Life as a child in Ireland: ‘Here’s phones. Here’s alcohol. Here’s weed’

No Child 2020 is an initiative by The Irish Times, providing a sustained focus on child welfare and children’s issues over the coming year. Its goal is to explore the problems facing children in Ireland today, and offer solutions that would make this a better country to be a child. Here, five young Irish people discuss their early lives in modern Ireland – their fears, hopes, dreams and personal challenges.

SHELTER

Michael: ‘I was never parented. I was like Tarzan’
Michael McDonagh (above) is in his 20s now, but he says, without hesitating, “Since they said ‘We’ll call him Michael’ I’ve been homeless.”

He says that he has never felt like he had a home. When he was born he lived on a halting site, but later he lived with his mother, a heroin addict, on the street. He remembers being taken from her by social services one day on Dame Street when he was about seven. He’s not entirely sure if she was on heroin then. “She was once brilliant and beautiful. I remember that.”

He and his brother were brought to a foster family in the country. It was an inappropriate foster placement for many reasons and he never felt at home there. He says that he often felt like he was in prison.

As a child, he says, watching films was how he escaped. “There are happy endings. And there’s always a hero.”

He regularly calls on film references as we talk. He took up drawing, he says, because he saw Leonardo DiCaprio do so in Titanic and his favourite film is Cool Hand Luke because it evoked his own circumstances. “I was locked up and wanted to get up and go.”

When he was 15, he finally told a teacher how unhappy he was, and he was placed in a more suitable foster home. He says he found their kindness difficult to take. “My brother loved it but it made me angry,” he says.

I drew and I wrote and I sang and I thought of imaginary places and imaginary things and eventually then the real world hit me with a big bang

“I was never parented. I was more like Tarzan. I grew up in my head. I drew and I wrote and I sang and I thought of imaginary places and imaginary things and eventually then the real world hit me with a big bang . . . Here’s phones. Here’s girlfriends. Here’s alcohol. Here’s weed. Here’s homelessness. Here’s all this stuff. See what you do with it.”

Michael was expelled from school and he began spending more time on the street with his mother. She was a serious addict at this stage, and he tried to look after her but she would disappear for weeks on end and he wouldn’t know if she was alive or dead. “[She] was more comfortable sleeping on the side of a road than in a bed.”

Michael’s mother died five years ago. The last time he spoke to her, he says, they had an argument outside Liffey Valley shopping centre. He thinks that’s appropriate in a way. He thinks she’d find it funny.

He shows me his tattoos. Some are there to cover scars. There’s one of Bob Marley. There’s another of the word “timeless” and a picture of a clock. “That’s the time my mother died.”

He thinks she did the best she could. They were warm on the streets as children, “bundled in clothes”, and they were always fed. He remembers how she would sometimes leave him with a kind young security guard who “made me feel like I worked in the shop”.

He counts his blessings. He is glad to have had his brother with him through the years. He is glad his younger sister had a happier foster home experience. He’s glad he got some time with his mother towards the end of her life.

Michael never saw himself as truly homeless, he says, until she died. Since then he has spent years in hostels, on the streets or on the couches of friends. He currently has a room in a hostel run by the Peter McVerry Trust’s youth service, where his brother also lives.

He has kept busy with acting classes, art classes and TV extra work. Recently he did work experience at TV3 and was happy to have a name tag and a role, but then, he says, back in his room he remembered: “I don’t live a normal life, I’m in a hostel. The job isn’t a job. It’s work experience.”

But Michael is also defiant. He defies stereotypes. He is eloquent and philosophical and funny. He is wary, he says, “of losing myself in all of this madness”.

He is proud of his Traveller heritage. He wants to make films about his experiences. He wants to make something of his life and to help end homelessness. He believes the Government are content to allow homelessness to happen. But he is also aware that youthful anger at the State is often classed as “violence” while, “when they do it to us, it’s called business”.

He jokes about billionaires like Elon Musk spending their money getting to Mars rather than fixing problems on Earth. He laughs. “Maybe when they do go to Mars I can take over and fix the shit, because all the arseholes will have left.”

