Education is a real family affair for three generations of the Mullan family from Dungiven who have graduated from the University of Ulster with the same diploma.
Odhrán Mullan, his aunt Maria and his grandfather John graduated from Magee with a Diploma in Irish Language, and all with distinction.
The achievement is even more remarkable given that John - Maria’s dad - is 82.
“The young people were great craic,” said John of his fellow students at Magee. “They never treated me like an old person.”
For Maria, learning the Irish language from scratch was a struggle at times, but she found great support in her father.
“He was great, a really good leaning tool,” said Maria.
Odhrán said learning alongside his grandfather and his aunt was a special experience.
“I suppose I would be a wee lazy because when you get home from work, you’re tired and maybe don’t feel like you have the energy to do things, but they kept encouraging me and, so, we kind of fed off each other,” says Odhrán.
John grew up in Banagher, outside Dungiven. The first time he heard the Irish language was as a young red-haired school boy at The Christian Brothers in Derry, in 1947.
“It was very difficult and I struggled with it,” recalled John, whose known within the family circle affectionately as ‘Ging’. “I left school and never really thought of it again.”
But the language found its way back to John through his job with Du Pont.
“I was travelling around the world and people would meet me and say ‘you’re Irish, but you speak English?’ That gave me a wee kick and, as I got older, I began to understand the beauty of the language,” he said.
At the age of 70 John found himself at Magee studying for the Diploma.
“I found it tough, but I struggled on. I got good results but, after the first year, I put it on hold,” explained John.
In between times, John attended weekly Irish language classes in Claudy with Jimmy Ramsey.
Meanwhile, Maria - who had lived in London and Switzerland - had similar experiences to her father. She recalled meeting people expecting her to be able to speak Irish, but all she could manage was ‘Dia Duit’ and a few other well worn phrases.
When Maria returned home to Dungiven she wanted her daughter to attend an Irish school. Running her own cafe in the town, Maria would often hear local Irish speakers, like Nodlaig Brolly.
“You’d hear the families in conversation in Irish and I thought it was lovely,” says Maria.
With her daughter speaking the language at school, Maria felt she had to do something. When she completed her first year of the diploma, a commitment she knew she had to stick to, Maria persuaded John to finish it with her and Odhrán at the same time.
Last Tuesday they donned their gowns to graduate together. It was a proud and emotional day for the family, an occasion that would have filled John’s late wife, Anna with pride.
Maria is chuffed to bits about the family’s achievement, in particular that of her dad. She joked, however, her dad benefited a little more than she and Odhrán did as he got a free bus pass and a student card.
John said he has always believed that anything is possible, you just have to decide what you want, put your mind to it and make it happen.
“I was surprised I reached this point. I thought to myself, ‘I’m here. This is a wee bit specia’l,” he said of graduation day, adding with a laugh: “I know, I waited long enough for it!”
There was no way Odhrán was going to miss his Magee graduation for two reasons - he had missed his first graduation from Leeds University due to his involvement in the Ulster Fleadh and, this would be one to remember forever.
“There was no way I was going to miss this one,” said Odhrán.
Maria will make good w use of her new qualification as classroom assistant at Gaelscoil Neachtain in Dungiven, and with her involvement in Glór Dhún Geimhin. For Odhrán, the diploma was a matter of improving his skills as he’d already picked up a lot of conversational Irish through his job as festival organiser and development and arts manager at Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin.
John, who defies his age looking at least two decades younger thanks to a healthy lifestyle and a daily walk at Banagher Dam, will continue to teach Irish classes at his home once a week.
John is, however, quick to say ‘teach’ is a bit of a stretch, and really it’s more conversation and craic, as well as an opportunity for him to learn.
John paid tribute to his lecturer Neil Comer at Magee and to his fellow students. He says his achievement has re-affirmed the one belief he has carried through life.
“The one thing I have always said is ‘there is nothing that is impossible. You find a way of doing it. You just have to put your mind to it’,” said John.