

    Thanks Jim, that’s what it’s about.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks Doug!

  3. Tom Grey Avatar
    Tom Grey

    Very nice Jim, I enjoyed it.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks Tom!

  4. liam Avatar

    I wrote the biography of Father James McDyer, it is available from Lulu on download or in book form. He always called himself an activist and wanted to awaken the latent spirit of self-help in the community – an ideal that was fast being overcome by help yourself and to hell with the rest. Early Christians were commited to communal charity and cooperation and he wanted to go back to the old Gaelic way of the Meitheal.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks for writing, Liam. Thank heaven for men like McDyer, who came and made a difference.

  5. Patrick Gillespie Avatar
    Patrick Gillespie

    What a privilege of being in Glen in the days of Father James Mc Dyer. There was never a dull moment in the valleys when James hit town. A man with a mysterious ability to dream beyond the boundaries and hills that surrounded this unique hidden gem. Who will ever forget his driving and his personality he only knew one speed and that was fast. His ability to relate to the people removing the priestly attire and picking up a spade or a shovel and immersing himself in the people. He was a man before his time. But, he also knew that this quaint village would be left behind if someone did not stand at the gates and call out to the politicians that these people can no longer be the forgotten people. A story is told when James was working in developing a new football ground in the midst of sand dunes a visitor arrived to find out about this priest. James took on the role of speaking on behalf of the people. He was dressed like his workmates no room for his priestly garb. Here he was shoveling sand into a wheelbarrow. James never revealed who he was and neither did his team of workers. So James shared with this news reporter about this inspirational James Mc Dyer was to the community and the changes he brought about. Worth reading Mc Ginleys book on this incredible and inspirational man. His legacy liberated the people and today his life still speaks as his words are echoed in the many developments in his time; There are still those words who were left unfulfilled are still waiting to be birthed by the people he invested his life.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      How truly wonderful that you knew the man! He sounds like quite a character, and an easy fellow to like and admire. Thank you so much for sharing your memories of him!

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