Wednesday, April 23, 2014


So the teachers of Ireland are having their annual get-togethers as I write this and there seem to be two things that are engaging the nation as a result....well those who are on Twitter anyway. 

Firstly there is the idea that Ruairi Quinn floated about ‘defeminising’ primary teaching by introducing a requirement for candidates to have honours maths.   Leaving the ‘defeminising’ element aside because that would be an entire column in itself, the idea that potential teachers of four to 12 year olds should have honours maths to me shows a worrying lack of what it is that makes a good teacher of  very young children.  Some individuals more cynical than I assumed that this daft idea was merely to deflect the debate away from the Junior Cert mess and other issues. 

Twitter was also consumed with lecturing the badly behaved teachers who showed no respect for their Minister by their heckling, use of a megaphone and slow clapping.  If I saw one I saw ten tweets to the effect that teachers should be providing better example to their students by behaving better.  Mmmmm...  I have a sneaking regard for rebels and strongly believe in the need to make our voices heard when we passionately disagree with something that is being implemented.  I still believe that most teachers have the welfare of our children at heart so I can understand their anger.

Let us not underestimate the power of teachers on our lives and on the lives of our children.  On receiving her Fellowship Award at the last BAFTAs earlier in the year Dame Helen Mirren talked about teachers.  “My journey to this place, right here and right now, began with a great teacher”, she said.  She went on to reference Alice Welding who taught her the power of literature and who alone encouraged her to become an actor.  Ms Mirren asked her audience how many of them remembered a great teacher who had “opened the gate that led to the path that led you here”?  She asked for a show of hands.  “That’s a lot of teachers”, she remarked.

We are lucky if we have had one great teacher in our lives. We are truly blessed to have had two or more.   And these great teachers may or may not have been actual teachers.  My first great teacher was a teacher.  Her name was Mrs Nellie McGloughlin and she taught my class in Oliver Plunkett National School in Monkstown.  When I was 7, I thought Mrs McGloughlin was old.  She had grey hair and wore comfortable shoes which she kicked off one at a time as she warmed her foot on the heating pipe in the classroom on chilly days.  She was one of those brilliant teachers who didn’t force us to learn but rather opened our young minds to endless possibilities, endless stories, and endless interesting facts. 

Mrs McGloughlin also seamlessly shifted from Irish to English and back again, right throughout the day.  She read us poetry – in both languages – not so that we could understand the concepts being articulated but rather so that we could develop an appreciation of the beauty of language.  She encouraged us in ‘creative writing’.  She even gave us advice on how to find a good partner in life. 

We were incredibly lucky in that Mrs McGloughlin taught us from second to sixth class.  When myself and my classmates made the transition to the local convent secondary school our oral Irish marked us out as the girls from Oliver Plunkett.

My second teacher came into my life shortly after I had turned 30 years of age.  I was not in a happy place for lots of reasons, the lack of a job I liked being one of them.  I was ‘temping’ at The Alzheimer Society of Ireland and the Chairman was an amazing man called Michael Coote.  Michael had just turned 80 years of age but was one of the most creative, positive, energetic people I have ever met.  But more than all that, just as Helen Mirren said, he saw something in me and he gave me an opportunity. 

He offered me the newly created role of PRO for the fledgling charity.  For the next couple of years he mentored and guided me.  He taught me so much; about selling, about motivating volunteers, about ensuring your message was heard.  He was simply inspirational.  Just like a good teacher should be.

I hope the cynics are right about Minister Quinn’s motives for introducing the mad idea of primary teachers needing Honours Maths.  Because the teaching of young children is as much about magic and endless possibility as it is about reading and writing and adding.  If teachers should require an honour in anything it should be in magic and perhaps another in creativity.  And thankfully some are born with just that.   

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Ni Neart Go Cur Le Cheile

When I watched the first of TV3’s new format People’s Debates with Vincent Browne I admired the courage of the station in attempting to give equal voice to ‘ordinary’ people as to elected politicians and aspiring politicians.  However I did feel that there was a lot of shouting and not a lot of coherence.  So when the second one was announced as being a women only debate on the subject as to whether or not we had yet achieved ‘liberation’ I wasn’t overly enthusiastic. 

But being me and afraid I might miss something, a character trait (flaw?) that has kept me on Twitter for six years, I rocked along to the magnificent HD studios in Ballymount last Wednesday. 

As someone who is a member of the National Women’s Council and also involved with the Women on Air group, I was immediately surprised that I didn’t know more than a handful of the women present.  As I took my seat in the studio I wondered if there was some kind of snobbery at work here.  There weren’t many (if any) TDs at the first People’s Debate and there was not a sign of a woman TD last Wednesday either.  I know we don’t exactly have a lot of female TDs but I was disappointed that not one had shown up.

I enjoyed the evening very much.  There is something very .... I am slow to say special...but it is special when a group of women come together.  Perhaps it’s the very different energy, the different dynamic. 

I was struck by the humour of the evening and also by the very articulate contributions from almost every woman who spoke.  There was passion too.  And believe me there were all points of view in the studio... from very Catholic women to women who were very vocal campaigners for liberal abortion. 

I am aware from the commentary on Twitter afterwards that some women felt their voices weren’t heard and that is a shame but I guess an inevitable fact at any event. 

But I felt that there was a tangible willingness in the studio for women to listen to each other.  It was said time and time again that true equality is about choice.  And this is something I have written about many times.  But more than choice I also think that in order for the cause of feminism to move forward we women must be tolerant of views that run completely to our own.

Abortion is possibly the most divisive of these issues but there are others too. It is vital that as women we realise that to move forward we must all stand together.  We must park our differences and our battles over issues such as abortion.  I understand that abortion is something many feminists will say is fundamental to our freedom as women... but if we continue to insist on all women signing up to that agenda we are doomed to failure.  There are also very feminist women who do not support liberal abortion laws.  That does not make them less of a feminist.

Equality is indeed about choice but it is also about tolerance.  We are not a homogenous group – we are as different as we are the same. 

As the debate wound to its conclusion two things were clear to me.   The new Irish women – many of whom on the night were African had so much to add to our conversation about equality.  Their voices were such a welcome addition and they brought wonderful insights to the debate.  The other thing that came up time and time again was the ‘work of caring’.  Until we as a nation value the work of caring and until it is subsidised by our taxes we will never be fully liberated.

Exactly 100 years before we gathered in a TV studio in Ballymount, a group of women met in Wynne’s Hotel in Dublin and founded Cumann na mBan.   I have no doubt that these women were equally full of passion and enthusiasm for their cause and the cause of national freedom.  But in the end they were divided, like the rest of the country on the issue of partition and the Treaty.  And so the cause of Irish women’s liberation ground to a halt.

There is a lesson there for women of 2014.  Some issues will remain divisive for years to come.  Don’t let that force us apart and therefore delay our full liberation for another century. 

Ni neart go cur le cheile