An Essay by Joseph A. Holt

The Tears of Patrick Nolan

God lights the stars, His candles, And looks upon the poor.
—W.B. Yeats


I had the pleasure of visiting Patrick Nolan in Dublin last December. It was refreshing to meet a man who achieved a high level of financial success as a business executive and entrepreneur throughout the 1970s and 1980s and then left business in 1990 to devote his time and energy to his “heart’s desire” of working full-time with marginalized groups, and in particular the long-term unemployed.

Patrick’s life and work represent a bridge between the disadvantaged and the advantaged areas of Ireland. His entire youth was spent on the disadvantaged side of the bridge, where he was born the fourth of six children to loving and wise but materially poor parents. The Nolan family was raised in a government-subsidized, 2-bedroom home in the 1950s in what Patrick terms the “concrete jungle” of Crumlin, a suburb of Dublin. He recalls, “My principal memory of those years is living with the consequences of grinding poverty, and the terrible indignity of unemployment which seemed to strip a man of all his pride, his self-worth and, given the culture of the time, even his manhood.”

Patrick’s father, Patrick Nolan Sr., was an unskilled laborer, a man of quiet dignity and principle. Patrick poignantly relates that the only time he ever saw his father weep was the day his father was laid off from his job. His father lost his job because of his trade union activities on behalf of more vulnerable co-workers. The event was unforgettably devastating for the entire family. Their previously manageable poverty became near destitution.

Patrick notes that academicians and politicians often use the phrase “disadvantaged area” with little or no understanding of what it is like to live in poverty. His own experience of childhood poverty has given him an understanding of the daily struggle for survival in disadvantaged areas that is visceral as well as intellectual. Reflecting empathetically on that experience even now he says, “I see it as black, dull, imprisoning, life-draining and spiritless.”

He overcame poverty in his own life by a combination of education and hard work, beginning his career at the tender age of 14 as a messenger boy at Nestlé Corporation while simultaneously completing his secondary school education in the evenings. He was promoted to credit controller, sales manager and then marketing manager for Nestlé in Ireland, and then became Managing Director of Twinings Tea in Ireland.

In 1980 he left the privileged security of a rising career at Twinings for the uncertain but alluring prospect of becoming CEO with a one-third ownership interest in Goldstar Meats in Dublin and free rein to lead the company according to his values and beliefs. The gamble paid off handsomely. Goldstar became the most profitable enterprise of its kind in Ireland, and Patrick created significant wealth for himself and for the workers.

Something crucial was missing, however, and that prompted Patrick in 1982 to complete the rigorous Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), founder of the Society of Jesus. The Exercises are a carefully ordered series of spiritual reflections and practices designed to enable Christians to discover—in freedom from any excessive attachment to wealth, power or anything else that could prove a spiritual hindrance—what God asks of them individually, and to order their lives accordingly.

The full Exercises are typically taken with a spiritual director either apart from one’s usual living and work environment over a period of 30 days or within one’s usual environment with less frequent meetings over a period of months. Patrick completed the full Exercises in 46 weeks, adding to his demanding schedule as the CEO of a startup a daily prayer period from 6:30 to 8 in the morning and a weekly meeting with his Jesuit spiritual director.

Patrick came to the Exercises wanting to resolve the tension he felt between his proven and personally satisfying capacity for creating wealth and his lifelong Gospel commitment to the poor and disadvantaged. He realized that his freedom to discover and follow the will of God in his life was restricted by his need to appear successful in the eyes of the world, and to enjoy the entry and acceptance that accompany worldly success but generally remain beyond the grasp of those who hail from Crumlin. He was challenged in particular by the Gospel story of the rich young man who asks Jesus what he has to do to gain eternal life, is asked to sell what he has and give to the poor in order that he might have treasure in heaven and become a follower of Jesus, and goes away sorrowful because he had great possessions (Mt. 19:16-22). He reflected on his analogous choice of either adding to his already considerable wealth by remaining at the helm of Goldstar—the fortunes of which continued to rise and the value of which is now ten times greater than it was when he left—or following the Lord’s gentle if sometimes inconveniently persistent call to work full-time with the poor.

