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Our three year €1.2m Engage and Educate fund supports game changing educational opportunities for marginalised communities. We asked the fund awardees, staff from our partner Rethink Ireland and our own people to share their experiences of education, what inspires them, and to reflect on the difference it has made on their lives.

Micheál Grace, Partner and Head of International

Tell us about your education journey

Having attended the local primary school in Oola, County Limerick, my parents made a lot of sacrifices to send me to board in Cistercian College Roscrea. From there, I went to UCC to study for my BCL. While there, I was afforded the opportunity to attend St Louis University Law School in Missouri. I went on to complete an LLM in UCC thereafter and then qualified as a solicitor in 2006, having trained in MHC.

Who was your biggest inspiration (teacher, family member etc.) who helped set you on your path?

My parents both worked exceptionally hard (my Mum was a teacher and my Dad an agricultural adviser and farmer) which instilled me with a solid work ethic. In terms of choosing law, the first person to suggest it as a career was my English teacher in CCR, Gerry Maher (RIP). Gerry was an excellent teacher and really helped me develop my writing style and ability to relay a message directly and succinctly. Notwithstanding the fact that I had no connections in the legal world, his encouragement let me to pursuing the path I’m on. So far it has worked out okay.

What do you think is the biggest difference education has made in your own life?

It dramatically broadened my horizons and afforded me opportunities that would otherwise have been either unavailable to me or harder to attain. I’ve lived in a variety of different places, met some amazing people and developed a career in a challenging industry.

Sarah Cloonan, Partner

Tell us about your education journey

It all started with Montessori. After a short stint there, I attended the local primary and secondary schools in Malahide and then completed my undergraduate degree in Business and Legal Studies in UCD. I then decided I wanted to be a solicitor and completed the Professional Practice courses in the Law Society before qualifying in 2010.

My advice for anyone currently pursuing their education – take every opportunity that is offered to you. Learn as much as you can from your educators and make sure you try to ensure your education is well rounded. Travel as much as you can. Also remember, learning doesn’t stop once you finish school, university or professional qualifications. Learning should be a life long endeavour.

Who was your biggest inspiration (teacher, family member etc.) who helped set you on your path?

It’s really cliched but my parents. There was always a big emphasis on learning in our house and my parents always supported anything that was going to enhance my education.

Is there an experience you have had with learning that changed your perspective?

We spent some time living abroad and did a lot of travelling during my teenage years and I think that changed my perspective in the sense that education isn’t just about book learning. While learning theory and reading books is important, learning about different cultures and other ways of life is invaluable. I attended an international school while we lived abroad and that also made me realise how lucky we are to have the education system we have. Obviously there is scope for improvement but we have highly qualified teachers/lecturers in our schools/universities who are equipped to ensure that students are well grounded and prepared for life after they leave the education system. That isn’t the case everywhere else.

Lorcan Maule, Associate

Tell us about your education journey

I have had a very fortunate education journey; this is due to the wonderful teachers and lectures that I have had the pleasure of being taught by. I am delighted that Mason Hayes & Curran LLP and have partnered with Rethink Ireland and the Engage & Educate Fund. Working alongside the education sector in my role in Mason Hayes & Curran LLP, I see the importance of education across all ages and communities and how important education plays in a role in people’s life.

After leaving secondary school, I studied business and law in University College Dublin (UCD), during my degree I thoroughly enjoyed the employment law modules and I knew that was an area that I specifically want to gain more knowledge in. I decided after my bachelors degree to gain a better understanding of employment law and I opted to do a diploma in employment law with UCD. While telling myself throughout my undergraduate degree that I would never be interested in a masters, I decided to take the plunge and move to Cork to study a masters in child and family law in University College Cork. The skills and knowledge that I gained through the masters degree, I still use to this day in my day to day role. However more importantly the masters degree not only equipped me with vital knowledge in relation to the area of child and family law but allowed me to develop universal skills such as analytical and critical thinking which can be adopted to any area of law that I come into contact with on a day to day basis. It is these skills which are truly invaluable and is why I would recommend anyone to undertake a masters degree if given the opportunity.

I don’t believe my education journey has ended and I am always on the lookout for the next interesting course or degree that might interest me.

Is there an experience you have had with learning that changed your perspective?

As an elective in my masters in child and family law in University College Cork we were able to be involved in a Child Law Clinic under the supervision of Dr Conor O’Mahony. The Child Law Clinic was established in 2010 to provide pro bono research assistance to practicing lawyers or civil society groups to assist in their litigation and advocacy work. It also authors its own submissions and amicus briefs to various courts and committees on matters of interest. The Child Law Clinic has been involved in some of the most prominent cases that have involved the rights of children including involvement with the O’Keefe v Hickey case in the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights.

During my time in the Child Law Clinic I was able to assist local solicitor firms in Cork with research on case law concerning the Child Care Act 1991 and the Guardian of Infants Act 1964. However the prominent moment during my time was my involvement in the Clann project. The purpose of Clann project is to help establish the truth of what happened to unmarried mothers and their children in 20th century Ireland. Clann provided assistance to those who wished to give evidence to Ireland’s Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes and Certain Related Matters by arranging free legal assistance for individuals to make full written statements. The Child Law Clinic assisted the Clann project with research regarding adoption in the 20th centaury and the research culminated into a lengthy submission being submitted to the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes.

