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Ivan Illich 1926 - 2002
Died December 2nd 2002

Dara Molloy  

It never struck me at that time that I would one day meet Ivan Illich, become friends with him, bring him to Ireland on a number of occasions and eventually have him as a godfather to one of my children.
On the day that Ivan Illich died, Monday December 2nd, 2002, I was eating my dinner in the evening when a phonecall came for me. The speaker introduced himself as a South American lawyer who was phoning from Shannon airport after spending a week in Ireland. He told me that he had spent 3 weeks with Ivan Illich in Bremen prior to his visit to Ireland and during that time that Ivan had spoken about us on Aran and insisted that he visit us or at least make contact. Having failed to visit, he was now making contact and communicating warm wishes from Ivan.

It turned out that these warm wishes from Ivan came four hours after his death, when his body was already cold.

At that time of the evening, I still did not know that Ivan was dead. Later that same evening I had an intuition to phone Lee Hoinacki, a close friend and co-worker of Ivanís, who was living in Philadelphia. I had not spoken to him for a full year, in fact since I had visited him and Ivan a year previous in Bremen. My purpose was to find out how Lee was, not thinking at all of Ivan. But of course the first words out of Leeís mouth were: ìHave you heard the news?î. With that he told me that Ivan had died earlier that day.

Ivan had close friends living all over the world. It was highly unlikely that I was going to be told of his death in time for me to make the funeral. My phonecall to Lee was a graced moment. Getting the news on Monday night gave me the time to book my flight to Germany on Tuesday, travel on Wednesday, and be on time for the 9.15 funeral Mass on Thursday morning in Bremen.

I first came across Ivan Illich while I was attending University College Dublin in the early 70s. His book Deschooling Society made a deep and instant impression on me. I responded to reading the book by writing a paper on the subject and circulating it among my friends in college. So began my journey of opposition to the educational system. I spent six years teaching, trying to change it from the inside. Then in 1983, I began to make public protests against the education system. Twenty years later, my wife and I have three small children, and we intend to keep them away from established schooling.

It never struck me in those early days that I would one day meet Ivan Illich, become friends with him, bring him to Ireland on a number of occasions and eventually have him as a godfather to one of my children. But that is what happened, something for which I feel eternally grateful, a grace and privilege that was bestowed upon me and for which I would not have dreamt of asking.

He then told me that there was no way he could leave the bedside of his close friend Erich Fromm who was dying. And so the conference went ahead without him, and my hopes of meeting this famous and inspirational man faded.

Ivanís death on December 2nd came as a shock but not as a surprise. Those close to him knew for a number of years that he was dying. The cancerous growth on the right side of his face left him in tremendous pain, for which he would not take any standard medication. On the appearance of the cancer in the mid-seventies, medical experts who were friends of his predicted that he would not live five years longer unless he had surgery. But Ivan, who published his book Medical Nemesis in 1976 (a book which condemned the medical system as one which made you sick) was not prepared to subject himself to the disempowerment the surgery would cause him, and so ignored medical advice. His decision meant that, despite the pain, he was able to continue working right up to his death.

At the age of 76 Ivan had slowed down a lot. Nonetheless, he was still hosting conversations among students and intellectuals in his home, still receiving a regular stream of visitors from across the globe, and still offering a series of lectures at Bremen university during the winter semester.

Ivan died while taking a siesta after his lunch. There was no struggle and no indication beforehand that his death was imminent. In one of his papers he had written of Posthumous Longevity - the modern phenomenon of people being kept alive by the medical system beyond the natural moment of their death. Ivan kept a rosary beads at all times in his pocket and had changed the wording of the Hail Mary to: ë...pray for us sinners now and that we may not miss the hour of our deathí. Thankfully his prayer was anwered in his own case. His body remained on the couch where he had died for three days while those who knew and loved him came and said their farewells. No surgical knife came near him to ëestablish the cause of deathí ó something which, in the context of his life and what he stood for, would have been a desecration of his body.

