Managing to cope with lives in crisis

You see it in his eyes. They don't waver at all

You see it in his eyes. They don't waver at all. He's helped homeless teenagers, heroin addicts, adolescent parents and sexually abused children. Cormac Quinlan, a social worker in the South Western Area Health Board, is trained to cope with all the crises and traumas that can arise in a sprawling urban community.

"The nature of the job does touch you at a personal level, but the support of colleagues, that's a huge part, having a supportive team around you through difficult times.

"I enjoy the buzz. There's an excitement I get. I've found it quite a rewarding job. The focus is to try to empower other people. You must not become such an integral part of their lives that they can't function without you. In a difficult, complex job, if I am organised I am less likely to lose focus and clarity."

His five-day week begins each morning at 9 a.m. and finishes at 5 p.m. He's based in and around the Tallaght area in south-west Dublin.


"It's a job that you have to be able to walk away from after work. I tend to see it as a job (rather than a vocation). For me, I have to keep it within that context," he says.

What are the tools of his trade? Quinlan glances at his mobile phone, his briefcase and his filofax. Yes, yes, these are important, but, he adds, "your key tool is yourself".

"There's no typical day. It's varied and challenging. I was always interested in social care. You may be called out to life-and-limb situations, to remove a child from a situation." He may also have to attend court, talk to a probation officer, meet other social workers, help raise issues with a group of young parents or help resolve behavioural problems with a young teenager who is homeless and disruptive.

Self-awareness, he says, is one of the qualities that a social worker must possess. This "comes through your training. Your role, what's your focus, your point of intervention, there has to be a start and an end, there has to be a plan."

You have to care, he says. To be a good social worker it's important to "want to empower people to change their lifestyle. It's important to have a sense of respect for people who are in difficult settings and who, from a public perception, are people who have committed the most heinous crimes." But, he explains, "you have to develop a relationship with them.

That is where self-awareness and a willingness to challenge yourself, comes in. That self-awareness develops on an ongoing basis," he says.

Having completed his Leaving Cert in 1992 in Colaiste Eanna, Ballyroan, in south Dublin, he went to Trinity College to study for the four-year degree in social science. He graduated with a BSocSc, combined with the National Qualification in Social Work. Part of this consists of a number of work placements.

For example, in the summer of 1994, he spent three months working in the US in Crownsville, a psychiatric hospital in Anapolis, Maryland, is a short-term unit for adolescents. "The training is around developing self-awareness, that was my second year in college."

In third year, he worked with an addiction counsellor in Castle Street in Dublin's south inner-city.

His project in second year looked at Legal Judgements with the District Court: Social Concern or Social Control?

"I was always interested in people and interested in social issues," he says. Looking back, he's pleased with his choice of career. "The more I found out about the job and the career, the more it interested me. I knew it would be challenging."