Feature

Ask not what your parish can do for you…
Greg Daly learns about a charity election that’s electrifying a Wexford parish

Anyone paying attention to parish circles online in recent weeks can’t but have noticed that something exciting is happening in the Wexford parish on Barntown.

The Mayor of Barntown is a charity election, intended to galvanise the community while boosting parish funds, explains local curate Fr John Carroll. The ‘mayor’ would be a kind of ‘first citizen’ for the area, who could articulate the heard and felt needs of parishioners, he says. 

“We have a very wide sort of semi-suburban, semi-rural parish, and a lot of people are actually unaware of the identity of the parish,” he says, continuing, “they know a limited number of their neighbours, but have no great sense of the overall shape of the parish – what’s in it, what it offers, what it does, and what it can do?”

With Barntown just a few kilometres from Wexford town, Fr Carroll muses that “we live on the outskirts of a town, and I suppose people are a bit more town-centred than they are local-church-centred”.

Given this, he says, the Mayor of Barntown was imagined as an attempt to bring Barntown together, so people can learn who their neighbours are and what their parish is, as well as to encourage them to see how they can contribute to community life and consider how community life can help them.  

Novel

“That’s the primary thing, but it’s also a novel, good-humoured slightly competitive way of fundraising,” he says. “In the last 10 years, we’ve reduced our debt from just under €600,000 to about €280,000, and in that time we’ve also built a new school, we’ve developed our cemetery, we’ve put in car parks, we’ve put in new playing pitches – we’ve had an expenditure of millions. A lot of it’s been Government-funded or assisted, but it’s an awful lot of our expenditure too.”

Fr Carroll says that with the intentions of paying down debt while continuing to develop the area, the election was thought of late last year. “We sat down and looked at things in November – late October, early November – and set ourselves the task then of having the candidates agreed upon and agree to run by early December,” he says, continuing, “then what we did was set ourselves the task of launching it in early January, and having it over by the end of March.

“It’s a very simple thing,” he adds, “as I keep saying, ‘One euro, one vote – vote early vote often, and if Donald Trump wants to buy the election he’s more than welcome’.”

Having come up with the basic shape of the election, the committee looked around the parish to find six people from different areas who would bring with them different sets of supporters, different skills and different outlooks. 

The candidates could hardly be a more diverse bunch, ranging from Mag Gurhy who has long been involved in the Wexford Light Opera Society and has the backing, Fr Carroll says, of over 200 local factory workers, to Donie O’Dowd, “a man who lives up on the mountain, and is from a family that goes back generations in the parish”. 

Tom Dempsey, Declan Power, Martina Brazzill and Billy Codd all have distinct things to offer, he continues, noting that the candidates’ different campaign teams are all working hard and enlivening the parish in various ways. 

“We have six or seven shared events in which they must participate, like we’ve a parish ‘Come Dine With Me’ for Valentine’s Day, where they encourage as many people as possible to make dinner, invite people in and charge them for it to support their campaign,” he says, adding, “we’ve the national heritage park in the parish, and so we’ve a parish treasure hunt.”

Individual candidates have organised their own events too, he continues, citing a concert organised by Martina Brazille as an example. “Last Sunday morning we had breakfast with 300 people, when we turned the local pub into a pop-up restaurant,” he says. 

“There’s a lot of stuff like that going on,” he continues. “There’s nearly something going on every day, whether fun walks or Operation Transformation – they’ve come up with all sorts of ideas and they’re just rolling them out all the time.”

The competition is definitely having an important effect, he says, and is dramatically boosting the area’s sense of community spirit. “My attitude to it is that anything that pulls people together and gives them a sense of who their neighbour is, where their community is, what their parish looks like,” he begins, continuing, “if you start to get that movement going, even if it never made money, it would start to reinforce local social capital, local Christian capital, local Catholic capital.”

That said, with seven or so weeks still to go, money is coming in, and the event is being warmly engaged in across the parish. “Everybody is pulling in behind it and considers it a very good idea,” he says. “It’s run like general election, you get your team in, you agree the rules, and then you go for gold and see how much you can make. We’ve election posters up on the roads around the parish, people have brought out their own election brochures, some are canvassing door to door, and while they’re doing it, they’re doing a promotion of where Barntown is, what it’s about, what’s in it.”

When the competition was in its preparatory stages organisers had to be a bit discreet about it, Fr Carroll explains. “We were afraid that if we went to public with the idea somebody might steal it, so we had to get it all in place and have it launched before anybody else had done it,” but since then, he says, “Press coverage has been huge, and it’s been a huge social media thing as well – it’s been viral there.”

Now that the story is out there, he says, he would be delighted if other parishes followed suit, and found out whether people just want to go home, shut their doors and settle in in front of their televisions in the evenings, or if they’d like to develop facilities that would help people to come out and engage in anything from exercise to chats with their neighbours.

“I hear that a lot – there is that need,” he says, “when you watch the energy behind this, you’d wonder what people were doing before, because it seems they’re hugely keen to get involved and there’s been no shortage of imagination.”

Speculating that Barntown’s problem may have been one of geography more than of will, he says: “Barntown is built in 40 directions looking in 40 other directions. A lot of people are in different pockets. This is trying to stitch the pockets together.”

As for those who’d want to emulate them he has one central bit of advice. “The key to this to keep it slightly competitive but always good humoured,” he says, continuing, “that particular mix seems to bring out the best in everybody.”