School dropout success story

The Cork woman behind the Oscar-nominated film, The Breadwinner, Nora Twomey, didn’t sit her Leaving Cert. She talks to CHRIS DUNNE about dropping out of school, returning to education in later life, her success with Cartoon Saloon, and battling a cancer diagnosis.
School dropout success story

FOR many young people, the Leaving Cert is an important rite of passage in their lives, determining important decisions. For others, academic success is not the be-all and end-all of where they’ll end up.

“I didn’t excel academically,” says Midleton woman, Nora Twomey, one of the founders of the Oscar-nominated Cartoon Saloon based in Kilkenny. Their latest film, The Breadwinner, which entered the Irish cinemas just last week, was nominated for best Animated Feature Film 2018 at the Academy Awards.

“I dropped out of school at 15,” says Nora. ”School wasn’t for me. But I had a talent for drawing.”

She has wise words for those like her.

“It is a case of finding what you’re good at and being lucky enough to pursue it. In that regard, I’ve been very lucky,” says Nora.

“It is good to work hard and give your all to a project that you’re passionate about.”

School didn’t tick all Nora’s boxes.

“I was not the most attentive of students,” she says, smiling. “And I generally tried to make my presence felt as little as possible in the classroom. But I do vividly remember Mr Hayse, who taught history. He presented each historical event as though it was the most amazingly epic thriller! He obviously loved the subject and his students at St Mary’s felt that and they responded to it.

“Everything you experience has an influence on your creativity,” says Nora.

“While I didn’t excel at school in any obvious way, it gave me the incentive to find my path in life.”

Nora’s school-days were not always her happiest.

“It was wise for me to drop out of school to preserve my mental health,” she says. “I couldn’t find my feet in school, socially and academically. I didn’t know how to communicate that, or how to make things better.

“My father had died after a long illness when I was 14 and I was finding a lot of things very difficult. Leaving school gave me the space to try and heal and build self-confidence. That’s what I needed at the time.

“I built my way back up and returned to education when I was ready. I had the support of my family and that made a huge difference.”

Leaving school as a young teenager was an uncertain time for Nora. Unsure of what she wanted to do, she wound up doing manual work at a local factory, drawing and painting in her spare time.

“I grew up on a farm outside Midleton,” says Nora, who is mum to Oliver, aged 10 ,and Patrick, aged eight.

“I loved playing in the fields and helping out on the farm. I love the landscape around Midleton, it is so varied with inlets, woods and rivers. I spent a lot of time in the woods in Ballyannon. I loved the library on Main Street and the family-owned shops that lined the long street.”

A scene from The Breadwinner, now in Irish cinemas.
A scene from The Breadwinner, now in Irish cinemas.

She was a hard worker.

“I did 12 hour shifts at the vegetable factory,” says Nora.

“I used my imagination and I told myself stories while the conveyor belt was going around. I gained confidence from earning my own money and choosing what I did with my own time.

“I’ve always worked hard, no matter what. After a few years my mum saw an advert for an art foundation course in Colaiste Stiofáin Naofa in Ballyphehane and my sister helped me to get a portfolio together to apply for a place.”

Nora had found her niche.

“When I was accepted there, it felt like coming home,” she says.

“The tutors showed me how to grow my talents into skills. I made good friends there and I met my husband-to-be, Michael, while I was there.”

Nora graduated to Ballyfermot College in Dublin.

“I was accepted on quality and my portfolio, rather than on any school exams,” says Nora. “I was lucky it had nothing to do with a CAO. As soon as I started in Ballyfermot, I realised that the college was perfect for me.”

The future was bright for the east Cork girl who reached for the stars.

“It was joyful being surrounded by people who loved drawing,” says Nora.

“When I was accepted as a member of the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences, I had to pinch myself. It is the sort of thing I could never have dreamt of back when I was in college at Ballyfermot.”

And she could never have dreamed of working with Angelina Jolie, producer of The Breadwinner, which is based on a young adult book by Deborah Ellis, and which opened in Irish cinemas last month.

“Angelina has been dedicated to the project since day one,” says Nora. “She really gets it. And like me, she wants to be true to a story that is an important one for our times. The Breadwinner is a film about courage, strength and the love one young girl has for her family. I think older children and adults will relish the chance to see the work of so many artists and animators on the big screen.”

What advice would Nora give to young students today that believe in following their dreams?

“I think the best advice anyone can have, at any stage of life, is to ‘follow your bliss’, says Nora.

“This advice was first given by Joseph Campbell. Find something that doesn’t feel like work. Something that energises you and motivates you; then explore it. Whether it is a hobby or a job, we all need to create in order to find energy in some way. Creating something helps us to make sense of the world around us, no matter what age we are.”

“There is a door open somewhere,” says Nora. “You just have to find it through hard work, confidence, honesty and commitment.”

Nora loves what she does.

“I love making films, working with talented crews and actors, helping to tell stories that have the potential to reach a wide audience. Seeing The Breadwinner with audiences around the world has been very gratifying.”

Nora was grateful when she was given more time after experiencing cancer.

“There is no ‘bounce back’ from cancer,” she says. “I am lucky to be healthy again. But cancer is something that reminds you that life is chaos and ideas about control or fairness are an illusion. I don’t see it as a fight and I don’t see myself as a survivor. I am grateful to breast care services and to volunteer organisations like Cois Nor in Kilkenny and SERT, for helping me maintain some sense of normality for my family through it all.

“I am very conscious of the time I’ve been given back through the skills of my doctors and nurses in Waterford and Kilkenny. I used to dread the thought of getting older,” says Nora. “Now it is my deepest wish.”

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