Patrick became involved in the disadvantaged community of Ballymun, which was located nearby the Goldstar plant, from 1982 until 1990 both as employer and on a part-time basis through various social justice initiatives. In 1990, after eight years of internal reflection and struggle and having achieved a sufficient level of wealth to provide adequately for his family, Patrick sold his equity position in Goldstar in order to devote himself to working full-time in business-like fashion on behalf of those wrongfully excluded from the mainstream of society. To confirm this radical life choice, Patrick completed the full Exercises again in 1990, this time over a period of 30 consecutive days devoted exclusively to prayer under retreat-like conditions in his home.

With respect to greater wealth foregone, his gracious wife, Carmel, recalls the words of assurance he offered her at that time: “ Carmel, you will never want. And we can only sleep in one bed and eat one meal at any given time.”

* * * *

Patrick focused his full-time efforts on the problem of long-term unemployment in Ballymun, a community of approximately 20,000 members located 5 miles north of the center of Dublin. At that time, it was designated the poorest region in Ireland, with an unemployment rate reaching 65%. Clouds of paralyzing and persistent despair frequently hung low over Ballymun, the only high-rise public housing complex in Ireland. Life there was and remains marred by a host of social problems including alcohol and drug abuse, and gang activity. Even now, the secondary school in Ballymun has a graduation rate of only 40%, and only 6% of those graduates advance to university studies (compared to an average of 60% of the graduates in Dublin on the whole and 86% in the wealthiest communities in Ireland). Statistics such as these left prospective employers with a dim view of the residents’ ability and initiative. Patrick described Ballymun’s long-term unemployed as representing “a strain of the virus that is a part of the pathology of poverty and exclusion in the world.”

Patrick sought to help transform the lives of individual Ballymun residents, prospective employers, and the community itself through the transformation of their negative and life-inhibiting beliefs. In the wake of the economic boom in Ireland in the 1990s an opportunity arose when information technology (IT) companies had more job openings than the traditional recruitment streams could fill. Patrick and his collaborators at the Ballymun Job Centre won the support of Microsoft Corporation for an experimental program in which 25 long-term unemployed from Ballymun would attempt to complete the Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) course and seek professional IT positions upon doing so. Each of the 25 program participants was successful through dedication, hard work and training tailored to their unique educational and social needs.

Deborah Brunt completed the FIT PC Maintenance course and took a position with Compaq

Contemporaneously with the Microsoft pilot project and other social initiatives through the Ballymun Job Centre, Patrick completed first a Master’s degree and then a Ph.D. in action research at Trinity College in Dublin. His research involved reflecting with business executives of his acquaintance on the question how best to coordinate the efforts of business, government and local communities to solve the problem of unemployment. The end result of Patrick’s foundational research and the Microsoft pilot project and precursor initiatives in Ballymun was the FIT (Fastrack to Information Technology project, which expanded to include a total of 11 disadvantaged areas surrounding Dublin, 5 government departments, and 50 business corporations (it has since been adopted as a nation-wide model for combating joblessness, with locations in Cork and Limerick and others to come, and has been studied and adopted as a model initiative by other European nations as well).

The FIT initiative has widespread support at the highest levels of government and business, including the support of Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, and a Board of Directors made up of 19 senior executives from the largest IT companies in Ireland, including Hewlett Packard, AOL Technologies, Symantec, Dell, Oracle, Eircom, IBM, and Microsoft.

FIT represents an industry-led partnership among business, government and the local disadvantaged communities. The business contribution is not charity but rather a sound investment in personnel and market development. The partners’ overall efforts are coordinated by the 8 employees of FIT, Ltd., a nonprofit company. True to Patrick’s founding imprint, the nonprofit is run like a business with strategic planning, clearly established targets, a systematic delineation of responsibility for specific deliverables, and relentless insistence on measurable results. The FIT staff have worked with top human resources and technical professionals in the IT industry to produce and update 14 full-time and three part-time training programs, lasting six months to a year, in areas such as programming, web design and technical support. Market-driven curriculum development ensures that trainees will have the precise knowledge and skills they will need to fill currently available positions within the IT industry.

Christopher Coughlan completed the FIT Software Quality Assurance Tester course and was hired by AOL Technologies.

