The students of Colaiste Eile were my candle flame
“I like the dreams of the future, better than the history of the past” (Thomas Jefferson)
For the students who returned to second chance education at Coláiste Éile, the above quotation is extremely relevant. I am going to speak about the years that I had the honour of being Co-ordinator of Coláiste Éile. When I was appointed on 1 January 1995, I named the Vocational Training Opportunity Scheme (VTOS) facility Coláiste Éile, believing then and now that naming the centre would be a way of bringing dignity and pride to all there. Coláiste Éile facilitated a Vocational Training Opportunity Scheme (VTOS), a scheme which provides another chance for education to eligible persons over 21 years old, who are long-term unemployed, on one-parent family allowance, on disability allowance or on an invalidity allowance. Most students were early school leavers, and had faced numerous and soul-destroying disadvantages in their lives.
An assumption is very often made that because you are an early school leaver, that you have no brains or unable to learn for some reason. The students of Coláiste Éile rubbished that belief and in fact many are multi-talented and have multiple intelligences.
The power of education to liberate and transform peoples lives is quantifiable and visible.
Many students come from difficult and challenging lives, yet they return to education with an exuberance and a willingness to learn that always astonished me no matter how often I witnessed it. In the years between 1995 and 2001, I saw many hard examples of this. The students have just two years to attain the Leaving Certificate standard on a VTOS programme. The students themselves opted for classes to start at 8.00am, such was their enthusiasm and it was to their credit that in the dark winter mornings they would be the only people on Liberty Square rushing to have a cuppa and get ready for class.
The number of students who went on to third-level institutions every year was both encouraging and exciting, gaining certificate, diplomas and degrees. Many achieved accolades such as “student of the year”, attained honours degrees, and several continued to Master Degree programmes and higher in various universities, institutes of technology and other third-level institutions. Several are now fully qualified teachers, some have managerial positions and others are employed in diverse fields of employment. Their return to education has benefited each and every one and has had a positive impact on their lives.
Coláiste Éile also opened its doors to Leaving Certificate students who were excluded from their own schools and who finished their Leaving Certificate very successfully. Young teenagers who finished their education at the early age of fourteen or younger also benefited from Coláiste Éile. These very young people were also taught every day by both the staff and the voluntary teachers and by students of the centre. I know that we did make a difference from their letters and from their phone calls. Students often told me then and since, that the motivation and nurturing that prevailed in all aspects of life in Coláiste Éile, worked very successfully and gave every student self-esteem, dignity and a realisation of their valuable contribution to society.
Setting up and managing the “Women’s Groups” that operated in the country parishes also provided a very exciting project for me which made education available in rural areas around Thurles. The innovative idea of bringing education to women in their local area was instigated by Luke Murtagh. I was delighted to be able to rise to the challenge of making these groups a reality. In 1995 we started with three groups and this rose to fifteen groups over the following years. These were later overseen with dedication by Sheila Gleeson. David Leahy (CEO) and Jim Casey (Chairman) are carrying on a fine tradition of encouraging access to education and are to be complimented on their commitment to adult education throughout North Tipperary.
To ensure a successful outcome skilled and motivated teachers in Coláiste Éile who were generally part-time, and the consistent results, year in year, year out is a tribute to their expertise, their commitment to their profession and the energy, time, care and patience they were prepared to give to those returning to education.
Coláiste Éile was a special centre where an ethos of caring and sharing prevailed. The community spirit that existed between staff, students, and volunteers, all of whom were totally committed to the betterment of all students made this a unique centre. In addition to the great academic achievements and progress, there was always laughter and camaraderie, support and concern. Literacy and literature classes were provided by volunteers like Jerry Walshe, Bridie Corbett, Mary Corcoran, Mary Coughlan, Nuala Stakelum, Chris McDonnell, Sr. Angela Kinane and Liam Foley (Fr). Numeracy classes were provided by the indomitable and talented Martin Ryan. Literacy and numeracy problems make the world a daunting place for anyone and without the aid of the volunteer tutors in these subjects we could not have addressed these issues. Professor Micheál Ó hÉigeartaigh and Dr. Jim O’ Shea also joined the volunteer tutors, both giving the students and myself immeasurable assistance in their areas of expertise. We were fortunate in having Fr. Jim Purcell who cared for the essential spiritual aspects of our small community and involved them in the liturgy. Each of these volunteers spent many hours weekly in Coláiste Éile, their successes visible and measurable. No work of education was foreign to the centre, and the challenges were always met with an understanding and a kindness that allowed people to continue to receive the education that they had missed out on. In doing so, teachers, voluntary staff, and others gave the best that it is possible for human beings to give to the education process.
