Edmund Rice: A tireless, hard-working advocate for the less fortunate; by Eddie McArdle

Advocacy is part of our experience nowadays ever since the United Nations started in 1949, Amnesty International is prominent, Greenpeace has spectacular interventions, and Avaaz.org collects millions of signatures.

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Blessed Edmund Rice

It covers many areas from bees in danger of extinction to widows being harassed by mining companies and from the children in India claiming a better quality education with “Nine is Mine” to prisoners’ rights. People like Martin Luther King, Teresa of Calcutta and Nelson Mandela spring to mind.

Simply put, advocacy means actively supporting a cause and trying to get others to support it as well. Long before the science of modern advocacy, one man stands out as having all the ingredients for effective advocacy with his plan implementation, the rightness of the cause, his strategies, his selected goal, the ability to recognize his allies. If by advocacy one means support, promotion, backing, aid, advising, championing and sponsorship then Edmund Rice is the man.

He was inspired by the person of Jesus of Nazareth which was reflected in his contact with the people of Waterford as for example Poll McCarthy (drink problem), a black boy called Johnny (a slave he freed), Carlos Bianconi (an immigrant he sponsored), the many Waterford charities, Jails, Hospitals and Lodgings for the Poor which he visited frequently. This would have been advocacy as an individual. This passion for his cause led him to communicate with legislators in one instance it meant travelling to London, though sick, to plead the case for his congregation with the Prime Minister, William Pitt, when the proposed Emancipation Bill would outlaw new companions joining him.

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Edmund Rice painted by Br Fermin Gainzá, former novice master

Rice’s contacts with the youths among the timber stacks on the Quay in Waterford really touched him. He became aware of the growing problem of lack of education, particularly among the powerless poor children. Initially these children were taken to his house in Arundel Place in the evenings. It is fair to surmise that his wife Mary (Elliott?) was involved as well and that their commitment had them move to live in Ballybricken (outside the city walls). This direct experience or preliminary research showed him that he could not achieve his goal on his own. He advocated for the poor in community, inspired by the local harvest volunteers (“meitheal” in Gaelic) and the Presentation Sisters. He grouped people around him who were like-minded – the Presentation Brothers and the Christian Brothers. His big heart had a very wide horizon and in his lifetime he saw his mission spread to England, and as far away as Australia; he invested large sums of money for charities in land, was the executer of many wills and attended to the dowries of the Presentation Sisters.

Edmund wanted a change for the better for poor Catholic children, he wanted to change the unfair discriminatory treatment, to have them eligible for improved work prospects. He realized that the key issue was education if poor children were to have a dignified life. The poor could not pay for schooling and the local government had no interest in them. There were obstacles, like the presence of poor children in the busy town centre – hence the move outside the walls; a power struggle – with the local church so Rice handed the deeds to his property over to the local bishop, cultural – he was asked by a protestant friend “Why do you waste your time with these children?” and of course the perseverance rate of his companions (20 of his first 21 followers abandoned him).

One of his business letters reveals his attitude when he writes “Providence is our inheritance”; His parents were part of this inheritance, his mother kept an open hearth, open to priests on run, to “An Bráithrín Liath” (the Augustinian Patrick Grace), and travelling teachers; his father was active locally and saw to Edmund’s schooling in Kilkenny where his teacher there made a lasting impression on him.

There was a spiritual dimension to his advocacy also, his love of the Scriptures, his having Masses said for the success of his projects and his reading of correspondence in the chapel indicate a very important Ally. After his first assistants abandoned him he realized that a long term love, or vocation, was better than hired help. He would have the project in the hands of religious brothers, men with moral and religious values prepared to dedicate their life to the task, as he did passionately.

A strong leader is essential for any project. At one point a number of men mostly in the Cork area, had difficulty in accepting his role a congregation leader of the Christian Brothers, but his personality, integrity and transparency attracted all but one, who remained a Presentation Brother.
This one-time wealthy man had resources to set in motion the realization of his dream, he sold off his town house and his business, he invested in properties, but with time, these assets were not long in disappearing.

This activist was teaching poor children, promoting the principle of the right to a Christian education for all and he set the initiative in a stable in New Street, Waterford, Ireland, his first school. Edmund’s vision and mission was to provide a complete education for a dignified youth. He provided, a place that was safe for the children, tailors and a baker, the curriculum included Religion, the 3 Rs, even navigation. Like any great advocate he kept an independent judgement and developed his own system of education, and at the same time he was sensitive in his relationships to the extent that he allowed four of his schools into the National Educational system for a while, but later withdrew them as the system did not meet his criteria.

Advocacy can be used as part of a community initiative, Catholic Emancipation was a huge issue in Ireland and Rice had no problem speaking out, he agreed to a massive demonstration, a march from the city centre of Dublin to the site of a new school, inviting the Liberator, Dan O’Connell to lay the foundation stone and call the building after the same – O’Connell Schools. The ability to identify and engage potential allies was natural for him. On another occasion Edmund signed a petition to London along with the people of Waterford but he did not sign the letter of thanks afterwards.

Rice was able to galvanize coalitions to achieve his aim and many schools were identified with the local parish. Parents were happy and got the message, many young men joined him –other towns asked for schools especially the Irish emigrants in England. The Local initiative became national and international. He was culturally sensitive to the Gaelic tradition and was fully aware of what was known as the “Island of Saints and Scholars” where a love for truth and learning was strong in the people. It is now clear that the future of the Irish nation was at stake and he is rightly placed among the leading Irish people of all time for educating the youth and the Vatican has placed him among the Blessed because of his virtues. The climate of opinion among the community was reflected by the huge attendance at the Month’s Mind Mass in Waterford Cathedral.

These characteristics of Edmund Rice’s approach have him stand out as a model for our attempts at advocacy at this time. His followers have been exhorted in 2008 (Munnar, India) “to open their hearts to the cry of the poor and the earth and to be moved to prophetic action through advocacy and works for justice”. In 2014 this call was made very clear (Nairobi, Kenya) “to engage in advocacy with the voiceless and marginalised and all that are oppressed.”

More recently, in 2015 advocacy has been named as on of the four columns of Edmund’s charism along with Presence, Compassion and Liberation.