Circumnavigating the world in a home-made boat, dodging pirates in the Red Sea, spending weeks at sea without any sign of human existence, this was the perfect inspiration for the critical and philosophic mind of Fergus Quinlan. His three year and 40,000 mile journey around the world gave him a lifetime of memories, but it also gave him the mental ammunition to write his first book on philosophy and politics – ‘The Republic of Reason and The Poverty of Philosophy’. He speaks with Andrew Hamilton.
AH: Before I talk to you about the book I might first ask you about your voyage around the world. How did that come about?
Fergus: I’ve always been interested in sailing. I started off canoeing and I would leave the children at home when I went off canoeing – which made me feel a bit guilty, so I moved on to boats and eventually got to the stage when I wanted to build a boat. So between 1995 and 1997 I got myself into a shed in Dublin with [his wife] Kay, and for tree years we cut steel and welded steel until we had a boat. That was a very exciting project. We eventually sailed around Ireland before we did the first major trip, to New York and back, and that worked brilliantly. So we got to 2009 and I hit 63 years and I figured, if we don’t do the big one, we would never do it. So we headed off around the world. We left Kinvara on June 6 and arrived back three years later having done 40,000 miles. It was a brilliant adventure, the best thing we ever did.
AH: What route did you take?
Fergus: From the west of Ireland we went straight down to northern Spain as far as Cape Verde. We stopped at lots of places on our way of course. From Cape Verde then we went straight across the Atlantic to Barbados and then on to the Panama Canal. We went out the other side and got into this rather big ocean [the Pacific]. The big jump was from the Galapogos to the Marquesas which was about 3,000 miles. That was 20 days at sea, just the two of us, and you see absolutely nothing – not a single boat or ship – but it was a beautiful place to be.
AH: Did you have any contact at all with the outside world at that time?
Fergus: The contact that you have is with a long-range radio, we got about 4,000 miles of contact with that radio. That gave us contact with other boats, which were behind or in front of us. So we had some contact and if the shit hit the fan we had a life raft, but you wouldn’t want to be out in the middle of the Pacific in a life raft. Thankfully nothing happened. We spent a long time in French Polynesia and then went to New Zealand and Australia. We had planned to go north to Oman, to the Red Sea and home, however this is where got the biggest blow of the trip. Friends we knew were on a yacht ahead, and we were on communication with them. We knew that they had been boarded by pirates and the next thing we heard was that they were all dead. We will never know for sure what happened, but we think an American frigate attempted a rescue and everyone on board was killed. That shut down the Red Sea for us – there was no question after that of any of us going up the Red Sea. They [the pirates] were operating more than 2,500 miles off the Somali coast at that stage, so it would have been foolish to try. So we had to cross the Indian Ocean, which is one of the roughest seas in the world.
AH: The Indian Ocean is notoriously stormy, what was that crossing like?
Fergus: I can see why nobody wants to cross it. You get hammered. Every 15 seconds you hit a wall of water that buries the boat and completely covers the boat. Boats are much tougher than people. So you just baton down the hatches and cross your fingers. You couldn’t possible get on deck, you would be washed right off. So you grin and bear it and believe it or not the boat comes out the other side. And we reached fabulous places, like South Africa. There were so many fabulous places that I couldn’t possibly list them. We got around the Cape and then eventually back home. But that trip did add 7,000 miles to out trip home.
AH : We could talk about that trip for a full day.
Fergus: At least a day.
AH: But I would like to know more about the book that came from the journey. Being out at sea and isolated, and seeing all these amazing places, was probably a fertile breeding ground for different types of thought?
Fergus: It is. You are in a place where there is no private property. In fact sometimes you don’t see people at all. And you end up looking back and thinking about society with all its appalling divisions like nationalism, religion, wealth and poverty. You get angry at times. Some of the islands we landed on were so poverty stricken it made me ashamed to be a human. But some of the islands were in great conditions. So it is possible to achieve these high standards, but it is also possible to achieve very low standards. So this made me reflect on Ireland, on my children and my grandchildren and ask where are we going? Which direction are we going? You look at America, with it massive wealth gap and so many people in jail, and it seems that that’s the way Ireland is going. That’s one model, but there is a better model. I think we need to paint a Utopian model, something at least to aim for. You never hear a politician saying that we need a egalitarian future. But if we took steps in that direction we can get there. But we never hear that. I see one of the big problems standing in the way of achieving that is this disconnection between how we live our scientific lives and where our moral lives come from. They are out of context with each other. Religion is still driving our moral philosophy but really, no one even believes in it anymore. So we need a new philosophy based on how we share things and how we build a more egalitarian society.
