My old teacher

Of all the teachers in school, which one left a lasting impression on you and why, asks Joanne Hunt


Catherine Fulvio
Chef and proprietor of Ballyknocken House and Cookery School

“Her name was Jackie Curran Olohan, and when I was in secondary school, she believed that music and singing and the stage was for everybody.”

Having never been on stage, participating in the big school opera at the Dominican Convent in Wicklow was a formative experience. “I didn’t have a major role,” says Fulvio. “I was at the back, but there I was, up on stage. It was my first experience of doing rehearsals and performing and having parents and grandparents all sitting in the audience watching you night after night.

“I knew I was never going to be a singer, but now, strangely enough, all these years later, here I am on my own stage because I do cookery demonstrations. I’ve done cookery demonstrations in so many theatres around Ireland, but I’m not nervous any more. I look back at the time of doing the musical with Jackie and how inspirational she was.”

When she dropped her daughter off to her new junior school in Bray, Fulvio was in for a surprise: “There was Ms Olohan coming down the corridor, so she now teaches my daughter too. My daughter loves her. Her love of music and her talent is just phenomenal. She has inspired so many children and she is still the exact same – music is for everybody, just get up on stage and do your best.

“Doing that school opera was a major thing for me. I’d never done anything like that and I gained confidence. Sometimes it’s the little things you learn growing up that you hang onto as you get older.”

Ruairí McKiernan
Community campaigner and member of the Council of State

“I particularly enjoyed history,” says Ruairí McKiernan of his days at St Aidan’s Comprehensive School in Cootehill, Co Cavan. “I had a phenomenal teacher called Hugh Barney O’Brien. He was a local historian and a dramatist. He even had a small part in Father Ted at one stage.”

McKiernan recalls: “He was stern, but he was also fun. A great character who wasn’t afraid to provide a bit of comedy and drama to engage the class. It was so obvious that he enjoyed what he was doing. His animation made us excited about history. So many teachers aren’t into what they are teaching and that becomes clear to the student.”

The lessons have stayed with McKiernan. “He basically taught us critical inquiry. To question the source and the accuracy of everything. That’s been invaluable to me . . . He gave me a great interest in history, politics, and media, and how the world works. This in turn has influenced me in my campaigning and understanding the importance of making your own media and getting your voice heard.”

While McKiernan’s school did not offer history after Junior Cert, he maintained an interest in it. He’s worried about talk of removing history as a compulsory Junior Cert subject. “It takes away a fundamental tenet of any society, which is to understand your history. Politically, it’s quite dangerous as well. To understand politics, you need to understand history. If we all had a bit of that, we’d have a much healthier society and people would be more engaged in how the country is run.”

McKiernan continues to be inspired by his former history teacher. “He’s retired now and is a community activist who campaigns for people with visual impairment. He’s influenced me hugely and my main message to him would be ‘Thank you’. Thanks for serving me and inspiring me and serving the community at large beyond the walls of the class room.”

Jillian van Turnhout

“I still love numbers,” says Jillian van Turnhout of the lessons taught to her by her secondary school maths teacher, Mrs Mary O’Connor. “She helped me to understand and to appreciate numbers. She really brought the numbers to life for me.”

A former pupil of Muckross Park College, in Donnybrook, van Turnhout remembers Mrs O’Connor’s one-to-one approach. “She knew we all learned differently, so if we didn’t get how to do it, she’d show us a different way. No one was made to feel stupid. She showed us there was more than one way to solve a problem. Even today, in the Senate, when people use statistics, I’m able to interpret them and work out what they actually mean. Numbers can tell you anything and Mrs O’Connor taught us there is more than one way to look at something.”

There were other lessons too. Van Turnhout recalls being in her class in the mid-1980s, when Aids hit the headlines. “One of the nuns taught us about the Billings method as part of sex education. I always remember going into Mrs O’Connor’s class directly afterwards and she said, ‘I know what you’ve just been taught, but I’m going to close the door now and I’m going to tell you something,’ and she told us about condoms and about protecting ourselves. She said, ‘If any of you tell that I told this, I will get the sack.’ That was a very brave thing to do.

“She stood up for what she believed in. She really believed in us and wanted us to know the truth. You always felt that she would put you on the right path.”