HEALTH

Catherine Lyons photographed by Keith Heneghan
Catherine Lyons photographed by Keith Heneghan

Catherine: I get asked is cancer contagious?
When Catherine Lyons was 12 years old she did not feel listened to by the doctors who stood around her bed. Catherine, who is now 16, had been suffering for about nine months with dizziness, headaches, vomiting and extreme pains in her side. She had been in and of hospital many times and undergone a litany of scans and tests.

The doctors couldn’t work out what the problem was, and Catherine felt like they didn’t understand how sick she felt. They eventually removed her appendix, which was inflamed, and unexpectedly found a neuro-endocrine carcinoid tumour.

“One of the biggest problems with Catherine’s cancer is that it’s an adult cancer,” says her mother, Frances. “It’s so rare in children that only a handful of children across Europe have had it.”

Shortly after that, it was found that the cancer had spread and they needed to remove part of her bowel. She has been cancer free since then, but underwent a long period of hospitalisation in Castlebar, Co Mayo, and then Crumlin children’s hospital in Dublin because she couldn’t hold her food down. “She lost four stone in three months,” says Frances.

I’m sitting with Catherine and Frances in their sitting room in Balla, Co Mayo, beneath two of Catherine’s own beautiful paintings. Both feel that throughout her illness, Catherine’s own observations about her own symptoms were not always heeded by some doctors. “I think if she was an adult, she’d have been taken a lot more seriously,” says Frances.

They had good experiences too. They can’t say enough positive things about the nurses in both hospitals and how in Crumlin she got to go to school and to attend art classes and have some sense of normality despite her suffering.

It was difficult. Their family life was disrupted. Catherine’s younger brothers would get upset about their mother being away. And being in hospital for so long meant that Catherine drifted from many of her school friends.

Her current oncologist, whom she likes, observed that this was not uncommon for children who have been sick. She said: “Because you’ve been so ill, your whole world opens up and you end up in a much bigger world than children your age.”

In all the time she was sick she rarely felt scared. She more commonly felt confused and angry. She thinks there need to be more counselling services for sick children and teenagers

Other people don’t know how to respond to the word “cancer”, says Catherine. Some overreact and burst into tears. Some don’t want to talk about it. Her lifelines have been the Barretstown camp for children with cancer and CanTeen, a charity for teenagers who have had the illness.

Frances recalls dropping her to a CanTeen event when she was particularly depressed “and when I went back to collect her, I thought this isn’t my child. She was really bouncy and bubbly . . . Suddenly she was Catherine and not a child who had cancer.”

Catherine says the friends whom she met there understand what she’s been through. “It probably sounds kind of bad but we just joke around about it.”

What sort of jokes? “Once we were at the airport going to Find Your Sense of Humour [an event run by the UK’s Teenage Cancer Trust]. We probably looked like real mad-in-the-head kids, because we were running around touching people and saying, ‘Now you have cancer, it’s contagious.’”

She bursts out laughing. One of the things they get asked a lot is if cancer is contagious.

Catherine is a creative teenager with a quirky sense of humour. When she leaves school, she thinks she might do something with art or possibly special effects make-up. Last Halloween she made herself up to look like someone had stabbed her in the head. She recently binge-watched several horror films from Child’s Play to The Exorcism of Emily Rose. She laughs. “But I don’t find them scary.”

She says that in all the time she was sick she rarely felt scared. She more commonly felt confused and angry. She thinks there needs to be more follow-on counselling services for sick children and teenagers. And she thinks doctors should listen to children more and that they should explain things to them more carefully.

She didn’t even realise she had cancer, she says, until she mentioned her tumour to a “very smart” friend who explained what it meant (this lack of transparency is a common complaint from children at CanTeen).

Her experience of illness has changed her, she says. She has lost some friends to cancer, which makes her feel sad and angry. And she still suffers from serious digestive problems.

“It’s made me a lot more mentally grown up,” she says. “I still act like a child a lot of the time. But I think that’s kind of because I spent so much of my childhood in hospital. But when it comes to certain things I can hold in a lot more. A lot of my friends hear something and start crying but I can take a lot more. It would take a lot of bad news for me to start crying.”