AH: Before we get too deep into the philosophy itself, I wonder how these ideas were formed in you. Before you went on the trip, when you were young even, did you have this feeling that something just wasn’t right?
Fergus: I think I’ve felt it all my life. I was born and raised in a good Catholic family, I was an alter boy and I could do the whole mass in Latin. But, unfortunately, I started asking questions. I couldn’t understand how a child just born is covered in sin. I started annoying my parents and they sent me off to annoy priests and every answer I got was worse. So by the time I reached 17 all of my belief systems had collapsed. So I started to piece together, bit by bit, what might have been a moral structure. I was involved in debates and politics as a student, becoming more conscious all the time. I was involved in protests against the war in Vietnam, against apartheid and for civil rights in Northern Ireland. All of those things were spurring on my interest in philosophical debate. I had children quite young and I realised that they couldn’t be baptised – and for awhile there was war [within his family]. But we brought the children up as children, nothing else.
AH: Did this trip then, allow you to separate from society and allow you to take this broader approach, not just thinking about how you live your life, but about how society should be organised?
Fergus: Yes, it sounds ridiculous to say, but it was the like the monks living off on an island off the west coast, contemplating in their little stone cells. Well, being in a boat in the middle of the Atlantic is a little like that. You have lots of time to think on things, to make notes, and discuss them with my wonderful wife. You are separate. It’s very real but you are divorced from reality. So the book formed very slowly after that.
AH: You’ve mentioned a few things that you are not for, but what are you for? What kind of ethos are you suggesting in the book?
Fergus: Well, an ethos for one thing that is much more moral. I look at societies to the north of Europe and they are much more moral. The further they get away from God and religion the more moral they get. I think the religious societies are fading anyway, but rather than letting them fade out into a more consumer focussed society, I think we need to have a better moral structure. To create a society where people think and care about each other.
AH: Is it almost like a tribal approach, where people have a strong community and a feeling of responsibility for each other?
Fergus: Well yes, but I think this is very natural in people anyway. We naturally care for each other, that is why we are such a successful species. So this [book] is an attempt to get critically thinking and allow us to solve the problems that face us.
AH: How will this imagined society work then. Because, for better or worse, religion and commerce have proved very successful in organising people over the centuries. If you want to create this different society, how will that come about? As a politically driven change?
Fergus: I think it must start with critical thinking. If you look at NASA and CERN and all the incredible discoveries that those two organisations are making. Imagine if just one of those organisations focused their energies on how, practically, to build an egalitarian society. Imagine if just one university in Ireland focussed on this task. Think what kind of progress we would make. But we never do that. You have to have a Utopian vision, and people might say I am naive and we will never get there. Maybe not, but maybe we might start moving in that direction.
AH: This seems like it would require a major change in governance and how we operate?
Fergus: Yes it would, and to achieve that we really need to start with children. It is either evolution or revolution and all the revolutions that we have had turned out to be very wasteful and bloody. So evolution through democracy is the best tool that we have so far. I think we need to develop a critically thinking electorate who are well educated and have a grasp of how to extend these ideas bit by bit. At the moment we have the same old same old, the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. We have the financial power now to make this work, not in 20 years time. We just need to will.
AH: What you are talking about sounds a like Marxism, like moving in that direction at least?
Fergus: Yes, of course. I think we need to learn lessons from the past, from communism and socialism. You keep trying until you get it right. At the moment we are only trying one model [capitalism] and it is not looking good for the future.
AH: You mentioned democracy and taking practical steps towards this vision. With that in mind, is there anyone out there to vote for that fits this vision that you have in mind? Anyone who is even a step towards this vision?
Fergus: It is difficult. What I do is vote as much to the left as I can – even if I don’t agree with everything they stand for. It’s about moving in that direction. It is about pushing things ever so slightly to the left. I do realise that it seems a little hopeless, so I do think that education might change this and a move towards a more rational system.
AH: Do you have hope for how things are going now? In a way, many of the things you are talking about are being achieved – or we are moving in that direction. Education, for example, is much more secular than it was 20 or 40 years ago.
Fergus: It is, but I do see a twist. Back in the 1960s we had protest and action – the students were externally involved. Now when they protest, it is about school fees and things that are happening to them. They can go into a company or a bank and do brilliant work, but they don’t look around to the wider world. The whole social ethos has gotten less. That is something we need to tackle.
The Republic of Reason is available from www.therepublicofreason.ie.