WHEN his elevation to Lord Mayor of Cork City was hastened by the brutal murder of the incumbent Tomás MacCurtain in 1920, Terence McSwiney began something that has stood the test of time and has been a unique feature of Cork life for almost a century: the annual visit to the schools of the city.
It has been my honour and privilege for me to continue on that tradition as indeed it has for all holders of the office ever since.
This peculiarity of local history which traces its origins to a time in Cork and in Ireland where the fight for independence was at its fiercest is the type of thing we need to hold front and centre in our Decade of Commemorations; it certainly should not be one of the things we might lose if plans to drop History as a subject from the Junior Cert curriculum are realised. There is little logic in the state celebrating the 100-year history of the Easter Rising (as it did so well two years ago) on the one hand, and casting those times and so much more to the scrap heap on the other.
I can instantly recall the Lord Mayor’s visits to my primary schools at St Marie’s of the Isle, Sullivan’s Quay and later at Deerpark CBS; the sense of excitement, the sparkle of the ancient chain but, of course, the granting of a half-day and homework off which became a treasured highlight for generations of Corkonians. Like many other aspects of our culture, this practice was reigned in because it didn’t fit a national picture: the half day was axed in 2003 when Minister Noel Dempsey sought to standardise the school year and regularise school terms. So much for fostering independent thinking, individuality and creativity.
In preparations for and anticipation of my year as Ardmhéara Chorchaí, I wrote to the current Minister for Education & Skills Richard Bruton calling on him to reinstate the traditional Lord Mayor’s half day in Cork City. While he didn’t reject it outright, he deferred to the schools’ boards of management and said it was a matter for them to deal with. A bit of a fudge, but I’m glad to report that all the schools I have visited to date have granted the half-day to their pupils (and teachers, who are probably more excited!) to mark my visit and this is something that needs to continue. The schools visits, the half days, the history are all part of who and what we are in Cork...we should not relinquish our hold on this part of our past too easily.
For many young children growing up in the city, the appearance of a Lord Mayor in their school is their first glimpse of and connection with public and civic life. It is also an opportunity for the office holder of the day to talk to the next generation and try to instil messages of support and advice that may help them as they go through the education system and into adulthood.
As someone who worked in several schools in my role as a School Completion Programme (SCP) project worker, and as a former schools coach, this part of the job has been simply brilliant. I received fantastic welcomes from students, staff and parents in the schools where I worked and in my area but also across the city. Special moments for me were my very first outing to Morning Star and GS Teaghlaigh Naofa in Ballyphehane, followed by Greenmount NS and my own former school Deerpark CBS, then Maria Assumpta and Presentation Secondary School, Ballyphehane.
While there have been many highlights to date in my term, returning to my old school in Deerpark CBS will be a moment I will remember forever. Familiar faces among the staff and indeed the students with whom I worked for 10 years made it such an emotional experience, as indeed did memories of the teachers past and present from my time there. The links with Sullivan’s Quay were maintained with the presence of Bro Ben Cusack whose continued work for the young people of the area following the school’s closure in 2006 is rightly acknowledged as phenomenal; the living embodiment of what Edmund Rice set out to achieve.
Remarkably, as I said in my few words to current crop of Deerpark lads, all the students from my own class of 1989 are all still alive and well and I meet with some of them frequently. Tragically, however, some of the young people I worked with in more recent times are not and this served to heighten the emotions for myself, teaching and school staff and the pupils themselves.
My message, therefore, to our primary and secondary school students is hewn from such thoughts and tragedies as well as a realisation that the times we live in today are significantly different from my own time in school which makes addressing the issues prevalent among our young people a challenge for adults of a much different generation. Remedies and solutions to issues faced by young people must emanate from them.
And so, the messages I am trying to get to our young people are simple yet profound: “we are Cork” and “I can”.
I was delighted that I received wholehearted support from Cork City Council when I asked for pencils and wristbands containing these simple messages to bring around with me on my journey to 96 schools and distribute them as a reminder of the visit. The idea also is to give them something that will reinforce those words: “we are Cork”... that is what unites us and also what distinguishes us from everywhere else in Ireland and beyond.
“I can” is a much better philosophy to have than “I can’t” and my call to our young people was to use this phrase when: thinking of asking for help in difficult times; taking up new skills in sport, music, dance, art and drama; engaging more in their subjects and activities in school; taking up responsibilities and duties at home; interacting with friends and family.
Young people are often told what they cannot do: I tried to remind what they can do. My parting words to the students were; “I can...do whatever I want to do if I put my mind to it, seek support from friends and family and do not leave others pull me down”.
To be able to impart such advice to the listening ears of our future adults and leaders is such a huge privilege — and responsibility — of being Lord Mayor of Cork.
That is something worth protecting.