‘Equality isn’t achieved by treating everybody the same’

Aine Hyland

Musings from Edmund Rice Week @ the Cork Life Centre


We had a more than interesting discussion today with Professor Áine Hyland about educational equality- who better to take a master class with than the woman who has spent most of her life advocating for children’s educational rights!

Eloquently  and succinctly in less than 20 minutes Áine gave us a potted history of educational policy in Ireland and the face of educational disadvantage and how it has changed over the past 50 years. Like the very best of teachers  Áine favoured listening over being heard and gave most of the session over to questions, answers and lively discussion. She was quick to point out that while we need to look at the good change that has happened in education we must also look at what is yet to be done.

Again like only the best teachers do Áine was more open to learning from the discussion than playing the traditional role of Professor! When opening up the floor to comments or questions, in relation to the latter she very modestly stated ‘I will probably not be able to answer them’

What resulted was like a beautiful dance where Áine’s research, knowledge and insights were complemented and enlightened wonderfully by the experience of the staff but more so the students of the Cork Life Centre.

We spoke about, amongst other things:

  • retention rates in the Irish context

-shortened school  days

-the fact that Ireland’s version of ‘free education’ is still not enough without further supports

-multiple suspensions that in reality become like expulsions

  • the importance of school culture and the distinct power of people who want to create an inclusive culture

-’difficult’’ students and the realities of how possible it is to engage them & find their strengths

-stereotypes & overgeneralisation that influence the dialogue on ‘early school leavers’

-the problem with this label and how it seems to lay the blame on children and young people

-the fact that children and young people cannot fail school but the school or system fails them

-how funding should follow children and young people when they leave school

And of course the gem of wisdom of the day came from a student sitting at the back of the crowd who conveyed the message of the blog title-that treating people equally isn’t as simple as treating them the same. Silence washed over the room as everyone thought this through.

We have an education system and an approach to tackling ‘disadvantage’ that is completely focused on meeting the needs of all young people within the mainstream system. Yet after 50 years and yes a very substantial drop in the rates of young people leaving school early there is still a substantial cohort of young people(1 in 10) who are falling through the cracks. Roughly 1 in 10 young people in Ireland are still leaving school before completion of senior cycle.

For this reason alternative provision and the creation of a well-resourced consistent alternative structure needs to be high on the agenda of policy-makers.

We were more than privileged to have Áine solidify this idea in the following way  ‘There will always in my view be a need for alternative education provision like the Cork Life Centre and unfortunately it is very rare’

On a less positive note Áine pointed out the reality in Ireland where ‘People believe that schools and only schools can provide the educational experience young people need’

In the weirdly circular way that is life, later in the afternoon I spoke to a former student of our centre(now in University) She is due to attend a consultation we have been invited to this week on ‘Out of School Education Provision’ an opportunity we greatly value especially as we have been invited to bring young people to participate .

One of the key issues which will be addressed at this gathering will be the challenges of out of school education-the second this came up the young person stated that the main problem is stigma. Judgments about your education and how you access it, judgments about the type of ‘young people’ that attend alternative education, judgments about how much you can learn there and needless to say none of these judgments are positive.

A day that provided much food for thought and reminded us of difficult realities.

Yet reflecting on the day I take heart from how it demonstrated yet again how much we can learn from young people-we’re getting a bit better at this in Ireland but we need to double and triple our efforts-Decision-makers if you want to know  about issues that affect young people ASK YOUNG PEOPLE! And in relation to an education system inclusive of all where every child counts I can recognise on reflection that while we have some way to go we have come some of the way and we have time yet. And finally I am heartened by a vision or a dream for the future that I keep close……It goes a little something like this:

Perhaps in 50 years or more in this country there might be no such thing as an ‘early school leaver’ we might dispense with the label altogether because we will no longer need it. Our education system will have developed in a needs-based way to the point that schools will be more than buildings and institutions and young people will access education through methods and environments that best suit their individual needs not just academic but social, personal, relational whether this be in a school or somewhere that looks less like a school. And that will be all there is about that!

Is it a big dream….probably….But then again….

‘’You need to have dreams. Everything starts with a dream’’

Sheila Cornell-Douty

PS Stay tuned-another blog to follow in coming weeks on education by one of our volunteer teachers in conversation with Professor Áine Hyland!




The Leaving Cert By Numbers

Team Work 2

At the Cork Life Centre we spent the most extraordinary day yesterday sitting with our young people as they opened results most had never dreamed of achieving. Most of these young people in fact at many stages had given up on the idea that they would ever complete Leaving Certificate due to their life experiences and their experiences in the education system.  Don our Director was interviewed on 96fm yesterday morning and very succinctly and eloquently explained-‘Our students have had to climb mountains and were then asked to do a 100 yard sprint at the end’ We sat with 11 young people yesterday who had not coped with, had struggled with or had been rejected by Ireland’s mainstream education system. Having effectively been let down by the system you can imagine the privilege it is and the pride we take in showing these young people most importantly but also those who might have doubted or overlooked them that they do matter, that they’re capable and that there is so much they can achieve and contribute.

