Longford GOAL activist Tiernan Dolan reflects on three decades working in some of poorest parts of the world
Tiernan Dolan is one of Longford’s most well known personalities. He has been a GOALie for the last 30 years, taught at St Mel’s College for nearly 40 years, is an intrepid photographer and in most recent times, the man behind Humans of Longford. He is also one of Longford Town FC’s biggest fans!
His experiences on the ground in places like Rwanda, Sri Lanka and Africa has encouraged huge support for GOAL here in Longford and while he says he has gained a deep appreciation for his own life, he knows now that greed is at the root of all the world’s problems.
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“I have been involved with GOAL for over 30 years,” he says in conversation with the Leader.
The organisation was established by John O’Shea and initially Tiernan volunteered to go overseas with him and take photographs in an effort to promote GOAL’s work.
“I was into photography and I thought at that time that the organisation could use the publicity,” he adds, before pointing out that from the get go he found himself committed to the cause.
“GOAL was formed by a group of young people who wanted to change the world.
“They were incredibly motivated and that impressed me greatly.”
His first overseas trip took place in 1993 and saw him arrive in South Sudan where a civil war was taking place.
“John O’Shea said to me at the time that I may be about to open a door that I would be unable to close, and now looking back on it all here at the end of 2018, I’d say that door has blown off its hinges!,” he laughs.
“The experience with GOAL over the last 30 years has opened my eyes and has changed my outlook on life greatly.”
During his many trips over the years it is true to say that Tiernan has seen more than most.
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“In 1994 I travelled to Rwanda and that was beyond the beyond when it came to savagery, barbarism and man’s inhumanity to man,” he recalls.
“At the time it was one of the biggest missions ever faced by GOAL.
“The other side of that of course was the unbelievable team of aid workers who were there putting their lives on the line to help their fellow human beings.
“A huge amount of those people were from GOAL, but there was also aid workers from Trocaire, Concern, etc as well.”
The Longford man says that what happened in Rwanda was savage and one of the worst human atrocities since the Second World War.
“It left its mark no doubt about it,” he adds.
“What I was doing there was helping to collect the bodies; they were put onto trucks and then placed in mass graves. It was harrowing.”
Meanwhile, Tiernan spent close to eight weeks there and was offered counselling upon his return because of the nature of the work that the aid workers carried out there.
Since then though and, he says it saddens him to say this, but “the world has become more and more savage”.
“In many of the places I have been you felt secure when you had a GOAL T-shirt on you,” he continues.
“In some places people were being kidnapped and beheaded and aid workers faced enormous threats.
“In Darfur actually, two aid workers were kidnapped - one from Uganda, the other from Dublin; all of that has changed now.”
In 2004, Tiernan faced into a mission in South East Asia following the devastating Boxing Day Tsunami.
“I didn’t think that GOAL would be involved with that because it was so far away, but I was bringing my brother down from the airport when I got a call from GOAL and when I heard Sri Lanka being mentioned, I just went silent,” he recalls.
“I headed off the next day to Sri Lanka - six GOALies went and when we got there we broke up into three teams of two.
“I was with a doctor who had been based in Calcutta, so we set up GOAL in the south of the country - a place called Han Ban Tho To which had been very, very badly affected by the tsunami.”
He recalls now how there were bodies everywhere and in many cases towns and villages had had been levelled to the ground. “The destruction was catastrophic,” says Tiernan.
“On the plus side of that though the people were so thankful that aid workers had come to help them.
“GOAL in fact had gone out with a lot of money to help straight away and that was something that benefited the area and its people.
“That’s what I like about GOAL - the money goes straight to where it’s needed with the minimum amount of fuss.”
Another time in Afghanistan - which Tiernan describes as “a fascinating place” he met a local woman who had a profound impact on him.
“It was an incredible privilege for me to be there; the local people that I met were so giving and so brave; there was one girl who was working in the GOAL office there and before the Taliban arrived she had been teaching English,” he adds.
“Had she been caught she would have been stoned or she could even have been hanged. “She knew the risk and, yet, she tried to help her fellow human being as best she could.
“That’s the type of bravery I am talking about and it is outstanding.”
At this stage, Tiernan has been overseas on aid work at least 15 times and he says what he has noticed most is that it’s the poorest of the poor that suffer the most.