In November 2001 I had visited Ivan in Bremen, Germany, for a few days, knowing that it would probably be the last time I would see him. He greeted me with his usual warmth and I basked in the hospitality of his and Barbara Dudenís home. I attended one of his formal conversations with his co-workers and students before I left. Nonetheless it was clear that he was in dreadful pain and that this was sapping his energy and his concentration. As I left, I hoped that I would be able to attend his funeral but I knew that the reality was his death could take place in any of a number of places: Mexico, California, Pennsylvania or Germany. In recent times, he had spent part of every year in these places.

The following year, back home in Aran in August 2002, I had chosen a good dry day to go to a field in Kilmurvey to harvest the rye. We stacked the rye on the trailor of our tractor, all the workers climbed on top, including the children, and we made our way home in the late afternoon. While rounding the bend at Kilmurvey beach, we were signalled by a passing mini-bus to pull over. Not knowing what was going on, I stopped the tractor and walked over to the minibus driver. He told me that one of his passengers wanted to speak to me. In the bus was Daniel Berrigan, on one of his regular visits to Ireland and Aran. We had met on a few previous occasions due to an introduction from an Irish priest friend of his, Pat OíBrien. On this occasion, time was short as we were blocking traffic and these passengers were on their way to catch the ferry. Nonetheless, in the few minutes we had to us, Daniel told me that Ivan had been close to death during the summer and was not sure how well he had recovered.
Ivan said to me that he did not want to give a lecture tour, but preferred if I would bring him around to meet small groups of people throughout the country doing interesting things. That evening I phoned Bremen. Ivan was not there but I was told he would be arriving within the week. I was told that he had recovered fully from an infection, which did indeed nearly kill him, and that he was back to himself. That event had taken place in Florence.

I subsequently wrote to Ivan enquiring after his health and recounting my meeting with Daniel Berrigan. A reply to this letter came exactly a week before his death. I later discovered that during this week he had been frantically writing letters to all and sundry. It may be that he had some intuition of his impending death.

Ivan is buried in a Protestant graveyard (there are no Roman Catholic cemeteries in Bremen) at Friedhof Oberneuland, Hohenkampsweg, 28355 Bremen. The grave is unusual in that it is the only grave in the graveyard facing east. It is to be found by walking up the centre path at the back of the church and turning left at the first junction. The grave is then immediately on the left. I am sure that this grave will become a place of pilgrimage, especially as Ivanís life and writings become more appreciated and understood. I intend to bring my family there some day.

My first direct contact with Ivan was in 1988. I was organising a conference on Alternatives in Education, to be held at Clonard, County Meath, at the site of one of the greatest Celtic monastic schools of the early Christian period. The conference was to coincide with the sitting of the Leaving and Inter Certificate school examinations in June. I needed a high-profile speaker to open the event, and so I wrote to Paulo Freire in Brazil, Fernando Cardenal in Nicaragua, and Ivan Illich in the U.S., hoping for one of them to respond positively. Ivan was the only one to reply. He said he would come, but he told me the title of the conference should be changed to: Alternatives TO Education.

However, a week or so before the event, I phoned Ivan to confirm that all the arrangements were in order. He then told me that there was no way he could leave the bedside of his close friend Erich Fromm who was dying. And so the conference went ahead without him, and my hopes of meeting this famous and inspirational man faded.

Sometime the following year, I came home to find a message waiting for me. I was to phone a person called Ivan at the given number. This was very strange to me. I phoned the number in the U.S. and found myself speaking to Ivan Illich. He said he wanted to apologise for letting me down the previous summer, and wanted to make himself available to me this year instead as a way of recompense.

I could not believe what I was hearing. I have to admit, my first reaction was ó the conference is over, it is a bit late now! But on reflection, I realised that any opportunity to meet the man and spend time with him was going to be a bonus, so I accepted his offer and we began to arrange his visit to Ireland.