In our work we promote balanced and measured views about the importance of the Leaving Cert. Far too often, and for far too many young people the Leaving Cert becomes associated with a ‘year of hell’ with being the ‘ultimate decider of one’s future’ with being the only ‘measurement for success’. The success in examinations our students celebrated yesterday is just one among many ways in which they have been successful during their journeys with us and often-times not what they will remember or take with them as they move on through their lives.

The number of the day for us yesterday was 11 and the feeling was joy. But as we and our students got to grips with the new Leaving Cert grading system yesterday I started to think about the Leaving Cert in numbers.

58,543 students received Leaving Cert results yesterday across Ireland. Most of these students will have spent 6 years in a system leading them to one set of exams that measure their accomplishments out of a score of 600. We used to have letters and numbers to indicate achievement –A1’s, B2’s, C3’s etc. This year we got numbers ranging from 1-8.

But let’s look a little deeper at these numbers and think about some of the numbers that often get less focus:

This figure of 58,543 represents those students who complete their secondary education. And we focus on them because they are the majority. But we have another somewhat stubborn figure in our education system-It is 10-representing the 10% of children and young people who do not complete their education and receive the ‘Early School Leavers’ tag and label. We never hear about them on Leaving Cert day but they were very much on our mind at the Cork Life Centre.

We were proud of the achievements of our 11 young people who very likely could have remained uncounted on August 16th-Leaving Cert Results day. But we were disheartened by another number that keeps haunting us-the more than 120 young people we had to refuse placements to this year due to lack of capacity to cater for them.

For too significant a proportion of children and young people our education system just doesn’t add up to meeting their needs. Some children can’t play this numbers game-they get too tired, too lonely, too sad,  too frustrated.

I’m thinking of the children that don’t manage in school because they are seen as having too many difficult behaviours and how these children often can’t find anyone to search for or understand the meaning of their behaviour. I’m thinking of the children lost in the sea of the numbers of other children around them-they simply cannot cope with Ireland’s large class sizes-they can’t keep up, they are too anxious-they need more help, more support, more care than our system can provide. I’m thinking of the children that are already facing so many challenges and obstacles in their personal or social lives that algebra, comprehensions, essay-writing become just insurmountable-without having some other needs met first.

I’m also thinking of the children and young people who come to Ireland under the most difficult circumstances to seek asylum, enter the Irish education system-a culture, curriculum and climate they are not familiar with, sit their Leaving Cert in a language often not their first or their own only to find they cannot enter third level education. Because to do so would require large finances-the number here is 10,000. These young people would need 10,000 euros minimum to pursue their education at university level.

Here are some more much smaller but related numbers:

5 is the number of years an asylum seeking child needs to spend in the Irish education system to quality for third level education in spite of the fact that their families will have often fled their country of origin for fear of death.

4 is the number of applicants who were successful in the last two years in accessing 3rd Level education via the governments scheme for allowing asylum seekers access to higher education.

I return again to the number of 58,543 which our Department of Education and our Minister for Education were happy to speak about and celebrate yesterday. But we did not hear about the 10% of young people who have fallen through the cracks of our education system. We did the maths quickly. If 58,543 represents the 90% of young people who complete their Leaving Certificate and finish school then we can put a rough figure on the number of young people who didn’t get there at 6504.

6504 young people we don’t recall hearing anything about yesterday. And the government will argue they have taken alternative routes-Youthreach and other training programmes. I commend the young people who have done so and encourage that there be alternatives available to young people. But a large percentage of the above figure will have ended up with no opportunities to progress in education and will become part of another number, another statistic-NEETs.

NEET’s are young people aged 16-21 years not in education, employment or training in any given country in any given year. In 2014 Ireland’s percentage of NEET’s was 21% with the EU average at 15%. These numbers must be part of the Leaving Cert story also and their relevance recognised.

What seems clear as we look at the numbers and do the maths is that our Education system continues to fall short-we need a new formula, new numbers, a new equation that works for all children and young people and leaves no child behind.

We would like to return to the number 11 that we started with-a number which might feel small and insignificant to some but for our community represents so many life-changing journeys and achievements . We would like to thank the 11 wonderful young people we handed results to yesterday for letting us into their lives, allowing us to know them, struggle with them, learn from them, encourage them and celebrate with them. When you choose to work with stories as we do rather than statistics the outcomes, the joy, the satisfaction is truly immeasurable.  You just can’t put a number on it.

The Magic of Volunteering


I was at work yesterday pottering around waiting on the arrival of a potential volunteer  I was meeting(something I am always hoping to be doing at this time of the year!) I spotted quite by chance out of the corner of a tired eye a brown envelope that had landed beneath the letterbox.  This was a bit odd! Post is a morning ritual. Picking it up I noted the following handwritten on the envelope-Memory stick -The Life Centre . Sad but true I was intrigued and even got briefly romantic notions of a psychological thriller type scenario- what was on this memory stick!-a sure sign I’ve been watching too much Netflix and not spending enough time with young people! Tentatively I opened it to find a beautiful letter accompanying true to the envelope’s word a small silver memory stick.

