Going to school at the age of nine was a bit of a shock, recalls Miriam Hederman O'Brien


I didn't start school until I was nine. I've never been quite sure why it was that my parents chose to have me educated at home - perhaps it had something to do with the fact that I was asthmatic.

I was the youngest in the family and the only girl. This meant that I had access to what everybody in the family was reading, and I read widely. My father was an amateur musician and I learned to read music at the same time that I learned to read English.

When I was nine I was sent to boarding school in Dublin. It was a culture shock. I found the regime difficult since I hadn't developed that protective layer that children who start school aged four or five have. I'm sure they thought I was precocious - because I had always mixed with adults I had a much wider vocabulary than the other girls.

I got sick at school and returned home for a year and a half. I studied Latin, French and English - and twice a week I used to go to Newbridge College, where I was taught music by Dr Kuypers. He was Belgian and loved music by French composers - he had me playing Debussy and Poulenc at quite an early stage. He gave me a good grounding, especially in the piano.

When I was 13, I went to Mount Anville as a boarder. I settled in quite well, but have to admit that a lot of school life passed me by. I spent most of my time reading and, because of my music studies, I was allowed practise when the others were doing something else.

After the Leaving Cert I went to Rome to study music. This was the most significant experience of my life. Coming from Ireland, the contrast between rich and poor hit me quite physically.

It was 1951 and Italy was still suffering the effects of the war. People were flocking to the outskirts Rome from the south, making makeshift homes by burrowing into the soft clay. The authorities kept moving them on. At the same time you had princely families flying out brood mares from Ireland and living on a scale of luxury which I had never seen before - even in the cinema. That radicalised me.

At the end of my year in Rome I knew that, although I was good at music, I wasn't good enough. I abandoned my plans to become a professional musician and returned home and told them that I wanted to study law. I did what my father suggested - a degree in French and English at UCD and King's Inns at the same time. It was a tough schedule and I'd find myself finishing up a UCD lecture at 4 p.m. and having to rush over to King's Inns for a 4.30 p.m. law lecture.

I loved UCD from the start. In my first year I was in 11 societies! My Rome experience had influenced me very much, though, and I found I was much more politicised than students who had come straight from second-level school.

I became involved in student affairs and at a student conference in the south of France, got my first chance to broadcast on French radio. I had good French because it was the language used at the Sacred Heart hostel at which I has stayed during my time in Rome.

After college I practiced at the Bar and moved into radio and writing. Later I took over Erskine Childers (junior)'s slot on French Radio.

I got a great start in life. At home we were expected to express opinions and defend them. I do believe that children should be encouraged to question things and develop their imaginations, intelligences, and sense of integrity.

Miriam Hederman O'Brien is the new chancellor of UL. She was in conversation with Yvonne Healy.