When Castlebar man Liam Egan set off for Kenya in the summer of 1971 he believed in his core that he and his friends would change the world, writes JEMIMA BURKE.
It’s a mind-set he struggles now to explain in 21st century society: "I know why I went to Kenya… I was going as a volunteer to make the world a better place. In the back of my mind there was a sense of duty, a sense of vocation.
"That sounds so old-fashioned now," he smiles.
A man proud of his Mayo heritage and coming from a long line of school principals and teachers, Liam was 15 years old when his father John handed him the keys to Cornanool National School and said ‘there you go, teach them!’
"It crystallised in my mind that day," reminisces Liam. "I knew I would be a teacher."
Out in Kenya, he worked in a small, 100-strong girls’ school, Mutune Primary School, in Kitui County.
"The school was struggling," Liam recalls. "At one stage we had eight subjects and four teachers. I ended up teaching cookery on top of everything else! It was fascinating to be there at that stage because, more than anything else, we were creating in these girls a self-confidence, an awareness of their capability. It was Kenya building itself after colonialism. I spent the whole of the ‘70s there."
Maybe it holds true that blood is thicker than water or perhaps the words of the poet Raftery began to ring in Liam’s ears as far out as the bush in Kenya: "Ó chuir mé i mo cheann é, ní chónóidh mé choíche / Go seasfaidh mé síos i lár Chontae Mhaigh Eo (I’ve put my mind to it, and I won’t rest again, ‘til I stand in the middle of the County Mayo)."
Ten years after leaving Ireland, Liam came home. It was 1981.
"I belonged in Mayo. My roots were here. It’s where I have that sense of belonging and of place. I got my DNA tested a couple of years ago and I found out I am 89% west of Ireland. Isn’t that a great feeling. This is who I am."
Liam’s life after Kenya has been marked by the same inspiration that prompted him to leave in the first place: a zest for helping others.
He set up Castlebar VTOS (Vocational Training Opportunities Scheme) in 1991 and is well known for his dedication to the debating students at Davitt College over the years.
An avid promoter of public speaking classes in schools, Liam holds that the Leaving Cert exams are ‘a communication exercise, nothing else’.
He adds: "It is you putting information down on a piece of paper that somebody is going to read and understand. And yet, in most schools, it often ends up with an unfortunate young teacher trying to run public speaking and debating over lunchtime. It’s just not a priority."
Debating did become a priority in Davitt College where every week Liam takes a class of students to train in communications.
Watching ‘gawky, uncomfortable, clumsy’ teenagers transform into confident young speakers is, in Liam words, ‘totally fulfilling.’
When asked to describe the purpose of debating he replies in an instant: "Debating is about getting students involved: the walking genius, the sporty featherhead, the intense young man, the blonde and all that goes with the blonde. They learn to work together. The interaction is wonderful."
He adds: "It’s not just the ability to speak. It is the inner confidence that is hugely important."
It’s hard not to miss the conviction in Liam’s voice when he speaks of self-expression and the importance of ‘voicing’ one’s beliefs: "I never shy away from telling people who I am and what I believe. The fear we have of saying ‘I believe this’ or ‘I am in favour of this’ is damaging and in modern Ireland it runs right through."
Last year, Egan returned to Kenya, and Mutune Primary School, after a 40-year absence.
"I was in tears because so much, yet so little, had changed. The ethos that we had created still existed. The ‘model house’ where I lived was still there. A lot of the old memories were still there but the school has hugely expanded. It’s now one of the premier schools in Kenya with over 600 students.
"To go back and realise that you did actually change the way people thought, that’s a wonderful feeling. I talked to girls who were there in my time who are now incredibly successful and powerful women. Their success is my thanks."
While in Africa last year, Liam travelled from Kenya to Tanzania but left for Ireland earlier than planned after ‘six guys with machetes’ tried to break into his house at 2 a.m.
"I had a wonderful old Maasai guard called Moses," he said. "He was no spring chicken – but the thing you need to understand about the Maasai is there is no word in the Maasai vocabulary for fear."
The Maasai are a tribe that straddle the border between Kenya and Tanzania. They are a warrior, lion-killing society that has never been westernised or subdued by the British.
Liam told the story: "Moses attacked these six guys, calling out in the night. My house was in the middle of the town and everywhere in Tanzania is guarded by Maasai. Four of the guys heard the Maasai coming and they ran. Two, however, stood their ground.
"When the other Maasai guard from next door came jumping over the wall one of these two ran. The other stood his ground and tried to kill Moses."
When all the hullabaloo was over Moses’ friends came knocking on Liam’s door. He looked out and saw Moses’ head and hands covered in blood after he had grabbed the machete with his bare hands. A cut ran within inches of an artery in his brain.
Liam is still overcome remembering that morning when he sat in the hospital, looking at Moses and thinking: "I pay this man a pittance and he has put his life on the line for me. How do I pay him back? How do I thank him?"
"I thought ‘it’s not your job to die for me’. I decided at that point – my time in Africa was done. I needed to go home."
After paying his hospital bills and buying Moses a cow (cattle mean everything to the Maasai) Liam returned home.
His travels have broadened his horizons and caused him to think deeply about life and society.
His insights into society are deep, thought-provoking and far-reaching: "Most children nowadays do not have a strong sense of family and place and belonging and belief… It troubles me sometimes.
"They don’t have that acute sense of right and wrong. If you don’t believe in right and wrong then everything is acceptable.
"There are occasions when I think that growing up in the ‘50s in Ireland there was a certainty. You were certain about things. You knew exactly what was what and where was where and what was black and white.
"But today, where are we going? What’s the next stop? What can we believe? What can we depend on?"
These are questions we should all ask ourselves but as Yeats so eloquently said: "You’ll never plough a field by turning it over in your mind."
Liam, a self-described ‘child of the sixties’, asks questions and works hard.
He may not have changed the world in the way he thought he would, but his tireless input into the lives of others will continue to have an enduring effect from the bush in Kenya to the bogs of Mayo.