Blog Photo

The letter was from a volunteer who had worked with us almost two years previously. Though he had to leave at the time to pursue other work it was more than clear the young people had carved out a place in his heart and his mind. They have a habit of doing that! They’re really good at it and they don’t even have to try!  Since his departure it had been on his mind to put together some notes and presentations that might support young people in their studies. But he didn’t just think about it, he did it! And while it might sound small it made my whole afternoon, my day and beyond I’m sure. That envelope had flitted in through our red door like it was nothing but it represents everything.  Because it got me thinking about all the wonderful people who have walked through that red door and given their time to work with our brilliant young people for 12 weeks, for 6 months, for a year, for 8 years in some cases. And they didn’t all leave memory sticks, but they all left their mark!

So I spend the evening thinking and eventually feeling that need to put pen to paper or far less satisfactory- finger tips to awful tablet-type keypad. Thinking about all the marks left in my own heart by the beautiful , authentic acts of love and support I have witnessed from volunteers in our community down through the years.

I think about the amazing, gentle, free-spirited friend who introduced a young man to music and the guitar and opened up his world to so many new possibilities. I think about the very charming, laid back man who created a bond with a hard to reach young person through their mutual love of Scrubs. I think of the people who dropped a young person to and from boxing twice weekly after-hours because they couldn’t bear to see this love of sport lost. I think of all the people who have stayed on a Friday afternoon to help with cleaning(we don’t have the luxury of a cleaner!) when likely they’d have preferred be anywhere else in the world! I think of the many thousands of times, countless times that volunteers have stayed late, come in early, worked a Saturday because it was about something that mattered for young people and therefore mattered to them. I think of the passion and excitement of volunteers when they find that thing that matters to a young person and a way to support them to build on it and explore it. I think about volunteers who have mopped tears (their own as well as young people’s) and sat through the worst of times with them, celebrated the very best of times with them. The volunteers who text, phone, email after hours, during holidays to check in with me about young people. The volunteers who care enough to be angry when young people are just not getting what they deserve from life and from the system but then do something- turn that anger into something productive. The volunteers who come year-on- year when saying goodbye and worry they got more from the young people than they contributed. I think of the former volunteer who travelled from the UK to be with us and the young people when we tragically lost a student this year. And I can only hope these people knew how much these acts little and large mattered and how they still matter.

It has been nothing short of extraordinary to see time and time again that it is those volunteering their time, their heart, their talent , their energy who seem to be the most likely to go the extra mile, the extra 10 miles, stay the course for the marathon! I hope some of you might be reading this and might know who you are.

So I went this afternoon to meet this potential volunteer with all this in my head and my heart, and I talked(probably too much) , I listened and above all I noted her eyes danced when she spoke about young people. And I said to her ‘You obviously love young people, that’s about 75% of the job’ And I laughed but I meant it because it’s true.

Rachel Lucey

Local teens overcome obstacles with Cork Life Centre

Roisin Burke(As featured on the Evening Echo 08.06.2017)

Delighted to share this article demonstrating the strength, resilience and talent of our young people.

MORE than 6,000 students are taking the Leaving Certificate exams and among them will be a number of students from the Cork Life Centre.

Cork Life Centre is an organisation who works with people to achieve their State Exams against all odds.

Because as we all know, studying for your Leaving Certificate is a big job, but for some people who already have their hands full with personal problems, it can seem like an impossible task.

The school helps students overcome a number of issues ranging from mental health to behavioural problems to excel at academic endeavours.

Director of the Cork Life Centre Don O’Leary said it’s great to see young people from the centre working towards their goals.

“Here are the centre, we like to work to the strengths of the individual, one size does not fit all.” Don said anyone who has completed the Junior Certificate programme at the centre has wanted to go on to do the Leaving Certificate and he thinks this is down to the ethos of the centre.

“Our discipline is very different, we have one rule at the centre and that is respect. Every day is a new day, something happens it is dealt with and then it is gone.” Since 2006, the centre has been increasing its numbers and this year the centre had to turn away 138 students from their door because they do not have the resources to handle the demand.

Open since 2000, 125 people have completed their exams through the centre and on the day of the exams, Don had this advice for people sitting down to their tests.

“My advice to students is not to worry, you have the work done and remember, exams do not determine who you are going to be.”


Emma Doyle, Cork Life Centre. Pic: Eddie O’Hare


Sitting the Leaving Certificate is something Emma Doyle always wanted to do, but for awhile it did not look like a possibility.

Eating disorders, cyberbullying, self-harm, drugs and anxiety are just some of the obstacles that cluttered the path of Emma’s education, however, the teenager persevered against the odds to continue learning and now looks set to follow her dream of studying law.

The trouble has already started by the time Emma reached secondary school.

In sixth class, Emma’s friends had told her she was fat and she developed an eating disorder that plagued her for a number of years.

As well as this, Emma started to self-harm in an attempt to gain control over her situation. “I felt like it was the only way to deal with it. It gave me control over what was going on. I was going to see counsellors as well, but nothing could take away the pain.” Then Emma was the victim of cyberbullying. Through various social media networks, including AskFM, other children ridiculed Emma and left her feeling trapped and alone.