FIT has achieved impressive success in transforming lives through the transformation of negative beliefs. The long-term unemployed come to believe that they have the gifts and discipline to leap-frog education and skills barriers that had seemed insurmountable. IT employers and their more privileged employees come to believe that the long-term unemployed are not shiftless drunks but gifted and motivated workers who need an opportunity to shine, and that education is not the sole measure of ability and dedication. Government and social service agencies come to believe that with tailored support and encouragement the poor can and will rise to the occasion. Disadvantaged communities come to believe that they are not doomed to repeat their past.

Numbers bear out the overall success. An independent study showed that 88% of employers are satisfied with FIT trainees, 84% of employers are encouraged to hire the disadvantaged based on their experience with FIT graduates, and 86% of the trainees would recommend FIT courses to other unemployed people. All told, the lives of more than 3,500 persons to date have been changed by their participation in FIT programs.

* * * *

We cannot appreciate the positive human significance of these numbers without first appreciating the devastating impact of widespread and persistent unemployment on individuals, families and entire communities. Those who have been laid off, as I have, or have witnessed the effects of involuntary job loss on a loved one, do not need academic studies to convince them of the causal relationship between unemployment and diminished well-being, though the studies are there.

I was laid off from a job as a corporate attorney in a large Chicago law firm shortly after the bubble burst and the number of business transactions dropped precipitously. I can vividly remember the surreal experience of receiving the news, the humiliation of sharing that news with friends and family and of having no answer I was proud to give when asked by new acquaintances where I worked. I recall the disorientation and felt purposelessness of waking up with no job to go to, the feeling of isolation from those I had enjoyed spending my work days with and from all I saw traveling to and from their jobs, and the fear of not knowing when I would get a new job, whether it would represent a step down in pay and prestige, and whether I could afford expenditures I wouldn’t have thought twice about a week earlier.

I quickly landed on my feet dancing and in a better place, as you can see, and while my experience of being “downsized” (which doesn’t feel appreciably different than being “fired”) was memorably distressing, it doesn’t provide me with a basis for understanding the experience of long-term unemployment among the poor. Based on a respectable record of educational and professional achievement, after all, I had solid prospects for future employment. I hit an inconvenient bump on a paved road to dignified employment and financial security while the long-term unemployed poor are left to find their way to that remote destination on unpaved and unlit roads marked only by axle-breaking potholes.

Studies in the field of happiness research indicate just how devastating involuntary job loss can be. These studies suggest that each of us has a set point or range for happiness that functions similarly to our set point for body weight. Through the process of adaptation, we tend to return to a level of happiness within our set range in response to either good or bad events in our lives. As reported in “The New Science of Happiness” (Time, 1/17/2005, cover story), the loss of a job is one of only two life events so consequential that it can lower our happiness set point or sense of well-being for an extended period. The other life event is the loss of a spouse. Our prospects for returning to our normal range of happiness are apparently greater when we lose a child to terminal illness or the use of our limbs in a catastrophic accident than when we lose our jobs!

Other studies affirm a consistent link between unemployment and a higher incidence of depression, substance abuse, admissions to psychiatric hospitals, death by suicide, and other forms of violence. One study reaches the interesting conclusion that the ill effects of underemployment are comparable to the ill effects of unemployment, suggesting that finding any job whatsoever is not an adequate solution. The overall devastation is greater still when we consider the ripple effects of unemployment on affected families and communities.

* * * *

The success of the FIT initiative in addressing the devastation of long-term unemployment can be appreciated for its congruence with key principles of Catholic social teaching. Economic Justice for All, the pastoral letter of the U.S. Catholic bishops on the U.S. economy, stresses that “Every economic decision and institution must be judged in the light of whether it protects or undermines the dignity of the human person.” The bishops remind us that human dignity can be realized only in community, that we must take special care for the dignity of the poor, that the justice of a society is measured by its treatment of the disadvantaged, and that we will be judged by how we respond or fail to respond to the hungry, the thirsty, the naked and the stranger.

The primary purpose of our commitment to the poor, the bishops emphasize, is “to enable them to become active participants in the life of society.” To help a poor person find dignified employment, after all, is to give someone who is hungry, thirsty, ill-clad, and a stranger a dependable source of food, drink, clothing and belonging.

