Under Tina, Cork learning festival went from 60 events... to 600 in 2017

After she recently retired from her job as coordinator of the Cork Lifelong Learning Festival, COLETTE SHERIDAN chats to Tina Neylon about the highlights of her tenure and plans for the future
Under Tina, Cork learning festival went from 60 events... to 600 in 2017
Tina, front left at the launch at City Hall of a showcase of Cork Lifelong Learning Festival.Picture: Denis Minihane.

FROM working and living in Fota House to a spell in Leinster House as a parliamentary assistant to Ciaran Lynch during the banking inquiry, Tina Neylon has had a fascinating and varied career.

A single mother-of-two, Tina recently retired from her job as coordinator of the Cork Lifelong Learning Festival which she ran successfully for 14 years.

The high point of that job was Cork hosting the third UNESCO International Conference on Learning Cities in 2017 following a UNESCO Learning City Award for Cork in 2016.

“Only 12 cities in the world were up for an award, with three of them in Europe,” says Tina.

“We half-jokingly said it would be great if we were to host the UNESCO learning cities conference in Cork. The first one (which Tina attended as a guest of the Cork Lord Mayor) was in Bejing and the second one was in Mexico City where I gave a presentation.”

When Cork hosted the UNESCO conference in September, more than 600 delegates from all around the globe attended. Such is the interest in turning a city like Cork into a lifelong learning city that Tina decided to write a report on how she organised the annual Cork Lifelong Learning Festival.

Tina, whose career has included editing the books pages for the Irish Examiner, editing the Holly Bough for three years, and writing about the arts, admits that when, in 2004, she was interviewed for the post of making Cork a learning city, she “hadn’t a clue what a learning city was. I don’t know if many people did.” But she soon learned.

The festival grew from offering 60 events the first year to 600 events in 2017.

The eclectic festival includes sessions on everything from memoir writing to ‘computers for the petrified.’ There are language learning opportunities, art exhibitions, tips on how to conserve energy in the home, to mention just a few — and everything is free.

Asked what she learned from working on the festival, Tina says “a huge amount”.

“One of the most amazing things to me was to learn about all these different organisations around the city, beavering away in the background, doing the most amazing work, sometimes with disadvantaged people.

“Most of the people involved are women, I’m proud to say. That’s probably the reason why they haven’t got more notice.”

Tina Neylon, Cork Lifelong Learning Festival co-ordinator, chatting with Arne Carlsen from Denmark, at the UNESCO conference welcome reception in City Hall.Picture: David Keane.
Tina Neylon, Cork Lifelong Learning Festival co-ordinator, chatting with Arne Carlsen from Denmark, at the UNESCO conference welcome reception in City Hall.Picture: David Keane.

She says there are some wonderful projects like Before 5 in Churchfield.

“This family centre helps kids and parents in the area. It has a crèche and a play school and is next to a primary school.

“Then there’s Mahon Community Development Project which, like a lot of such projects around the city, does amazing work. You’ve got Ballyphehane which organised a series to talks in the lead up to the last election, explaining the voting system. There are all sorts of practical skills offered by the festival, particularly for people who weren’t enamoured of the education system or are not particularly academic. The festival is a fantastic opportunity to learn and there’s the whole social aspect to it.”

A festival initiative that Tina is very proud of involves a collaboration with Feile an Phobail in Belfast.

“It’s the biggest community festival in the British Isles. Through my friendship with Danny Morrison (author and former Sinn Féin publicity director), we’ve been running cross border exchanges for the last seven years. Northern Irish mural painters that we brought to Cork worked with unemployed young men and older men from the Mahon Community Development Project. They’ve done murals that you see around the city including the Titanic one at Horgan’s Quay. The other main part of the exchange is working with Meitheal Mara, the traditional boat builders in Cork. They bring down teenagers from the Belfast area and teach them how to build currachs and row them. They take part in the Ocean to City Junior race in Cork.”

Tina was born in Ennis in County Clare, one of three girls. When she was ten, she and her family moved to England.

“I quite enjoyed living there in lots of ways. We used to call our school ‘the refugee camp’ because there were so many foreign teachers, from America, New Zealand and India. After I left school, I went off to Italy. I didn’t want to go straight to college.”

In Italy, Tina became pregnant.

“I came back to Ireland as my parents had retired here. It was 1973 when my son Michael was born. I was in disgrace. My parents were initially awful about it but they came round.

“I went to UCC as a mature student and did a Masters in English and tutored in the English department there. Michael lived with my parents during term time when I was in college. After college, I got a job at Triskel.”

Being an unmarried mother back in the 1970s wasn’t easy.

“I look back now and think you had to be a bit tough to be a single mother — and you probably still do.”

While working on her Master’s Degree on the writer Francis Stuart, Tina became pregnant with Eve.

“I didn’t tell my parents until two weeks before Eve’s birth. So it was a bit of a shock for them, to put it mildly. But then they were grand about it.”

Tina landed a job as curator at Fota House which was being restored by businessman and owner of great art works, Richard Wood.

“We moved in there in January 1983 when Michael was nine-and-a-half and Eve was in a Moses basket borrowed from Sean Dunne (the late poet and journalist). When I got the job, I hadn’t told Richard that I had two children. He was so sweet. He invited me for a meal in the Oyster Tavern which was really posh in those days. I thought ‘I have to tell him.’ When I did, he said he always wanted the house to be lived in. He’s a lovely person; we’re still great friends.”

Living in Fota House “was absolutely amazing”, said Tina.

“We had 84 rooms or something! We didn’t use them all though. We had our own apartment. We also had our own private wildlife garden which in those days wasn’t open during the winter. There was an emu (a big bird which is the symbol of New Zealand). He used to be transfixed by Eve when she was little. He used to follow us all the way round when we went for walks in the garden. It was an amazing place to live in, except when Eve went to school. She said she wanted to live in an ordinary house even though we were living in this huge mansion in the middle of a wonderful estate.”

Fota House was forced to close because UCC, the owners, decided they wanted to sell it to a development company.

“There was war trying to save it. We succeeded.” 

After that, Tina started working in public relations.

“I did PR for every arts organisation in Cork at one stage,” she says.

Through that, she got into journalism, encouraged by Declan Hassett, writer and former arts editor of the Examiner and editor of the Evening Echo.

“I also worked for a year with RTÉ Cork Local Radio, presenting an arts show. It was the most nerve-wracking thing I’ve ever done in my whole life.

“I was so nervous because it was live. I did loads of other things including working on a history project at UCC.” Tina says that if she ever writes a book, it will be non-fiction.

“I’d love to do something with the interviews I carried out with World War II veterans. UCC have the tapes in their archives.

“Some of these men’s stories are amazing. I never had the time to do something with them until now.” Tina is currently working on a project called. PSYCHED. As part of Cork Healthy Cities, it promotes mental health and wellbeing in the work place.

Her son is now aged 44 and is the founder and CEO of Black Night Solutions in Carlow. A web posting company, it’s the largest domain seller in Ireland and has 40 employees.

Eve, 35, is a TV producer who has worked on Red Rock, and with her Australian husband, cameraman Chris Donoghue, has just had their first child, a boy named Harry.

“I love the idea of being a granny,” says Tina. “I used to be really envious of my sister in France who has two grandchildren.

“I’m looking forward to giving my grandson the wrong things, like chocolate. And I’ll hand him back to his parents with chocolate smeared all over his face!” 

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