Musician, mayor, TV producer, goldsmith: how they survived college

Four graduates reveal how they found third-level life

Kate Hayes: freelance TV producer, currently working with Coco TV. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh

Occupation: Musician and TV presenter. As lead singer with Irish trad band Danú since 2003, Nic Amhlaoibh (37) has toured the world and won multiple awards. This year, she decided to leave it behind to spend more time with her family and to work on solo projects. She recently collaborated with the renowned composer, producer and music producer Pádraig Rynne. Along with the Scottish musician Julie Fowlis, she co-presents Port, a music show for TG4 and BBC Alba.

Education: Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Dún Laoghaire.

"I grew up in Dunquin, Co Kerry. I knew I wanted to go to Dublin. Actually, I really wanted to go to the National College of Art and Design, as my grandmother had gone there, but, in hindsight, the portfolio I submitted was a little old-fashioned, with too much emphasis on oil paintings and watercolours, technique and theory.

But I did get into the Institute of Art Design and Technology at Dún Laoghaire, while my friend got a place on their animation course. We stayed in a little garage just off a semi-detached house in Stillorgan. There was a pre-paid electricity meter which we fed with our meagre pence, and a two-ring hob for the cooker.


Dublin was so expensive for us though that we often ran out of money and ended up sitting in the dark with no electricity, so we’d just go to bed early. My friend and I didn’t know our way around Dublin at all, so we’d get on the wrong bus and, too shy and scared to ask where we were going, we’d end up back at the depot.

Art college was a real struggle for me. I thought I was there to learn about oil painting but we were doing video, installations and performances, while a lot of the other students were there for film, animation or radio courses. Everyone was so cool! They were doing these performance pieces based around the body. I felt like a fish out of water. I was trying to be who they wanted me to be, but I didn’t know who that was.

I hopped between sculpture, paint, drawing and print. I couldn’t find my niche. Then I found the sound studio in the college and met one of the teachers, who also happened to be Kila’s engineer. I would spend hours laying down vocals, singing and experimenting with music. This became a little haven for me.

I started getting involved in the Dublin music scene. The lads from Altan lived just up the road from me and we played together in a pub where people like Paul Brady and Bonnie Raitt would walk in. My friend Eoin used to take me to great gigs and we saw lots of local bands like The Jimmy Cake and Redneck Manifesto and Sparklehorse. This was an education in itself and a mind-broadening experience.

I particularly liked sculpture but I did become torn between music and my diploma course, art. Looking back, so many students end up on the wrong course; I’d encourage them to take a year out between the leaving cert and college. My final year project was all about the beauty of soundwaves and the drawings based on them. I’d recommend art college for the people you meet and the ideas you are exposed to and because you learn about who you are from what you don’t like.

In 2003, I went to a masters in Irish traditional music performance and that’s when I started with Danú. All my experiences in college had led me there. None of it was planned. I’d gone to learn to be an artist, but I really learned how to sing.”

Adam Wyse

Occupation: At 22, he is mayor of Waterford and Fianna Fáil councillor for Waterford city.

Education: Waterford Institute of Technology.

“Mistakes? In the run-up to the Leaving Cert exams, I made quite a few. I was quite nervous when the day came and didn’t do as well as I might have liked. I got into a level six higher certificate in business course at Waterford Institute of Technology and, from this, moved into a level eight business degree, specialising in economics and finance.

I grew up in Ballygunner, on the outskirts of Waterford city. In fifth and sixth year, we were taken to see other colleges, but I knew I wanted to stay here. On the CAO form, all my choices were in Waterford. I lived at home during college.

Yes, occasionally I was jealous of my friends who lived away from home, but my parents were my support and it is ultimately very reassuring to have them there at home with you. And you know that you’ll have your meals and your washing done. That said, I love cooking so I was making a lot of the meals at home. I worked part-time at an entertainment centre for kids and I was eligible for the student grant as well. I saved money by living close to college.

My biggest expense was the car; there isn’t a shuttle bus from where I lived so I needed it to get in and out of college. I also gave up money to my parents when I turned 18; all my siblings did.

I wasn’t hugely involved in clubs and societies during college and tended to focus more on my life outside the campus, including playing for the local soccer team. I did get involved in student politics and the local Ógra Fianna Fáil cumann.

In 2013 – my second semester of second year – my dad died and everything changed. I was only 19 and I was co-opted on to his local council seat. Suddenly I was balancing the demands of being a local councillor with being a college student and trying to move from a level six to a level eight degree. Everybody advised me to do it for six months and see how I got on. I really enjoyed the job and liked working to help make people’s lives better.

Then, in the summer of 2014, the local elections were held and I campaigned for the seat in my own right. The election was gruelling, but I won the seat.

As a councillor, I did my best to balance study with college work, but it wasn’t always easy and it did require good time management skills. My personal life did take a bit of a hit as well.

Last month, I became the mayor of Waterford at the age of 22. There has been little or no negativity, really; more young people are entering politics, including the Minister for Health Simon Harris who is only 29. Of course I'd like to be in national politics eventually – most public representatives have that desire – but I'm in no rush.

After my exam results, I’ve decided to become a full-time councillor and I will be approaching the position of mayor in a full-time capacity. The presentation skills and time management that I learned at WIT are a hugely important part of this job. We had small classes and excellent lecturers.