Emma was also pushed and laughed at in the halls of her school.

“Things became unbearable and I tried to take my life.”

Emma took a concoction of pills, including antihistamines and paracetamol, which made her muscles knot in her sleep and she woke her mom up screaming from her bed.

After this Emma moved to another school in her area. The day Emma came out of hospital, she had an interview to go to a new school.

“I looked up to this school, I thought it was an amazing school and the girls there seemed to have everything that I wanted to have.

“For awhile everything was good. I did my Junior Certificate and had a lot of fun in Transition Year, but then things started to change.

“I was segregated from my classmates, deleted from my group chat and loads of other things like that that just made me feel like I had no self-worth.

“I started taking drugs to get relief from what was going on in my head. I wanted to lose more weight and I wanted to feel a sense of happiness.” Emma tried to take her life a second time. This time Emma took a number of pills and tried to hang herself, but she was found by a neighbour who was asked to check on Emma by her mom.

Then Emma says she had an epiphany.

“I started to see what that life was like, and I realised this wasn’t for me and I was tired of trying to control my brain.” Emma left school and started working full time in hotel.

“School was destroying me, I was depressed from it so I started working, which I liked. It was good working every day, getting up and getting paid, but it was never a solution.

“I always wanted to do my Leaving Certificate.” Then Emma found the Cork Life Centre through a friend of a friend and everything changed.

“The contrast to myself a year ago is unbelievable. I have just flourished. I was going nowhere and now I am going somewhere.

I see things in a different light, I am more relaxed, at ease. I am progressing.” Emma said she now realises that the Leaving Certificate is not everything. “I know it is important, but I also know that I have a million other options available to me, such as volunteering in Africa or India.

“I am more grounded now, more myself. I’m not afraid, I’m going to do what I want to do and I am excited about what is ahead of me.” Emma said she loves the way things are done at the Cork Life Centre. “I love how teachers treat students, we sit, eat and learn together. It is community-based, we are a family.”

Speaking about mainstream schooling, Emma said it was a flawed system. “You are assessed on your ability to learn something and transcribe it and I think that is unfair.”

Studying at the Cork Life Centre also helped Emma’s relationship with her mother.

“Our relationship used to be very frayed. I was robbing money from her, she was always worried about me, ringing people trying to figure out where I was. She nearly had a mental breakdown over it.

“Now our relationship is at its peak. I love her to pieces and I tell her everything. Without her none of this would be possible, she is my role model.

“This school has made me flourish and be a better person than I ever thought I could be.”



Eighteen-year-old Colm O’Brien is about to sit his Leaving Certificate, but without the Cork Life Centre, the chances are he would not be in this position.

Mainstream schooling didn’t suit Colm. From the moment he started in first year, he felt like a fish out of water.

“The social environment was very different, but I thought I would adapt. However, by second year I was missing a lot of school.

The hardest part for me was simply getting there. I had no motivation. I found it terrifying the thought that this was my life for the next few years.

“Individually, the teachers were okay, but collectively it was overwhelming. The school was too big to be comfortable.”

Colm began asking his father, who is a teacher, to homeschool him, but his family came up with an even better idea.

“My sister knew someone volunteering at the Cork Life Centre and she suggested I give it a shot.” Colm went for an interview and started on the afternoon programme for the remainder of second year before switching to the morning programme for third year.

Colm said he preferred it to normal school.

“The school’s attitude doesn’t fixate on exams and the socialising in the morning helped me to be more social.” At the Cork Life Centre the teachers and students eat together and they have a number of breaks throughout the day to chat.

Colm said he enjoyed getting to know people and also enjoyed the classes. “The classes used to be one to one which is great, they are not anymore, because we don’t have the resources, but I love to talk and I had great conversations with my teachers.” Since joining the Cork Life Centre, Colm said he is a much more confident person.

“I am less insecure and more able to deal with stuff.” Colm said his parents always remark about the change that has come over him since he joined the Cork Life Centre.

“They are always saying about how different I am now, more confident and chattier.” As well as getting his education, Colm also took part in some extracurricular activities at the centre.

We go down the Meitheal Mara, the Cork community boatyard, once a week for the past two years and have been helping to build boats.

“It was a lot of fun and a very unique experience to be a part of.” Colm will be rowing one of the boats that he helped to make in the Ocean to City race taking place this weekend.

Along with a buddy, Colm will be rowing 14km in his currach.

“I’m looking forward to it, but I think I probably should have done more training for it.” Colm, who plans on being a musician, and is going on to study Music Management and Sound at Colaiste Stiofan Naofa, was just learning guitar when he started at the education centre and has since put together an album of original songs called Reflection in collaboration with the organisation.

The 18-year-old also took a trip to India with the Hope Foundation while studying at the centre.

“I found the experience overwhelming. I had never been in different country before so I had a lot to take in, but I enjoyed it.” Speaking about the ethos of the centre, Colm said some of the reasons it works so well is because everyone gets on and the teachers take an interest in the students.