At the height of his fame in the 70ís, Ivan Illich had visited Ireland and lectured in Dublin to packed attendances. It was early 1974. I had not encountered him at this time, living as I did a secluded life in a Dublin seminary, cut off from the world. However, in the late 80ís, his name had faded off the headlines and only those really interested in his work kept in touch with his flow of ideas.

Ivan said to me that he did not want to give a lecture tour, but preferred if I would bring him around to meet small groups of people throughout the country doing interesting things. In order to cover the costs of his visit, he was willing to give one public lecture, for which we could charge an admission. We needed to make enough money at this lecture to pay for his travel and all the other expenses. He did not want payment of a fee, but requested that I acquire for him some homespun material that he could have made into a suit.

And so the adventure began. He arrived towards the end of May 1989 and stayed in Ireland for three nights. On his arrival, I presented him with our itinerary which included a public lecture at Trinity College, a meeting with the justice office of the Conference of Major Religious Superiors of Ireland (now CORI), a visit to Corofin, Co. Clare, and a visit to Inis Mór. Included were the filming of a television programme to be made by Kairos at Maynooth, and the recording of a radio programme by John Quinn of RTE at Corofin.

Here we hit the first major snag. Ivan told me he had not appeared before television cameras for twenty years and could not bring himself to do so now. I had to phone Kairos in Maynooth and cancel the whole thing, with great personal embarrassment and a lot of people put out. With the proposed radio programme, there was also a problem, but in the end he agreed to go ahead with it provided the recording of the programme was merely as a fly-on-the-wall, without any direct interviewing of him. More about this anon.

The first evening was a lecture in the largest theatre at Trinity College, Dublin. This lecture was organised by the Curriculum Development Unit of TCD who had been very keen to get involved with his visit. It was a great success in the sense that we got a full house and made enough money on the door to cover all the expenses of the trip.

The lecture itself was a bit rambling, given roughly on the theme of ëcorruptio optimi quae est pessimaí (the corruption of the best is the worst), a topic which has been a constant theme of Ivanís life. He directs his criticism particularly at Christianity. His point is that institutions which grow beyond a certain size end up doing the opposite of what they were set up to do. So, for example, schooling becomes the first obstacle to learning, the medical system requires people to be sick, and the transport system has people stuck for hours in traffic jams. In the case of the caring and healing professions, the gospel injunction to love oneís neighbour has been corrupted so that hospitality, which is to do with friendship and an I-Thou relationship, has been institutionalised to become hospitals, hospices and hostels where the true meaning of hospitality is no longer practiced.

The following morning we had a working breakfast at the house of Joe Dunne, a lecturer in St Patrickís College, Drumcondra, where we were joined by Sean Healy and Brigid Reynolds from the CMRS Justice Office. Then, it was just a short hop down to the Milltown Institute of Philosophy and Theology where we met with a select group of religious sisters, priests and brothers. Ivan claimed it was the first time he had addressed such a church gathering since he had resigned from the priesthood in the 1970ís, due to a promise he had made to himself at that time.

In the afternoon, we made our way by train to Galway where we were whisked away by car to a place known as The Shed outside Corofin in County Clare. This was the location of an experiment in alternative living where a group of people had set themselves up as a co-operative and were determined to create employment in the area and stem emigration. As part of their project, they had built a community centre which included a work place, a shop, a school for their children, and a community dining area. Other elements of their project were ó shared ownership of cars, community house building, and their own banking system. They created employment for themselves in turf and slate production, organic vegetables, window making, house building and the teaching of English to foreign students.

When we arrived at The Shed, we were sat down to a meal, served by the children of the co-operative, so that the adults could participate in a conversation around the table. After dinner, everybody gathered with Ivan in one of the school rooms and he was asked some pre-prepared questions. Then it was off down to the Corofin village hall for a public meeting. As we drove through the main street of Corofin, a village of a few thousand people at most, a large white banner spanned the street with the words emblazoned on it: COROFIN WELCOMES IVAN ILLICH. It was one of my most memorable moments of the trip.

