Family Health

Brendan O'Connor: 'I'm not ready for my little girl to grow up'

There was a lot to take in at the secondary school orientation night. Suddenly it all seemed very grown up.

They were talking about long days and staying on to do sport and activities afterwards, and being of the school community, and things like science and Leaving Cert results and becoming a self-reliant human adult, and then this kid played the piano incredibly beautifully.

And all I wanted to say to them was, “There’s been a mistake here. She’s only a little kid. She’s my little girl. She’s not ready for this.” But of course she is ready. In her own self-reliant way she breezed out of there, and pronounced that it was all good. Where did this self-reliance even come from?

I certainly didn’t encourage it. But then, women cook up these things in a house, behind your back. Little girls grow up but they don’t bother upsetting dad with the news. Mothers calmly deal with it all, even encourage it.

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“The other kids seemed cool,” I said, by way of consolation. “Yeah,” she said, “I’m hungry.”

Of course it was myself I was consoling. She was ready. Or at least she knew she would be ready by September. I was the one who wasn’t ready. I’m not ready yet for our tight little unit to change, for the balance to tip and for her life to be more outside the family than inside the family.

These 11 and a half years have gone by in the blink of an eye. But in another way it feels like this little nation of four has always been there, this little ecosystem where we all have these shifting roles to play. And perhaps I’m scared too that if she grows up, the scales will fall from her eyes and I will be toppled off my pedestal, because in her growing up, she will realise that I’m not grown up. Girls start being slightly condescending to their dads from a very early age. They hide it well, as they twist you around their little fingers, slowly becoming aware of their power. But the mask slips now and again, and you see that they pity you for your devotion to them.

The next day I hear on Morning Ireland that Muiris Mac Conghail is dead. Only 78. That means that Muiris wasn’t that much older than me when he was the head of the new journalism postgrad course in DIT Aungier Street. I think now of how much he knew, and how much he had done by then, and the life experience he brought to the role and all the wealth of things he had to share with us in his unique way.

It being the first year of the course, things were slightly chaotic, and Muiris took advantage of that space to try and give us some real-world experiences, bringing us out to where news was happening, to funerals and even to the pub occasionally, where we often learnt more than we did in formal class. It was a wide-ranging education, encompassing everything from how government really worked to the culture and people of the Blasket Islands.

Muiris also took it upon himself to make me challenge my version of nationalism, which was a deep-rooted emotional thing based on various tracts, from school history books to the prison diaries of Bobby Sands. Then one day I had written a piece about legalising drugs and Muiris said I should send it into Anne Harris in the Sunday Independent. I sent it in and heard nothing, so he told me to ring and look for her. Remarkably I got her on the phone, and the piece happened to be on her desk, and she asked me why she should publish it; I told her why, and she did. And as far as Muiris was concerned that was the most important thing he did for me in the whole course.

I think Muiris knew I was never going to be great at shorthand, or splicing tapes or any of the other skills we were learning to equip us for what was already a fast-changing profession. Muiris’s task, as he saw it, was to turn us into journalists, and that meant getting us into the real world and getting us working.

We all rely on the generosity of teachers to turn us from callow youths only interested in drink and girls and music into someone who might be able for the world in some shape or form.

And I guess I just have to trust that my little girl will be the beneficiary of similar generosity. I might think she’s not ready, but I guess that’s the point. They’ll make her ready.

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