David Gallagher
Consultant oncologist and medical geneticist at the Mater Hospital

“The teacher that stands out for me is a man called Seamus Grace,” says Dr David Gallagher, a consultant oncologist and medical geneticist at the Mater Hospital. “He taught Spanish and English and would bring in books for us to read, but it was through the chess club that I interacted with him most.”

Mr Grace ran the chess club at Gallagher’s alma mater, Blackrock College and another at the nearby Guardian Angels’ primary school. “Every Wednesday night, he gave up his time to teach us. There is a generation of us who can play chess because of him. He was just a really learned man who loved teaching and loved young people.

“I liked the way chess taught you to strategise and think ahead and plan. Mr Grace would take us on trips and we’d travel to all parts of the country to play against other schools and clubs. It was fun.”

But it wasn’t all about chess. “The other thing he loved was badger-watching and he’d take us with him. He was just that kind of old-school teacher that liked passing on his passions to children.”

The love of the game stayed with Gallagher wherever he went. “A bunch of us from school went Inter-railing after we finished school and we stayed in youth hostels around Europe. There was always a game of chess going on in the hostels.”

Later when Gallagher lived in New York, the skill came in handy too. “There was often public games going on in the park and I’d play in those.”

Mr Grace died a few years ago, but his lessons remain. “If I could, I’d tell him thanks for teaching me a wonderful game, and I’d thank him for his kindness. He was a kind man and a really good and patient teacher.”

Tadhg Enright
Journalist and TV presenter

“Her name was Mrs McNamara and she made me feel good and happy about being in school,” says Tadhg Enright of his third-class teacher at St Brigid’s National School in Castleknock. After having a “trendy, hippy-ish” teacher in second class and a younger teacher in first class keen to prove her mettle, Mrs Anne McNamara’s classroom had a different vibe.

“She was a more mature teacher. It was more of a homely environment, mothering almost. It just felt good to be at school. She doled out praise and was rarely cross.”

And that praise had a big impact on Enright’s future career. “I remember her remarking in a report card that the other children in class would enjoy listening to me read aloud,” he says. “Up until that point, it wouldn’t have been something I thought I was any good at. I guess it’s something that a lot of kids are afraid of, isn’t it? And to hear that in particular endorsed in a report card kind of makes you feel good I suppose.”

Enright went on to become a TV presenter with Sky News and RTÉ. “Some kids struggle with reading and some with confidence and it takes praise like that to develop confidence. All it takes is some kid on the other side of the class to crack a joke or snigger while you are doing it and it can leave scars. Whereas with me, it had the opposite effect.”

While he has lost touch with his former teacher, her teaching has stayed with him. “I’d just like to say to her, ‘Thank you. You were a wonderful teacher and a wonderful influence.’ ”
Julie Feeney
Singer and composer

Her first years at Newtown School, Abbeyknockmoy, hold particularly fond memories for Julie Feeney thanks to Mrs Mary Keaveney. “She was the infant room teacher and she was absolutely lovely,” recalls Feeney. “She was my very first teacher but I had her for three years up until first class.

“It was a very orderly and a very safe place,” she says of Mrs Keaveney’s classroom. “She was warm and she was very exact. Everything was very ordered. She had lovely colourful posters and had clear shiny labels on everything. Her flashcards were always perfect. She had really, really nice neat handwriting and she was always very well groomed. She was just very, very exact and very calm.”

Mrs Keaveney was musical too. “She was a beautiful singer and the music we did as part of the curriculum was really good. I was always singing and I think she kind of recognised that. I remember one of the songs we learned was How much is that doggie in the window? and that was my showpiece for years. I loved singing it.”

While Mrs Keaveney taught Feeney to play the guitar outside of school, Feeney’s strongest memories of her teacher are in the class. “The real influence was just her. I used to love when we did reading in class and she had a really ordered way with the new words you’d learn every week.”

During secondary school, Feeney returned to her primary school to help with teaching music there. She returned again for teaching practice when training to be a primary school teacher, teaching in the very same classroom where she herself was first taught. “Mrs Keaveney encouraged everybody. She was just a very encouraging and a very warm person.”

Julie Feeney plays St Brigid’s Cathedral, Kildare, on September 15th

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