The meeting at the village hall was a meeting that most people who attended it will never forget. It was chaired by Tom Collins, at that time a lecturer in Community Development at St Patrickís College, Maynooth. When we arrived, the hall was packed to the doors. People had travelled from all over the west and midlands of Ireland to meet and hear this great man. The stage was decked with an array of microphones, and RTEís John Quinn had set himself up with his tape recorder close to the stage to be the fly-on-the-wall for his radio programme. Ivan was presented with a gift of flowers by some local children, who then appeared on stage to give a performance of Irish dancing and singing.

The whole scene had completely the wrong effect on Ivan, so that by the time he got his turn to address the crowd he was in a rage.

The whole scene had completely the wrong effect on Ivan, so that by the time he got his turn to address the crowd he was in a rage. He told the assembled audience that he would not speak to them through a microphone, because he would not have any technology get in the way of his face to face encounter with them. He criticised the adults who had organised the singing and dancing of the children, accusing them of turning something at the heart of their culture into a package for the entertainment of tourists and visitors. And finally he said he would not speak from the stage but wanted everybody to turn their seats towards him while he stood in the middle of the hall. This latter was a major logistical nightmare as the hall was completely packed and it meant every single chair had to be moved.
On that particular evening, Ivan was all barb and no balm. Meanwhile John Quinn and his men from RTE were in pandemonium. How were they going to record their programme? Of course, Ivan Illich did not care and was not going to try to facilitate them. It was their problem. In the end, the man on sound lay on the floor among the chairs and feet of the audience and held a microphone stand with a microphone on it in a horizontal position vaguely waiving it in front of Ivan and trying not to trip him up as he paced the centre of the hall like a nimble boxer in a boxing ring.

The ensuing discussion was fiery. Quite a number of people from the audience got involved, and Ivan himself, already hot under the collar from the welcoming reception, got even hotter. Tom Collins, the chairman, had an impossible task trying to contain and direct the discussion. It was not what one would call a pleasant evening, unless one could be so detached from the proceedings as to enjoy the cut and thrust of passion-filled arguments and Ivanís impatience with and intolerance of ëfoolsí. Many people probably went home feeling insulted. On that particular evening, Ivan was all barb and no balm.
On the train he relaxed and became very warm towards me, inviting me to come and live with him in Penn State (Pennsylvania State University) in September. I could stay for a month or two and participate in some conversations he was organising, attend his lectures in the college, use the university library, have access to all his writings, and meet many of his friends. As it turned out, the radio crew were delighted. They got enough material on tape to make two half-hour programmes, and John Quinn, who has now just retired, still speaks of the occasion as one of the highlights of his radio career.

The following day was more relaxed and far less hectic. We travelled to Inis Mór, via car and plane, and arrived at my home, a small thatched cottage in the middle of the island, around 11 a.m. The day itself was idyllic, with blue skies and a warm, balmy breeze. It was to be a day of religious ritual rather than discussion and debate.

Ivan met the members of my household. He drank tea, perused the daily paper (something he rarely ever did), and dandled a child on his lap. Then we headed off to the village of Kilronan, a journey of about two miles, on pony and trap courtesy of my neighbour. It was the feast of Corpus Christi and there was to be a Eucharistic procession through the streets of the village. Ivan was ecstatic to discover it and wanted to participate in it to the full. He produced a rosary beads from his pocket, and we joined in the procession, the worship and the singing.

In the afternoon, it being a holy day, we celebrated Mass in Killeany Lodge, where Ivan met more of the extended group who were part of our project on Aran. Ivan called our project an experiment in living and was very supportive of it. I invited him to concelebrate the Mass with me and offered him a stole, but he declined.

By 5 p.m. we had to leave Aran by plane (for which he criticised me ó why could we not have travelled by boat? The answer of course was that time would not permit), in order to catch the last train from Galway to Dublin. Ivan was to take a plane to Germany early the next morning. On the train he relaxed and became very warm towards me, inviting me to come and live with him in Penn State (Pennsylvania State University) in September. I could stay for a month or two and participate in some conversations he was organising, attend his lectures in the college, use the university library, have access to all his writings, and meet many of his friends.