The time spent on this research project was eye opening for many reasons and allowed me to move from a commercial trained mindset from studying business and law and look at a situation from a more social aspect, which is now incredibly useful in my role today.

What is one change you would like to see in the Irish Education system?

I would like to see the Irish Education system move away from the sole entry requirement of CAO points to gain access to courses in university. With the increasing youth population and lack of increasing courses capacity we are seeing that courses that were relatively easy to gain access to now becoming difficult. I think it would be interesting to see Ireland adopt a system like the UK where acceptance of popular courses is subject to personal statements and interviews. Adopting an interview model would also allow a prospective student to ensure that the course is right for them and also the university. It would also hopefully allow a wider variety of students to be enrolled in courses and take into consideration people’s individual circumstances.

We are starting to see progressive changes in the Irish Education system at third level with the introduction of the regional technological universities and hopefully this will cater to far more students then previously with the increase of resources. I do believe it is an exciting time for the Irish Education system and I am hopeful that we will start to see some more interesting developments in this area in the years to come.

Yvanne Kennedy, Associate

Tell us about your education journey

For a solicitor, I had a reasonably traditional education journey. When I finished secondary school (which I was lucky enough to receive a scholarship for), I went to UCD to study Law. I got involved as I possibly could, with various societies, Law School initiatives, and one of the campus newspapers. I had an opportunity to complete a placement at the end of my third year, and spent time working in a non-profit in criminal justice reform. When I finished in UCD, I had the chance to spend a year with an education programme I worked with during college (more on which below), which also gave me a chance to complete exams needed to start my solicitor training, and to save for further study. The following year I moved to Belfast, and completed a Masters in Human Rights and Criminal Justice. I was fortunate again to receive a North South Scholarship, which is provided to students from the Republic of Ireland, who are moving to Northern Ireland to study, and vice versa. The end of this programme dovetailed nicely with the start of my training, which took about two and a half years, and I have been working as a qualified solicitor since February 2020.

Who was your biggest inspiration (teacher, family member etc.) who helped set you on your path?

My biggest inspiration in education (and life) is my dad. He worked as a prison officer for 40 years, and had a big impact on my interest in law from an early age. He remains a huge believer in the power of law for good, working with compassion and understanding, and helping those in vulnerable times in their lives. When I taught law and criminology courses during college, I invited him in to speak to the students, and it was a true highlight of every term, for me and them. He was also always a huge advocate for education and training, whatever that might mean in each situation. I am yet to meet someone so interested in the world, or to know as much about so many different things. I was, and am, incredibly fortunate that the enjoyment I got from learning, figuring out new things, and exploring new areas of interest, was always fostered and encouraged, and undoubtedly lead me to where I am today.

Is there an experience you have had with learning that changed your perspective?

Apart from my own experience, having benefited from scholarship programmes and college placements, one of the most impactful experiences I had before training as a solicitor, came when I worked in DCU. During my time there, I had an opportunity to manage after school courses for students from several local schools. The programmes were provided free of charge to students who had been identified by their teachers as having the potential to benefit from additional course work. Speaking to parents and teachers during and after the programme, they often told us how much more confident and engaged the students were after only a short period. We were told of how much of an impact even a few weeks had on the children’s work inside and outside of school, and how positive it was for them to explore interests they may not have had a chance to otherwise. This experience did not so much change my perspective, but rather reaffirmed to me the importance of access to education, learning and training, and I remain absolutely convinced of its impact.

Domhnall Breatnach, Partner

Tell us about your education journey

My education journey began in Tramore, County Waterford, where I went to primary school in Gaelscoil Philip Barún. After that I went to secondary school in De La Salle College in Waterford City. I attended University College Cork from 2002-2005. Although I’m a lawyer now, I didn’t initially study law in university. Before studying law, I studied Music, English and Irish as part of the BA (Arts/Music) programme in UCC. After completing my undergraduate degree in UCC, I went on to study law as part of the University of Limerick’s two-year Graduate Entry LLB (Bachelor of Laws) programme. After completing my LLB degree in UL, I studied for the Law Society of Ireland FE1 exams, which was the beginning of my training to become a solicitor. I secured a solicitor traineeship in another large commercial law firm in Dublin in 2009. During my time there, I studied for an MA in UK, EU and Copyright Law from Kings College, London, which I completed mainly by way of distance learning. I joined MHC in April 2022.

Who was your biggest inspiration (teacher, family member etc.) who helped set you on your path?

During my time in secondary school in De La Salle College in Waterford I had music teacher, Br Ben, who was an inspiration to me. He’s also inspired many others who’ve passed through De La Salle over the years. Teaching was a vocation to him, and he really believed in the power of music to improve people and to help them develop a variety of important life skills. He always encouraged people to get involved and be part of the musical community, both in the school and outside, no matter what their musical ability. Through the medium of music, he inspired me to explore new ideas and to always try to look at things from different perspectives – lessons and skills that I continue to carry with me today. Teachers like that are a rare thing and to be treasured.

Why do you feel life-long learning is important?

I don’t think you ever stop learning. It would be foolish to think that you’ve reached the point where there’s nothing left to learn. The world is constantly changing. New ideas and issues are always emerging and need to be confronted every day. I think it’s important to keep looking at ideas and issues from different directions and perspectives. Education can help on that journey – fuelling a sense of curiosity about the world and life!

Engage & Educate Awardees
& Rethink Ireland Staff

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