“They are very sensitive to thoughts and feelings.” Colm said the Cork Life Centre has a healthy approach to exams. “They are taken seriously as part of the system, but we all know they are not the be all and end all. We have other options available to us.”

Listening to Loss: Children and Bereavement

bereavement quote

The Irish Childhood Bereavement Network estimates that in Ireland bereavement affects between 36,000 and 60,000 school children. Yet how many teachers or other professionals have the confidence to really talk to children about death and loss. Sometimes all that may be required is to listen or to give children a medium to express their feelings.

Here is a beautiful extract from ‘I’m Fine’ by A Wootten student of the Cork Life Centre outlining her experience around losing a parent.

Book Cover JPG


Dear Dad,…

I love you with all my heart.

I am 19 now and Victor is 17.

I wish you were here to see what a fine young man he has become.

I wish you were here to guide him.

I wish he could have you as a role-model and a confidant.

I am really worried about him. I am scared that I am going to lose him and mum like we lost you. I am scared that Victor might get depression, like me. That he might experience the pain that I do on a daily basis. I don’t want that for him. I love him and want so badly to protect him from it. He needs guidance and support. He needs a fathers love and input. He was 7 when he lost you!!!!! I have no doubt that he is hurting and that he misses you but he won’t talk to us!

Mum needs someone too. I can see she is hurting. I have always been able to see that. She loves you, she always has. She misses you. I am so so scared of losing her. I just want to protect mum and Victor. Seeing her in pain kills me. I wish there was something I could do. I wish I could make it all go away. I wish she could sleep. I want to give her the world. I would love to make her dream of riding a horse on a beach come true, but I have probably left it too late.

As for me…

I miss you.

I feel like I have forgotten you and I hate myself for that. I swore that I would never forget you. I promised I would take care of mum and Victor. I have failed. I am sorry.

What I would give to see you one last time, to talk to you again, to hug you and tell you that I love you…

What would you make of me now…?

Would you accept that I am only attracted to women?

Would you still love me if I wasn’t your “daughter”?

Would you be there for me when a girl breaks my heart?

Would you hate me for the marks on my body, my scars and tattoos?

Would you look at me with pride or disgust?

I’ll never know.

I’ll never get to introduce a girlfriend to you or to have you there if I get married.

I will never see you play with your grandchildren or hear you laugh.

There are so many things I will never know…

So many stories I’ll never hear…


As much as this all hurts me I hope that you are free of pain now.

I love you and I want to believe that you are proud of us, of your family.



Mr. Fix It

Cross legged with your twin,

Your earthy eyes shining with pride

And love.

Your understudy dutifully mimics

each action; his hero,

his father,

his teacher.


Sitting in a dusky dusty room,

Your hands covering his as the sander

Glides across the worn wooden floor

Lighting up his eyes with joy and fascination.


Outside, building a wall,

The determined grunt of the plastic hardhatted

3 year old version of you, Mr fix it Jnr,

Sitting in the sun, passing you brick after brick,

Tapping the brick to flatten it,

The only men in my life,

Hard at work in the yard.


The tears flowing from those same earthy eyes,

Mr fix it Jnr has lost his teacher.

7 years old and no longer a twin.

Left with only memories and pictures

of the man he aspires to be.



Not just hearing but listening to young people’s voices

Book Cover JPG

What an extraordinary week at the Cork Life centre for our annual Edmund Rice Conference. We have welcomed some wonderful guests into our community. As you enter our door you will see the following words ‘May all who enter as guests leave as friends’. We could not wish for better friends and advocates for children and young people than Deirdre Burke(Founder of the Guardian Project), Shane Griffin(Care Leavers’ Network) and Dr Tony Bates(Founder & Director of Innovation Jigsaw)

On Tuesday Deirdre communicated the need not to give young people just a voice but also an ear. Yesterday morning Shane generously shared his lived experience in the care system where more often than not he felt heard rather than listened to.

In the afternoon we were fortunate to have the support of Dr Tony Bates in giving a voice to one of our own young people by launching ‘I’m Fine’ by A.Wootten which is available to buy-contact corklifecentre@gmail.com for further details. This important piece of work chronicles a dark and difficult journey through the education system, through mental health, self-harm and thoughts of suicide. Who better to understand, validate and honour this journey than Dr Tony Bates. His words yesterday were so powerful we have asked his permission to share them.

Tony bates 2

I’m Fine by Amy Wootten

Book launch in Cork Life Centre | May 3rd, 2017 | Tony Bates

It seems like everybody’s talking about mental health. For the most part, I think this is a good thing. For too long this issue was not talked about. “Not a word” was a phrase that quickly followed mention of someone close to us who had any hint of a problem with their ‘nerves’.

Shame about our emotional struggles has certainly receded in this country, but it’s been replaced by fear. We’re may be talking more about mental health, but we’re still very spooked by it. Maybe because we know how bad things can get, maybe because we know how that a personal crisis can end it tears. Or maybe our fear is based on something more fundamental: we fear being judged, being rejected or thought less of, if we were to admit just how vulnerable we feel.

