VEC chairman who drove development of Dublin’s colleges

Paddy Donegan: 1921-2013

Paddy Donegan, second from left, in 1963 with, from left,  Michael Mullen TD, Dermot Doolan, secretary, Irish Actors’ Equity, and the Abbey actor Vincent Dowling. Photograph: Gordon Standing/The Irish Times

Paddy Donegan, second from left, in 1963 with, from left, Michael Mullen TD, Dermot Doolan, secretary, Irish Actors’ Equity, and the Abbey actor Vincent Dowling. Photograph: Gordon Standing/The Irish Times

Sat, Apr 13, 2013, 07:00

Paddy Donegan, who has died aged 92, was a formidable driver of major educational change in the second half of the 20th century. Appointed as a trade union representative on the City of Dublin Vocational Education Committee in 1962, he soon became chairman. And in his two decades at the helm this quiet man’s vision and powers of persuasion helped realise major changes in the provision of second- and third-level education in the capital.

In the Irish system, vocational education committees had tended to be educational and political backwaters, but Paddy Donegan wasn’t having any of that. The first big fight was to stop VEC teachers being appointed on political party affiliations, but when that battle was won, he had bigger fish to fry. On his watch, two VEC-run colleges of technology, in Bolton Street and Kevin Street, became major providers of degree courses.

Donegan was fortunate in having high-calibre political members on the VEC including Mary Robinson, Jim O’Keeffe, Tomás Mac Giolla and Michael Keating, as well as talented managers and college administrators. He also received support from the influential civil servant Seán O’Connor.

As Ed Walsh was doing in Limerick, Donegan and his associates noted the need for expanding technical education. An ambitious building programme in places such as Clogher Road and Coolock, while Ballyfermot senior college blazed a pioneering trail in further education.

At third level a new intake of committed lecturers was hired. Add in the busy College of Commerce in Rathmines and the College of Catering in Cathal Brugha street, and others, and there was a de facto federal university scattered across the city.

While it was not all plain sailing, the constituent colleges thrived and Trinity College Dublin validated the degree courses offered by the VEC colleges. Eventually the Dublin Institute of Technology was spun off from the VEC, having outgrown its parent.

Paddy Donegan was born in 1921 in Dublin’s inner city. He became a fitter, worked at the ESB, moved to Rowntrees’s sweet factory in Kilmainham where he met his wife Marie.

He was active in the Labour movement, campaigned for “Big Jim” Larkin at elections and switched careers to become a full-time trade union official, as his father had been. Michael Mullen headhunted him to become an ITGWU (now Siptu) national group secretary, looking after the growing engineering and manufacturing sectors, including Ferenka in Limerick.

Being a Dubliner, Paddy Donegan knew instinctively that the Dublin Institute of Technology with its span of craft, humanities, low and high tech, would make a “better fit” for the struggling new town of Ballymun than the Dublin NIHE, welcome though it was.

After his retirement in 1992 he received two honorary doctorates. For Donegan and many who supported him, including his friend and colleague Mick Gannon it was all about giving young people educational opportunities, not empire-building.

Paddy Donegan must have been pleased in his last years to see the Dublin Institute of Technology unified campus finally taking shape at Grangegorman in the north city he loved so much. He leaves his wife Marie and two sons and a daughter.