The bishops explain that this special commitment to those left behind does not mean favoring one group over another, since we should be concerned to meet the needs of all, but rather giving greater attention where we find greater need. I had surgery on my right shoulder the summer before last and in the ensuing weeks gave my right shoulder a great deal more attention than my left shoulder not because I favored my right shoulder over my left shoulder but because my return to overall well-being and functionality required doing so. (Analogously, families with disabled children will give special attention to their disabled child not because they love that child more than they love their other children, but because that child has special needs.) To the extent we provide effectively for those most in need we strengthen the entire community and more nearly fulfill the central commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves. The difference between the efforts I would make on my own behalf if vulnerable at the margins of society and the efforts I have made on behalf of my less advantaged brothers and sisters in that situation is a sobering measure of how far I remain from having fulfilled that commandment.

* * * *

I understand this better now than before I visited Patrick last December, a visit that began when my flight touched down in Dublin just before 8 a.m., though it felt more like 4 a.m. given lingering darkness under a dense cloud covering. Daylight hours are short during the Irish winter, and as often as not low-hanging clouds block what little sunshine there is. All is transformed, however, when, as on my last day in Dublin, the clouds move aside like stage curtains to let in the warmth and light of the sun and reveal to grateful eyes seemingly limitless blue skies. The contrast between the pervasive grayness of the initial six days of my stay in Ireland and the uplifting sunshine of the final day parallels the contrast between the pervasive gloom of long-term unemployment and the brimming hope of the many successful FIT graduates.

It was uplifting to meet seven of those graduates at a luncheon meeting held in Microsoft’s Dublin headquarters. Brian Dowdall, who was a sailor for 21years and then mired in unemployment and physical rehabilitation for a lengthy period, admitted, “I didn’t know one end of the keyboard from the other when I started off.” Brian is now a software engineer with significant responsibilities at Microsoft and takes evident pride in his work. Details of the other graduates’ stories varied, but in the telling of the stories each of their faces radiated joy, reminding me of Thomas Aquinas’s remark that there can be no joy in life if there is no joy in work, and of the observation of Kahlil Gibran that, “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” Witnessing this joy where lately clouds had been I was reminded also of Patrick’s insistence that the success of the FIT initiative be measured not in the number of lives touched, but rather the degree to which the those lives are transformed.

Patrick has a dream that the FIT project will come to be appreciated not only for its success in addressing unemployment in Ireland, but as an innovative model of private-public cooperation that can be adapted to address other persistent social problems in other countries. Realization of the dream that is FIT required that Patrick first develop business knowledge, skills, relationships and credibility and then take the extraordinary step of leaving that privileged position and using those resources full-time on behalf of the poor; it also required, however, that his collaborators in business and government remain in their positions and use their considerable influence caringly and creatively. Realization of Patrick’s broader dream will similarly require that some devote themselves full-time to social entrepreneurship while others achieve positions of leadership in business and government and creatively exercise what power they have in a manner that benefits their organizations, the community in general, and the poor in particular.

I am inspired by Patrick’s dream to wonder how much closer we would come to the ideal of a just and loving society if we all became more aware of both the suffering and the potential of those at the margins of society, and of the ways in which we could use whatever time, talent, creativity and other resources we have received to help the downtrodden develop and contribute their gifts.

By doing this, we would act in accordance with the reminder we find in the First Letter of Peter that we have been entrusted by God with various gifts not for our benefit alone, but for the benefit of the communities to which we belong: “As each has received a gift, employ it for one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10). By doing this, we would transform the tears of Patrick’s father into tears of joy and relief.

That, I submit, is a dream worthy of those who profess belief in a God who hears the cries of the poor (e.g. Ex. 22:21-23), a God who will judge our lives successful or not on the basis not of our riches but rather our responses to the least among us (Mt. 25:31-46), to those beaten and left for dead along the roads we travel (Lk.10:29-37), and to the poor who unacceptably languish and die unseen just beyond our gates of plenty (Lk. 16:19-31).

—Joseph A. Holt is Director for Executive Ethics in the Executive Education program at Mendoza College of Business.

Patrick graciously invites those who would like to learn more about his “dream” to contact him directly at:

Copyright © 2005 University of Notre Dame All Rights Reserved Last Updated on: May 27, 2005