Amy tackles this fear head on, in her own unique way, in her memoir, ‘I’m Fine”. This is her story of how she gradually stopped denying how bad she felt and acknowledged the hurt in her mind and body.

Writers are concerned with truth and what moves us. For Amy her inner life was often a dark place. She wrote to make sense of her experience. She wrote to hold back the darkness:

My mental state continued to get worse until eventually I decided that writing about it really couldn’t make things any worse. I was desperate yet I didn’t have a clue what to write. It took a while but I began to get really comfortable writing and things just seemed to flow once I developed ways to reassure myself that no-one would have the ability to stumble across my journals.

I write because I can express myself, honestly, without fear of immediate judgement or retribution. I write because I find it much safer than talking. The paper on which you confess your secrets won’t judge you or mock you. The page on which you share your opinions will not become confrontational; it will not raise its voice or get defensive. It will always remain neutral. In a nutshell … writing allows me to express myself and explore my thoughts and opinions in the most honest and vulnerable way that is possible.

Writing calmed Amy. It turned her distress into words which she hand-wrote onto a blank page. Seeing her pain captured on that page wasn’t easy. It made her difficulties harder to deny and harder to run from. But it also brought some relief. Her thoughts were no longer trapped inside her head. And the pain in her body eased a little.


Another writer fond of putting things down on paper was Shakespeare. I don’t know if any of you are familiar with him but he’s worth checking out. When it came to distress, he believed very strongly that words opened the door to healing.

“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o’er fraught heart and bids it break.”


When we are able to express our experience in words – or through whatever medium comes most naturally to us – we give ourselves a way to step back from whatever is happening, to hold it in our minds, so that we can think about how to respond. In contrast, distress without words gives rise to symptoms and reactive behaviours that keep dig us deeper into the darkness we are trying to escape.

Amy turned her distress into words, which in turn became a bridge to a few key trusted  people with whom she shared what she’d written. Words gave her a way to express her truth and turn her conflicts into conversations.

For most of my life I have struggled to keep up the act, the facade of being ‘fine’. Even in the midst of a panic attack, I was ‘fine’, I had to be ‘fine’. A few years ago I met people who weren’t prepared to accept that I was ‘fine’. People who saw through my facade and who not only told me, but showed me they cared and that it mattered to them that I hurt. It took two years for them to earn my trust but once they had it I was able to be honest with them and show them that I wasn’t fine, that I was struggling.


People think mental health is about feeling good. It can be and there’s nothing wrong with feeling good. I tried it once; it was fun. But genuine mental health is about facing what is difficult in our life and finding ways to deal with it. When we turn towards, rather than run from, what is difficult, we feel more real. Gradually we see our problems as workable and we feel alive in ourselves. Our problems may seem huge, like a vast mountain looming up before us, but when we take even one step up that mountain, our stress level drops; that mountain becomes one step lower.

There is another way that writing can help. ‘Suffering can be born when it is made into a story’ (Karen Dixon). Recovery in mental health means being able to weave the raw elements of our lived experience into a story that makes sense of our lives and connects us with other people. Mental health is a story that can be told; mental illness is a story that’s never been told.

We’ve been telling each other stories for years in this country. At the edge of a wild Atlantic where our very survival was always at stake, we told each other stories. These stories were not merely to entertain or distract us. People like Peig told stories to validate suffering and give people hope, to give them a map. Her stories also reminded her community they were in this together and that they needed each other for survival. “Ar schath a cheili a mhaireas na daoine”, she wrote.

As Amy crafts her story – over two years of journaling –  we see her change in important ways. Her earliest entries are marked by self-loathing and pretence, but in her later writing she owns her truth and speaks without apology:

From: People want to think that everyone is okay. They are more comfortable believing that everything is okay; and you do not want to shatter that. So you play along and pretend that everything is fine, you lie. Those two words have become a part of you, a layer of your armour. You try your hardest to make sure that that is the only thing that others see.


To: I am a self-harmer, to be precise I am a ‘cutter’. I have only recently stopped cutting and begun trying to recover. I am a realist though; I know that if I get ‘clean’ the urge may always be there. Anytime something happens or I feel anything that isn’t ‘positive’, the first thing that will probably come to my mind to deal with it is to cut.. . Trust me when I say this, it might help for a little while but it takes over your life. When I started I thought I could control it, but I quickly realised that it controlled me. I also firmly believe that no one should ever have to feel the immense shame, fear and guilt that comes with self-harming.


Amy stopped pretending; she doesn’t minimise or romanticise her pain; in her story there is no magic bullet, no prince (or princess) who rides in on a shiny white horse to save her. I imagine that what’s happening here today must be her worst possible fear. She’s has dropped her armour and has chosen to be here today and share her truth with you. This is an enormous act of trust, for which we all thank you Amy.

Another striking feature of this story is the shift from mistrust to trust; from intense loneliness to relationship. Reading each page, I was struck by Amy’s persistent longing to communicate, to be heard, to be accepted. Running alongside this longing was an equally strong reluctance to trust others. This pull-push conflict was exhausting. But she persisted as did people around her who gave her a feeling of safety, and the time she needed to risk opening up.

