At the age of three, Lynn Ruane was thrown out of her pre-school.
“I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to play with a little boy’s tractor – instead I was told to go over and play with the dolls.”
She gives a dry laugh.
“I think I might have kicked him . . . I’ve learned over the years to channel that anger a little bit better, I suppose.”
It’s a revealing insight.
Ruane, a single mother from Tallaght who dropped out of school at the age of 15, has spent much of the past decade and a half fighting for access to education.
It’s a journey which has involved crossing some of the deepest ravines of the social divide. The year before last, she won a place in Trinity College Dublin via an access programme for disadvantaged students.
She was elected president of the college’s students’ union a year later. This year, she plans to stand for election in the Seanad.
Few would bet against her succeeding. She’s a feisty orator and committed campaigner who – in a short space of time – has challenged convention in the country’s oldest and most prestigious university.
“I ran for [the students’ union] election mainly because I was sick of hearing from middle-class boys from private schools,” she says.
“I didn’t expect that an auld wan from Tallaght would get elected. But I knew that if I told my story, there was always a possibility.”
Ruane (31), lives on campus with her two daughters, Jordanne (15) and Jaelynn (8).
Just the other day, Lynn and her eldest daughter went to Mountjoy Prison to visit Jordanne’s father, a former drug user, who’s serving a 10-year prison sentence.
“They went from one big, grey institution to another big grey, institution,” says Ruane.
“It didn’t faze her . . . because of her education, she can see there are different paths. And that’s not one she wants to follow.”
Ruane grew up in a local authority estate in Killinarden, west Tallaght.
Her father and mother, who met while working in a clothes factory, were encouraging and urged her to follow her dreams.
She was bright at school, she says, but struggled with rules and regulations.
“I had an incredibly good primary teacher early on . . . but later I had a horrible woman who should never really have been involved in teaching kids. She really sucked the joy out of learning for me.”
Early on at secondary school, a close friend was struck by a bus and killed in front of her.
“We were left to deal with that traumatic experience on our own. There was no counselling or therapy. No one could see that I was possibly struggling with post-traumatic stress and getting flashbacks.”
It was the first of a number of young deaths in the area. She drifted into drugs and shoplifting. It was, she figures, a way of drowning out some of the pain she felt. There were crossroads along the way where her life might have slipped down a very different path.
One was where she had a bag of heroin in her hand. Normally, she’d have been the first in her circle of friends to do a new drug. This time, she went into the local library to read up about it.
“I ended up flushing it down the toilet,” she says.
Another came when she was pregnant.
“I have an amazing mother,” says Ruane.
“She’s a great role model. I realised that I wasn’t acting anything like a mother should: robbing cars, shoplifting. I gave up all that when I knew I was going to have a baby.”
Community training centre
She went back to sit her Junior Certificate and continued second-level education at An Cosán, a community training centre in Tallaght.
“They had a creche and great services. There was a lovely atmosphere, with meditation in the mornings,” she says.
She progressed to study addiction at the Institute of Technology, Tallaght, though only after a struggle.
“I was told I was too young to study, and that I didn’t have “life experience”, which was a bit of a laugh . . . I told them I’d show up in their classroom, and they could acknowledge me or not.”
At the end of the course, she was offered a job to design a programme for young parents who are drug users.
It was the start of her involvement in community and campaign work.
She helped develop services for drug users in west Dublin and the south inner city, but saw much of the progress unravel when austerity policies cut back public spending.
“I realised if I was to change anything, I needed to be able to articulate what was happening to projects on the ground . . . I needed to know that language.”
On one rain-lashed day she took a shortcut through the grounds of Trinity College. She wasn’t even sure if she was allowed on the grounds of the university.
“It was a really windy, rainy, wet day . . . But behind the high walls, the wind stopped. Even the rain seemed to stop. I thought, ‘what the f**k is going on here?!’ Everything felt protected. People complain about walls, but it felt safe.”
She applied for a place through the college’s access programme. It was, she says, the first time she didn’t have to fight. There were people there to battle on her behalf.
Today, she’s studying politics and philosophy, but has taken a year out to serve as president of the students’ union.
Her children have adjusted to life in a third-level institution and are thriving. Jordanne has been known to pop her head into the occasional lecture.
“She went to one given by Prof Peter Singer on ‘effective altruism’ - and ended up challenging him on some of his ideas! He wanted to meet her afterwards . . . She’s 15, from a working class area, with a lot of things stacked against her. But she has an educated mother . . . education is such a powerful thing.”
It’s why she feels so strongly about running for the Seanad.
At the heart of her politics is a crusading zeal for social justice, laced with anger at how the odds remain stacked against the least well-off.
Her decision, she says, came after realising that students and graduates were “at the bottom of the agenda for most, if not all, political parties”.
“They’re being treated as revenue by colleges, and not as students there for an education,” she says.
Shake up the race
While there are rarely upsets in Seanad elections, she is bound to shake up the race.
A gifted communicator and campaigner, with a black sense of humour, she defies easy labelling. While fiercely opposed to austerity and public spending cuts, she has resisted overtures from like-minded political parties and formal alliances.
She’s also making an impression internationally. Later this month, she’s due to speak on the importance of access to tuition at a prestigious gathering of the world’s education ministers in London.
Above all, she says, the system has to change to ensure everyone gets a fair chance of succeeding in life.
“I still remember a woman at school when I got pregnant. She told me, ‘you’ve wasted your life’. She was talking about me in the past tense.
“I thought, ‘I’ll show you’. She was wrong. No one should be labelled. Everyone deserves a chance. No one should never be written off.”