A path to wisdom and tolerance – Conor Leonard on the power of education

The story of my parents tells us much about how education can shape us and the world that we live in

My mother and father were born in a united Ireland. Not an independent Republic, of course, but a single nation within the UK. Rose was born in 1916 in west Cavan and Philip was born in 1920 in south Fermanagh, both on small farms. At birth, they were separated by only a few miles of fine bog. Shortly after, they became citizens of separate nations, when the arbitrary line that created the new British state of Northern Ireland was drawn.

Their story tells us much about how education can shape us and the world that we live in. By the time they met, education had already played a vital role in their lives. Rose was a scholarship girl, who had won a place to become a national school teacher, working in Cavan. Philip took night classes in science, a 25-mile round cycle twice a week from the home farm. He also went to a dancing school that promised it could teach a horse to dance. His foxtrot was so good, my mother allowed herself to be completely swept her off her feet.

His educational reward was a precious government job in the Ministry of Agriculture, a huge step away from subsistence farming. He was posted in and around Belfast and my mother dutifully followed, as did nine children, of whom I am the youngest. Apart from the tragic childhood death of their firstborn, all eight of us are (to date) still surviving.

My father’s career progressed steadily if not entirely smoothly; his union activities marked him for attention. He was once given discreet access to his civil service file only to find a covering note: “R/C – not for promotion”.

My parents eventually settled in Newry, the town where I was born and raised. My mother’s Southern teaching qualification was never recognised up north so she took up a teaching post in Dundalk while my father could commute around the North.

In the troubles of the late 1960s and 1970s, Newry was bleak. Memories may differ, but I found that the small-town sectarian politics, the religious bigotry of both sides and the 30 per cent unemployment resulted in an utterly stifling atmosphere.

Virtually everyone agreed that education was the way out. My parents placed huge emphasis on knowledge and academic achievement. They drove us to rise above divisions, achieve academically and pursue the opportunities that subsequently presented.

While once devout Catholics, they relished freedom of thought and imparted a love of literature and life-long learning. They were exemplars for education, seeing it as a path to wisdom and tolerance: both took degree courses at Queens University after retirement. My father and I were both conferred with master’s degrees in 1991.

For those of a Catholic background, the “way out” in those days frequently meant “out of Northern Ireland”. Education might open some doors, but many northern doors were still firmly shut to those of a different background, no matter what qualifications. As was not uncommon in families like ours, only one settled in the North. Education led to opportunities elsewhere that resulted in a range of rewarding careers. We have a solicitor, a judge, academics, a senior civil servant, a writer, accomplished healthcare professionals, including me, the CEO of a much-respected south Dublin hospital.

Over the 40 years since then, Northern Ireland radically changed in many ways; Newry has certainly improved beyond recognition.

The Belfast Agreement was an incredible achievement, holding the promise of a new future that frankly I thought was beyond reach. A generation has since been raised since, but it would be foolish to think sectarian divisions have gone. Dare I say it, but I also sense an element of hubris from both traditions in the North, as they watch the Republic flourish as an international tech hub and a model European citizen while their EU access, their formerly superior social support services and their once-fine roads slowly crumble away.

I have no doubt that the UK direction of travel, away from the EU toward relative economic stagnation, will drive Northern Ireland to a different future. But if North and South are ever to be successfully reunited, it will take courage, determination, patience and most of all, wisdom. Success will be entirely dependent on the foundations of tolerance and mutual understanding. A change in education structures will be central to building those foundations. Our early education was entirely divided along sectarian lines, with minimal contact with different traditions. Integrated education is gathering pace, much as it has in our radically changed Republic, reflecting new societal values that were largely unforeseen.

From a financial perspective life has been particularly good to one brother, a very successful writer for TV and movies. It would be so easy for Niall to forget where he came from and just enjoy his good fortune, but he hasn’t. Instead, he has engaged with the Integrated Education Fund for Northern Ireland and, in honour of our parents, and on behalf of the family, he has now entered into a substantial multi-year sponsorship arrangement with the Integrated College Glengormley in North Belfast. This is a school that teaches children of all cultures, and of all faiths and none together, in a tolerant and supportive culture.

On March 22nd this year, the siblings and our families will gather in Belfast where our parents are now buried with their first-born child, to very proudly witness him unveil a statue in their honour.

Drawing on the Salmon of Knowledge legend, it will be a sculpture of a leaping salmon, with an inscription carved in a plinth of Mourne granite dedicated to my parents and to all the children of the north, declaring “Happy are those who find Wisdom”.

In the years ahead, let us hope that we have the wisdom to know when the time is right for a cross-Border poll. Let us also hope that when that time comes, we have the wisdom to respect the outcome. My hope, my educated guess, is that if the time is chosen wisely, we will leap together. Maybe, just maybe (should I be so blessed) my grandkids will be born in a single nation on the island of Ireland, just as Rose and Phillip were.

If approached with wisdom, it might even be an Ireland that is truly united.

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