This is exactly what I did ó an experience that has been a major watershed in my life. I stayed six weeks with him, in a rented house that was shared by a number of other people, all co-workers of his. The conversations that took place were weekend events with invited participants from all over the world, mainly Europe, the States, and South America. Up to twenty people participated. Each session began with a presentation on some topic and continued with open discussion under the direction of a chairperson. Meals were prepared and eaten communally, where discussion continued informally and people got to know one another.

I felt very privileged to be at these gatherings, and a little out of my depth, as all of these participants were established intellectuals well accustomed to research and intellectual debate and many of whom had published books. Participants included, for example, Wolfgang Sachs (German), Gustavo Esteva (Mexican), David Abram (U.S.), Hans Achterhaus (Holland) and Majid Rahnema (Iran), all of whom are now well-known names in their fields.

I came home from Penn State with a large bundle of Ivanís writings and lectures (many unpublished), as well as other material. I had written permission from Ivan to publish anything of his in Ireland. From this came the impetus to launch the AISLING Magazine, the first issue of which came out a little over a year later, in January 1991.

Since that time, Ivan has been to Ireland on two further occasions. The first was in 1990 to attend a conversation we organised in Killeany Lodge, Inis Mór, on the subject of education. On that occasion he travelled with Lee Hoinacki and Manfred Verner, two of his co-workers. The conversation was modelled on the conversations I had experienced at Penn State, and in attendance were people we had invited from all over Ireland. It was at this meeting that Ivan first met John Seymour, the well known writer and campaigner on environmental matters. John subsequently went to Germany to work with Ivan and others on a ëStatement on Soilí.

The second occasion was a brief visit in November of 1999 to attend the baptism ceremony of our twin daughters, Macha and Surnaí, and to act as godfather to Surnaí. It was to be his first and last time to meet the child. However, I think that Surnaí will be aware of him all through her life.

Ivan was a nomad on this earth. He owned no property, never married or had children, lived with friends, and took on work only where he was invited to do so by friends. He told me he made very little money out of his publications. His contracts with universities were always on the basis that he could lecture on topics he had chosen himself. At lectures that I attended in Penn State, most of those attending were members of staff, there out of interest. He was ruthless with college students who chose his courses simply to get points. He would weed them out on their first day, tell them they had their points and order them not to come back.

From the late 60ís onwards, Ivanís ideas were foundational for such diverse causes as the green movement, the deschooling/homeschooling movement, basic Christian communities, liberation theology, alternative medicine, appropriate technology, and the survival of indigenous peoples and their cultures.

I have often wondered why I was privileged to be so close to Ivan. He surrounded himself with intellectuals, most of whom worked in universities, or spent their time writing books and lecturing. His work against the institutionalising and technologising of life was always at an intellectual level. Unlike Gandhi, he never took on physical work or walked on the campaign trail. I surmise that the reason he warmed to me and to our project on Aran was that he saw that we too were doing the same work as he, but at a practical level ó creating a way of life that was subsistent in itself, true to its cultural tradition, and resistant to the inroads of institutionalisation, technology and the market. Perhaps he also saw in me a priest like himself, one who in time had become disillusioned by the institutional church, but who was still fired by the ideals of the gospel.

On the day Ivan died, Monday December 2nd 2002, I had the feeling that his soul travelled to Aran and hovered over our house sometime between 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. Doubtless he was on his way to Scellig Michael, the monastic island off County Kerry, where souls are gathered by the archangel Michael to prepare for their journey to heaven.
  Dara Molloy is co-editor of The AISLING Magazine.

Lee Hoinacki and Carl Mitcham are the editors of a timely new book on Ivan Illich entitled The Challenges of Ivan Illich. It is a collection of reflective essays on the work of Illich. See Bookshelf.