EDUCATION

Kym Fallon and Katie Browne photographed by Alan Betson
Kym Fallon and Katie Browne photographed by Alan Betson

Kym and Katie: ‘Older people are voting for our future’
On a Saturday, 17-year-old Katie Browne and Kym Fallon of Mercy Secondary School in Inchicore, are helping to host a party for some children living in direct provision. “This is education too,” says Kym, who lives in Drimnagh. “There are people out there doing grinds today but we’re here learning through this, learning about people.”

They’re both involved with the school’s College for Every Student programme, which is run with the Trinity Access Programme (Tap) and provides mentoring, leadership training and information on getting to college.

Mercy is a small Deis (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools) school with 170 girls. I’m introduced to the group by Social Democrat councillor Gary Gannon, who works in outreach with the Tap. They’re all very close.

Before the interview the whole class vets me first. Many of them will be among the first generation of their families to go to university, though both Katie and Kym seem to have very supportive parents. “My da keeps wanting to learn now,” says Katie, who lives in Ballyfermot. “He’s obsessed with learning.”

Katie wants to go to the National College of Art and Design (NCAD) and become an art teacher, ever since they went on a tour there. “I said this is my college.”

Kym can’t make up her mind between politics, business, music and midwifery. She’s also really good at maths, says Katie, and is frequently called on to explain things to the class.

They’re both well aware of educational inequality. “I think it’s 99 per cent go to third level in certain parts of Dublin whereas the percentage in Dublin 8 is 28 per cent,” says Katie. “But this school is 64 per cent.”

In some parts of Dublin, says Kym, “their life is set for them. They’re going to go to this school, this secondary school, this college. Most kids like that are following what their parents did, they’re becoming doctors or they’re becoming lawyers.”

In contrast, facing a college career can be overwhelming if no one in your family has gone before. “If I asked my mam about CAO forms, she wouldn’t know,” says Katie.

Do they feel any stigma about it? “We get a lot of opportunities to go into different colleges and with our accent you think people will look down on you,” says Kym.

“There’s a stigma that if you talk like I would, you’re not intelligent,” says Katie. “I don’t think that any more. Everybody’s proving me wrong . . . We went to Trinity for a while and we’d go in on open days and people would look at you because we’re like, ‘Oh heya!’”

“But to turn it on its head a little bit,” says Kym. “Now when we walk into Trinity it’s like ‘Hey, it’s the Mercy girls!’”

Is it important to see people out there in public life with accents like theirs? “People in power come from places like D4 and you’re expecting to see that,” says Kym. “When you start seeing people in power from Inchicore, Ballyfermot and Crumlin, I think it is sort of inspiring.”

A few of my friends are just turned 18 and can’t wait for a good referendum to come up so they can just vote

They feel hugely supported in the school. They have an English teacher who gives them tea and biscuits when teaching the more depressing poems and a principal, Michelle O’Kelly, who they feel they can go to with any problem. “I think if I was in any other school, I wouldn’t still be in school,” says Katie.

“I don’t think so either,” says Kym.

“Third year kind of knocked it out of me,” says Katie. “I didn’t expect the Junior Cert to be as stressful as it was.”

They talk about the pressure of the Leaving Cert and its focus on rote learning over project work, which they think they would prefer. And they talk about their part-time jobs and the financial pressure college will bring. “If I don’t get a grant, I don’t know how I’m going to go to college,” says Katie. “I’m looking for jobs now, so I can start saving up.”

When I ask about what the big issues are for their peers beyond education, they mention teenagers being obsessed with expensive brands and social media, two things Kym and Katie seem capable of raising their eyebrows at.

What did they think of the recent referendums? “It makes me really proud,” says Katie.

Why? “Because you know most of the people voting ‘yes’ on that stuff are people from our generation,” says Kym. “A lot of kids my age went to the marches even though they couldn’t vote.”

They both wish they could have voted. “Older people are voting for our future,” says Katie. “We grow up into their decisions, but we don’t really get a say . . . A few of my friends are just turned 18 and can’t wait for a good referendum to come up so they can just vote.”