FROM: My problems are my own burden. No-one else need know how messed-up I am. I won’t be anyone’s problem, anyone’s burden. I’ll sort my own issues out.


TO: As unrealistic as it may be, you want someone to care enough to try and see through your charade, your facade. You want someone to prove to you that you matter, that you are worth it… a part of you wants someone to be there when your defences crumble. You want someone to physically see how much you are hurting, how much you are struggling…Admitting that I wasn’t okay, that I wasn’t fine was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I felt so vulnerable and guilty, so exposed.


This centre forms the backdrop to Amy’s story. It plays a vital role in her journey. People like Don, Rachel, her mother and many others in this centre believed in her from the moment she stepped through these doors. The hung in with her when she hid from them and were there for her when she chose to share her truth. They are also heroes in this story.

The Cork Life centre is viewed by some people as an example of alternative education. But what is alternative education? I’m sure there are many definitions and descriptors but what distinguishes “Alternative” education are at least 4 things: A personalised curriculum; close working relationships between teachers and students; negotiated programmes of learning; collaboration and mutual support.

This is surely what is meant to happen in genuine education. it’s the alternative to this ethos – what we call ‘mainstream’ education – that is causing real problems for many of our young people.



closing thoughts

The writer and poet Anais Nin wrote a line that resonates with Amy’s story:

“There came a point in my own life where I had to be true to myself; there came a point when the pain of remaining tight in a bud was greater than the pain it took to blossom.” Anais Nin

We each come to mental health when the pain of pretending and hiding becomes too exhausting. Sometimes it takes a crisis in our lives to puncture that defensive umbrella we hold over our heads and mistake for ‘sanity’.

Mental health is the slow sometimes painful struggle to step into and own our own truth. To settle for some false persona, some socially desirable version of ourselves is unbearable, particularly to a young person. But to be real with others takes a lot of courage. You risk everything when you trust your broken self to others.

This book is Amy’s experience of taking that step. I’ve no doubt it will resonates with each of our journey’s. Because we have all been ‘FINE’. And we’ve all had to learn the true meaning of that word. Which isn’t really a word at all, but an Acronym: F***ed up; Insecure; Neurotic; and Emotional!

We all want to get to a place where we stop apologising to the world for who we are. Where we can stand in our own truth and echo Martin Luther King’s words: ‘I am somebody and I do count. I refuse to allow anybody to tell me that I’m nobody. I do not need to be ashamed of myself, ashamed of my heritage, ashamed of my body, ashamed of my hair. I have dignity. I have worth. I am beautiful’.

MLK was a star for an oppressed and alienated people. In Amy’s world, stars are critical.


In my mind, as long as there are stars, there will be hope and there will be guidance. I guess you just have to hold on to that shred of hope that if the stars can survive and shine through the darkness then you can survive your darkness, your struggles.

Amy, you have described the darkness and the importance of the stars in guiding you. What you should know is that we’re all stumbling around in the dark. Today you are a star for us.

This book will light a path for many others who are trying to see a way forward through some darkness. They will get it because you write in a way that is utterly believable. You don’t water down the pain of living you don’t make recovery sound like something easy. Those who are really hurting will feel validated by your story. They will see themselves in lines you’ve written and feel less alone. In your refusal to deny the darkness – but also your refusal to give in to it – readers will recognise a strong woman whose courage is infectious.

So follow your star Amy. Keep writing. This story isn’t over. This is just Season One. There are many others to be written. You make us all less afraid, you give us hope.

Thank you Amy.

Dearth of data and information about youth in the juvenile justice system


It’s interesting how stories about child protection and youth justice from different parts of the world often mirror what’s happening here in Ireland.

A story from the U.S. this week reports on the dearth of data and information about youth in the juvenile justice system.

The report is called Denied Existence  and calls on the authorities to implement a comprehensive juvenile-justice data collection system.

This certainly reflects the Irish situation, where we know very little about these youth.

The Courts Services collates scant detail about young people in court, and monitoring of oversight of outcomes for the 3,000 plus young people moving through the youth courts is almost nonexistent.

A recent audit of the Irish youth justice states: Currently, a centralised source of information regarding young offenders and young offending in Ireland does not exist. As outlined by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, this information is essential to establish effective systems for data collection and to ensure that the data collected is evaluated and used to assess progress in implementation, to identify problems and to inform all policy development for children.

It points out that as far back as 1985, a government report stated a “continuing need for research analysis, discussion and deeper understanding of the issue of juvenile offenders in Ireland.”

As with the U.S. study, the Irish paper highlights the “need for an independent agency responsible for maintaining a centralised, contemporaneous resource of data pertaining to young offenders and youth offending in Ireland.”

How long more will we be waiting?

Leaving Cert Exams: 7 Years of Hell in 7 Days

An extremely powerful piece from one of our students.


Leaving Cert Exams: 7 Years of Hell in 7 Days

7 years I have been in the second level education system in Ireland.