“It’s the children, it’s the elderly and it’s the most vulnerable,” the Longford man continues.
“The women suffer hugely and it’s usually the men who cause the problems. Behind it all, it’s the women who are the strongest.”
He says too that even when it comes to the work carried out by GOAL it’s the female nurses and doctors that are the most pragmatic.
“In Ethiopia we were in a very, very remote area and there was a nurse from Tubbercurry; that woman could run a country,” he laughs recalling her strength and determination on the various missions.
“Her pragmatism and her empathy are unbelievable.
“Those nurses were working as volunteers and doing it because they wanted to make a difference - extraordinary people.
“So for me as an ordinary person mixing with these people it was very, very humbling indeed.”
Last year, GOAL released figures indicating that in the 30 years Tiernan has been working with the agency, Longford has raised over €1m.
“GOAL themselves said that €1.1m was sent by the people of Longford to GOAL over the 30 years that I have been involved,” confirms Tiernan.
“Local people in Longford have been incredibly supportive - there has never been any bucket rattlers and we don’t have street collections - we try to do it quietly.
“I could account for every cent and I brought out a lot of the money from the people of Longford.”
After Hurricane Mitch hit, six houses were built in Honduras from Longford donations.
“Those houses were built with money donated by builders here in Longford,” says Tiernan proudly.
“It has been a huge privilege for me to be involved with that.”
Later, when Tiernan’s parents died within 12 months of each other the family decided to have no flowers and asked for donations in lieu for GOAL in their memory.
“We had enough money to build 13 houses in Uganda and the support really has been overwhelming,” says Tiernan, before pointing out that in recent times he is carrying out the local fundraising on a much smaller scale.
“The GOAL Mile is taking place this year on Christmas Day at 12 noon at Connolly Barracks,” he smiles then.
“There are no sponsorship cards; there are no posters, people have been doing it for years and they just turn up on the day. It takes about 20 minutes from start to finish.”
He says too that when he returns from a mission, it can take time to adjust.
“There is a realisation too that not everyone has seen or experienced what you have,” he adds.
“It maddens me when I hear people criticising our hospitals and saying they are third world standard, because they really have no idea how good our health system is when you compare it to what is actually there for other people in the world.
“Despite the trolleys and despite the waiting lists in this country, once you get into the system it is great.
“It is a million light years away from third world countries.
“The same with schools - I have seen schools where you could have 50, 60 or 70 kids in a bombed out site or where the classroom could be underneath a tree.
“I remember in Darfur, children walking for maybe five or six hours just to get to the nearest health centre and at the same time being in constant fear of being murdered, kidnapped or raped. So, there is no comparison.”
Back in the classrooms of St Mel’s College in Longford where Tiernan taught Irish, English and history “a lot of students have gone through the corridors”, he adds with fondness.
Tiernan is very proud of their many achievements and makes particular reference to his former student, Dr Kevin Barry.
“It’s a very rewarding job; everybody has different abilities and creative levels.
“You are sitting in front of a class and within that there are so many needs - you never know what is going on students’ lives.
“Yet at the end of everything you are there just trying to get them through an exam.
“Teaching is multilayered to tell you the truth.”
Tiernan also points out that one of things that frustrated him most when teaching was that so many of the county’s talented youths had to leave Longford and Ireland.
“I remember asking a Leaving Cert class in 1980s (mass immigration) where did they see their future?
“And I’d say about 80% of them saw their future overseas.
“Here were the best and the brightest and we were exporting them.
“Thankfully that has finished but that still sticks with me, however I do feel that the Celtic Tiger by-passed Longford.”
He says as well that he has seen a lot of changes in Longford over the years.
“I think that the garda station moving out of Dublin Street was a huge mistake,” he continues.
“Okay they needed better working conditions - but at one stage it was rare to see a garda walking down the street in Longford and that is not right.
“In the past gardaí were highly visible and effective that way and they didn’t have to drive around in squad cars.
“The presence of the Gardaí on the beat was there and now their absence is gravely felt.
“Now we have a situation where the elderly feel less safe in their houses at night and less safe walking the streets.
“It might sound very right-wing but I feel that we need more prison spaces.
“I feel that in our criminal justice system the victim is forgotten.
“The victims become more scared to speak out in case they are targeted again."