“We’re a very political class,” says Kym. “If we have an issue with something, it’s getting changed.”

This manifests on a micro level. They recently agitated to make sure physics was taught in the school. They also refurbished an unused storage room into “a 21st century learning space”.

“I think we’re such a girl-power school,” says Katie. “That sounds very cringy, but I never thought I was less than a fella.”

“It’s true,” says Kym. “We don’t take anything from anyone.”

“Even with Gary [Gannon],” says Katie. “Gary will say something and we’ll be like ‘Sit down, Gary. Don’t start.’”

CITIZENSHIP

Niamh Scully photographed by Nick Bradshaw
Niamh Scully photographed by Nick Bradshaw

Niamh: ‘I’m into changing people’s mindsets’
Niamh Scully from Clontarf is sitting in the city centre offices of the LGBTI youth organisation, Belong To. She campaigned during the Repeal the 8th campaign, was on the advisory panel for the LGBTI National Youth Strategy and is currently an LGBTI campaign co-ordinator at UCD. At 18, she is a seasoned activist.

She was first politicised during the marriage equality referendum. “I remember a girl in the year above me doing a project on how young people could have a vote in the marriage equality referendum. I went around loads of people and people in the year above me trying to get them to sign this petition to basically let us have an opinion.”

She wasn’t out herself. “I was just a great ally,” she says and laughs. She came out the following January. She did so earlier than she might have if the referendum had not passed, she says. Why? “I felt like no one had any legal backing up in telling me I was wrong.”

Her mother is an accountant and her father manages a bar where Niamh also works. “They’re very sound people,” she says. “I never grew up with them saying ‘Oh the gays, I hate them.’ My great uncle is gay and I went to his and his partner’s civil partnership when I was nine. It was always fine in our family.”

She started visiting Belong To and began to see that even though she couldn’t vote, she could still have a voice. “I’m into grassroots change,” she says, “changing people’s mindsets.”

Her Belong To-based friends are “all super-politicised”, she says. “We have these really interesting in-depth conversations . . . A lot of my straight friends aren’t as politicised. I guess it’s because it doesn’t affect them as much.”

She thinks that her generation might seem apathetic but that lots of them are activists in their own ways about things they believe in like veganism or the environment.

How could young people be encouraged to engage more? “I think the way adults talk [about politics] using really complicated language isn’t accessible for young people,” she says. “When we did the report on the youth strategy, we made an official government document and we made a youth-friendly one that was a bit more explained. And we made a video as well, with the main points and what they wanted to see change. And that was way more accessible for people.”

Social media and technology have stopped people caring about the wider world, which is why they talk more about self-care and days away from their phones

Niamh thinks schools should be empowering children from a very young age to realise “that they have a voice and a choice”, she says.

She got to vote for the first time in the referendum last year. “I had been campaigning since I was 15, 16 . . . I spent so long never knowing if I’d be able to vote in it.”

Would she like to see the voting age reduced? “I think for referendums, definitely. A lot of young people don’t care about presidents or who’s in government . . . It’s such a rat race in there and they make it so ugly.”

What are the big issues for her generation? She mentions inadequate sex education, the environment and social media. Teenagers have “seen that social media and technology has gone too far and has stopped people caring about the wider world, which is why people care more about the environment and talk more about self-care and days away from their phones”.

She also worries about backlashes against the social progress she has seen. “It’s great since the marriage equality referendum but it’s also led to a lot of people saying, ‘Shut up now, you have your rights.’”

She thinks people underestimate the prejudice still faced by trans teenagers and gay teenagers in isolated communities. And people still use anti-LGBT slurs, she says. At her girlfriend’s debs she overheard some boys using the word “dyke”. “It felt like an otherworldly experience,” she says.

It’s difficult, sometimes, to be politically engaged. Niamh has to steel herself in anticipation of someone questioning her identity and her rights. To make any political change, you need to have empathy, she says.

“The best way to make someone see your point of view is to understand their point of view, so you can tell it to them in a way they understand.”