7 whole years.

I have undergone 7 years of scaremongering, of judgements, threats and dismission and condemnation.

4 years of being terrified to go to school in case I had forgotten something or had overlooked some work.

4 years of shaking so badly that I physically couldn’t write.

4 years of getting about 3 or 4 hours of sleep on weeknights because I was so scared of the following day.

My experience of primary and secondary education in Ireland has shattered my self-esteem, obliterated my self-confidence and annihilated my sense of my own self-worth.

It has been 5 years since I had my first major panic attack.

17 years of fighting anxiety and depression on my own because my faith in others and my ability to trust anyone with anything had been destroyed.

All of this, and much more, has led up to 7 days. I was given 7 days to essentially prove myself to others, to prove my intelligence and to make my teachers look good. At least, it would have if I had stayed in mainstream school. Most of my teachers there were only concerned that the exam students’ results made them look good in others’ eyes.

In the centre it is different. There is none of that pressure. There is no sense that the leaving certificate is the be-all and end-all of your life. Yes, it is important but your results should not determine your self-worth. For me that was the hardest thing to wrap my head around. I was indoctrined into the educational systems view of academia. I whole-heartedly believed that anything less than 100% means you failed, and because you ‘failed’ then you are worth nothing. Exam results were the only thing that mattered, it was irrelevant whether you were physically and mentally healthy as long as you got 600 points in your Leaving Certificate.

I have fought tooth and nail in order to live up to these expectations and to uphold them. To an extent, I still do believe that exams are the only thing that matters. However, I have to acknowledge that while I know I will not get a ‘perfect’ Leaving Certificate, or even a ‘great’ one, the fact that I went into that room every day and sat there and attempted those exams has to be the most important thing. I gave up striving for 600 points quite a while ago. I have had panic attacks. I have had little sleep. I have had some excruciatingly bad days. But I did it. I fought and today I am 44 days without self harming. I sat my exams, I did what I could. They are nearly over, by 4:31pm tomorrow it will all be over. The Leaving Certificate will be over. That prospect is absolutely petrifying, what now…?



Lessons “Sofia” can teach

Sofia, a virtual child created to give a face to refugee children, haunts Cork Life Centre’s deputy director, Rachel Lucey. Here, she explains why.

Sofia is a virtual child.

She was created by UNICEF Sweden using 500 images of real children in conflict to represent many millions of refugee children globally.

“I am not real I’m the face of all the children suffering from emergencies no one talks about,” the tagline of the campaign states.

But the issues Sofia has stirred up for me are so very real, and her image has haunted me ever since I first saw it.

Sofia not only represents children across the world, invisible in their plights, but those closer to home, the children whose stories are never heard, and who never get the opportunities they so deserve.

Every day in the course of my work, I am deeply privileged to work with children whose human challenges and struggles have left them on the edges of, and eventually outside, the mainstream education system.

When families and children are brave enough to trust you with their stories and journeys and allow you to work with them, that knowledge and privilege drives you to understand, to try to make a positive impact – and to advocate on their behalf.

It is easy to be shocked and disillusioned with the lack of a response and lack of empathy to the refugee crisis and to the suffering of children in any circumstance or any part of the world. How can people not respond?

It is easy to depersonalise what we do not know, what we do not understand, what we have not experienced. But if you meet a Sofia then all this will change, and you will think and worry and feel not just for Sofia, but for all the children in similar circumstances that you have not had the opportunity to meet.

I have never met a child whose story, strength, unique personality and talents did not teach me something wonderful and hopeful about the world, albeit a confusing one that seems brutal at times.

And while I cannot always be certain of the impact we at the Cork Life Centre have made, and always feel we could have done more, I am at least assured these children were given opportunities, became part of a community where they were treasured, valued and where they mattered; where somebody missed them if they did not appear, where there was someone to not just listen but hear them, and where if there was a problem we were always ready to try and work on it together.

So regardless of the onward journey or direction these children’s lives took and even if there are further struggles waiting for them on the horizon, I can feel assured they know our red doors are always open to them.

But as referrals increase and resources remain the same, it is with a heavy heart that I think about all the children I will not meet- those we will not greet at the red door. And there are many. We receive calls almost daily seeking placements at a level of demand we cannot meet. This is one of the most difficult parts of the job.

There are many children in Cork alone –  over 4,000 annually that leave education early  – that we will not meet. Roughly 10% of children in this country do not complete senior cycle education and this figure doubles in DEIS schools. I do not know what all these children look like, and I do not have a Sofia to represent these many faces and stories. But I know without hesitation there is something good to be unlocked in each one, if only we work to find the key.

We need to move beyond statistics and stereotypes and recognise the individual needs, strengths and rights of all children to learning environments that meet their needs not just educational but social, personal and human.

Every child deserves a champion, deserves at they very least their ‘one good adult.’ But how are we going to achieve this if we do not recognise them individually? This for me is what Sofia represents. An attempt to recognise not just a collective story, but each individual one.

By corklifecentrein Children, UncategorizedApril 20, 2016708 WordsLeave a commentEdit