If I had to do it again, I’d miss less college and I’d have known my classmates better. Your classmates are there for support and they know what you’re going through, so don’t be afraid to ask for that support.”

Kate Hayes

Occupation: Freelance TV producer, currently working with Coco TV on hit Irish show First Dates. Hayes (35) has also worked as a producer for TV3 and BBC.

Education: University College Dublin.

“Coming from an all-girls schools and going to college is scary. Belfield is huge and daunting, so a lot of people tend to stick with their school friends. In those first few months, I actually became closer to my old school friends – but I was fairly gung-ho at putting myself out there.

I had this romantic notion of what college would be: interesting people, cool clubs and societies, an exciting place. In freshers' week, I joined all the societies. I had an idea that I would get involved in the college newspaper and in the Film Society. I went to one film screening and that was that.

The college paper, however, did suck me in. I went to a meeting for all the new writers in the student paper. On my first day, I was handing out surveys to the other freshers for an article they were putting together. After a while, I learned that there is a ferocious amount of work that goes into putting the paper together, with late hours and a lot of effort finding good stories. I made great friends and learned so much in the College Tribune.

Writing for the paper brought the whole world of student politics into my orbit. I stood up in front of lecture theatres with 200 or so students and asked them to vote for me as class rep, and I got it.

UCD is huge. Back then at least, it was very possible that you could come to the Belfield campus and, unless you talk to people in your class or get involved in college life, never meet anyone new. I did get to know people in my tutorial groups; indeed, I met two girls in the queue to sign up for a particular class and I’m still friends with them now. I’d advise freshers to chat to the people in your tutorial and get to know them.

There wasn’t a huge amount of lectures in the arts course, so there was a lot of time to spend hanging around and getting involved in college life. Of course, you should be reading and writing essays, but it was easy enough to put it on the back burner and cram before the exams. I also worked to earn enough for dinner and coffee and pints. Even though I lived down the road, I rarely left that Belfield bubble. That said, I did really enjoy the academic side of college as well. I had some incredible lecturers and inspiring lecturers for both English and history.

The three years of college flew by. I had spent six years in school, entered this amazing place that I loved, met all these wonderful people and had these great experiences and then suddenly, it was over. What the hell? I felt I needed that extra year to enjoy college, which was a big factor in me going back to do a master’s.

I loved every moment of it. After college, I started as a runner with TV3 before moving up to research and production. I've worked with the BBC in both London and Belfast and now I work on a freelance basis for various production companies; right now, I'm casting for the second series of First Dates Ireland.

I learned what I needed to know through my English and history degrees, as well as my involvement in the college paper. I made brilliant friends and love catching up and seeing how they’re getting on. Some of them have come so far since those first scary days in UCD.”

David McCaul

Occupation: Goldsmith, jewellery designer and business owner, based in London. At 38, he runs McCaul Goldsmiths with his brother, Barry.

Education: National College of Art and Design.

“I was very into drawing at school, so I decided to go to art college. Once I was there, I found all the tools and workshops and immediately loved working with metal and machines. I just loved it. In first year, students get a taster of a few different programmes including sculpture, fine art and graphic design. I knew early on what I wanted to do and I found it easy to put the hours in.

I stayed living at home throughout college. I wasn't your typical art student: I played GAA for a start. In first year, I continued my life outside college, but in the second summer, a group of my classmates decided to go to Chicago. There was 11 of us crammed into a two-bedroom apartment. I managed to get a job working in a jewellers, which gave me workshop experience.

In the middle of it all, I took a year out to go and study on a jewellery skills apprenticeship with the craft council of Ireland. I was paid €100 a week during this time and I used to go home at the weekends, play hurling and work in a bar. I also built up a workshop in my parents’ back garden in Portmarnock, north Co Dublin.

After I finished my degree, I moved to work with a master goldsmith in Germany. Money was tight and it was hard work, but he was very generous with his knowledge. After a tough year, I got a job with a US goldsmith for a month's trial, and I came back to teach at NCAD when another lecturer went on sabbatical.

I did enjoy teaching, but it made me realise that I missed life at the bench. Making is what I really love but I wasn’t doing my own work. I decided to go back to do my MA and, at the same time, got a job working with a goldsmith in London.

I stayed for a few years before striking out on my own. I started at the Goldsmith’s Fair and built from there; it’s the most prestigious show and it gave me good retail experience and the confidence to open my own shop.

My brother had gone the academic route; while he was good at maths, I was good with my hands and drawing. We decided to work together, so he did an intensive diamond-setting course in Antwerp. We decided to make jewellery for clients and grew from there; now, we have three full-time and two part-time students.

I recently went back to the college and spoke to some of the students who are there now. Most of them won’t work in their chosen field when they graduate, so I told them that they should make sure to graduate with more than just their degree: work in evenings, take on jobs any chance you get and build up professional experience. Show initiative and stand out.

Yes, I’m talking about goldsmithing and art, but that advice could apply to students on a range of different courses including business, science or crafts. By the time I started in business, I worked in so many other companies and I had learned the day-to-day.

Looking back on art college, I’m often asked whether it was worthwhile: it was. I had such a great time there. I wouldn’t change a thing.”