Coláiste Éile was also supported by many statutory bodies, including the Community Welfare Officers, the Gardai, Social Welfare, Mental Health Services, MABS, the Public Health Nurses, Thurles UDC, Fás, and by voluntary organisations such as the Thurles St. Vincent de Paul Society, and the Central Council of the St. Vincent de Paul Society and by members of the local clergy, particularly Fr. Eugene Everard. Their ready support and care enhanced the work of Colaiste Eile and the lives of the students.
We also got invaluable assistance from Gairm Scoil Mhuire, the sisters of the Presentation Convent, the Christian Brothers both in Thurles and Cashel and from the early beginnings, from the Tipperary Institute with whom we shared the same building. Without all of this ongoing, unstinting and generous support from all of these organisations the successes we enjoyed could not have been achieved.
The Computer training that was set up in 1999 and was the pride and joy of all who used it under the guidance of the uniquely talented and singularly reliable Pat Gormley, and his ace team of Jim Quin, Pat Troy, Adrian Cullagh, Ronnie Jackson, Kevin Carey, Sean Ryan and the Queen herself, Josephine Delaney. The thousands of unpaid hours given by these individuals to the setting up, maintenance and provision of the Computer facility and training programmes, were graciously given and expertly delivered. Thanks to them and to start-up funding received from the Society of the St Vincent de Paul Central Council, we were able to offer a first-class training not only to our own students but to others outside of the VTOS programme.
I would like to thank all of the night-class students who supported the College as well as the business people and the professionals in the town and the factories who sent their personnel to be trained in ECDL etc, thereby supporting the day-time students by enabling the modernisation of facilities and IT training equipment that was acquired by the funds generated.
The Tipperary Star supported us in a very public way and always added great recognition, dignity and celebration to the lives and successes of our students. This was very important in many ways to the students, not least, that they were being recognised for the challenges that they met and surmounted with great tenacity.
Coláiste Éile was a unique and special TRAINING centre, with goodwill and support always available to support the students in their onward journey to success. Over the years I saw over and over again how significant personal life events are, and how inseparable they are from people’s academic and working lives. We celebrated many joyous events, births, marriages and one marriage that was celebrated in the centre itself, without alcohol – a unique – but inspiring occasion for the very happy couple involved and an example for all of us. We shared great sadness together too, when we mourned the loss of Michael Ryan, James Ryan, Andre Gedigh. Billy Phillips, Patrick Doherty and Thomas Brolan. Go dtuga Dia suaimhneas síoraí dá n-anamacha uaisle.
My sincere thanks to the Chairman Jim Casey, and the C.E.O. David Leahy, for their generosity and commitment to funding this Bursary in my name. The financial help will benefit a student from Colaiste Eile each year. I would also like to thank North Tipperary VEC for allowing and encouraging me over the years to develop Coláiste Éile as an inclusive, accommodating and nurturing educational centre for the people of Thurles. I would like to thank the staff in the VEC offices for always being aware of the students needs and always answering the call of duty.
I am accepting The “Peg Hanafin Bursary” being funded and launched today by North Tipperary VEC on behalf of all the people who gave diverse support, and in recognition of the efforts of all staff members, the volunteers and the students. As you can see no one person could achieve the profound life changes that occurred on a daily basis in Colaiste Eile.
Finally my heartfelt gratitude to all the students of Coláiste Éile, who continue diligently to write letters, send cards, and mass bouquets, who telephone and visit me. You have been the candle flame in my life during the long illness with which I was burdened. I was glad I didn’t know in the beginning that the life I shared with you all in such a loving and happy environment was over. But you have kept it all alive and I love and care and wish each of you, all the success you so deserve in the future.
I would like to say a final thank you to both the chairman, Jim Casey and the CEO of NTVEC for bringing my time in Colaiste Eile to a happy conclusion and for making this day possible.