St Declan’s School celebrated its 50th birthday on 27 September, with past and present students and their families filling Haddington Road church for a Mass celebrated by Jesuit Provincial John Dardis. In 1958, Fr Dermot Casey, a Jesuit psychologist, raised £4000 to buy 35 Northumberland Road, in Dublin 4. He needed a place to cater for children of normal intelligence who could not cope with mainstream primary school for a variety of reasons, such as what we would now call Asbergers Syndrome, ADHD, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia and other conditions. The good fruits of his efforts were manifest at the celebration – never more than when two past students, Sian and Brendan, spoke about what St Declan’s had done for them. Click on ‘Read more’ for the text of Brendan’s address.
ST DECLAN’S: REMEMBERING TIMES PAST
I started in 1994 when I was six years old and was there for six years, so I went straight from St. Declan’s into secondary school.
I remember my very first visit to St. Declans when my parents and I met Fr. Andrews to see if I could have a place at the school. Here was this great house lit by a stained glass window, it was unlike any school I had heard. The only really cherished memory I have from the previous school, is when one day, Des McQuaid, my psychologist, came in to visit me. I remember how special it made me feel to have this important visitor come especially for me. Things never really worked out in my first school though and so for me, moving to St. Declan’s Special School made total sense.
I never really thought about St. Declan’s as being a “special needs school” when I started there that September, but more as a special school, if you get what I mean, and what little boy doesn’t want to be told he’s special?
St. Declan’s was special because it was more than school, it was a place where I felt I belonged. Some things were bizaare to me alright: my teacher, Sr. Marian, was a nun who came to school on a motorbike. That was exciting enough, but then we got cup-a-soup for break-time, and we often had visitors, like Father Layden and even Sister Marian’s mother who was nearly a hundred years old at the time and we had parties on everyone’s birthday!
Even the playground was exciting. There were doves, a climbing frame, a little grotto that you could sit in, swings, and a big strange evergreen tree surrounded by a little granite wall, which was “the base” for our games. There was a basketball court too, and grass and flowers. There were also these yellow tunnels, and my favourite thing was to do was to lie in one of them and just stare up at the sky, I suppose it’s a bit strange giving an inventory of the playground, but actually the thing is that this playground was part of what made Saint Declan’s different from anywhere else.
I have to confess that when I started in St. Declan’s, as well as pulling bits off the tree in the garden, I used to pull people’s hair and so my ‘homework diary’ from my first year is full of notes from Sr. Marian to my mother: “Brendan pulled Elizabeth and Jessica’s hair today and didn’t say sorry…” And then a sure sign of progress later in the year: “Brendan pulled Jessica’s hair today but said sorry; this is a big improvement”. The joy and excitement Sister Marian took in all my little leaps of progress bemused me a little, but it made me feel special and encouraged me to progress further.
Learning to say Sorry when you’ve done something wrong makes sense, but over my years in St. Declan’s and even in my time since I’ve had to learn many more things that most people learn just by doing; like learning how to make just normal faces – learning how to smile like everyone else smiles. I found it somewhat humiliating having to look in the mirror at home and practice saying things and seeing what my face did when I said them.
But of course now, looking back on things like these, having done them, means that in almost every conversation and interaction I have today nobody would pick up where I have come from. Not that I am ashamed of having Asbergers – whatever that really means – but more, I think that in order for people to understand who you are, you can’t let a diagnosis define you. It’s hard work and I still have to do it from time to time as I interact with more people, on more levels. But having learnt from the beginning that there is nothing shameful about this makes it ok for me to still do it.
My holidays during primary school were generally spent at summer camps, art workshops and going on holidays around Ireland, and as I met other children, they’d me ask things like what school I went to and what class I was in, and so I would say I went to St. Declan’s School but I didn’t know what class I was in. The thing about St. Declan’s is that the classes aren’t really defined. In any given class, if you take reading material for example, there could be children reading books from the second class primary school curriculum right up to material for second year of secondary school. As well as that, everyone had time away from their regular class to work one-on-one or in small groups on their own particular skills and needs, so it’s a bit confusing when you’re asked what class you’re in, and these other kids, weren’t too satisfied with my “I don’t know” or “Ms. Hickey’s or Mr. Guidera’s class” so I’d try to work it out. I would have been in first class in 1994, so 95′ 96′ 97′ 98′ … I must be in fifth class. They must have thought I was pretty strange but I didn’t get it. When they asked why I went to school in Ballsbridge when it all the way across town, I would of course answer that I went there because that’s where my school was.
When I left St. Declan’s I went to boarding school in Drogheda, where they wouldn’t have known Ballsbridge from Ballymun so I didn’t have to explain that anymore. Now that I’m in college, I’m back in Dublin so people’s geography is a little more local, but if someone asks me today why I went to school in Ballsbridge, I’ll tell them that it was a special school and like I said when I was there, because that’s where it was.
The first time that I really started to question the whole “special needs school” thing was when I was in Mr. Guidera’s class where I spent my last two years at the school. A few of us entered the EBS Handwriting Competition. We had to enter in the “Special Needs” category and by that stage I knew that special needs were seen by people as disabilities, and they were bad, and so I really struggled with that labelling. I had no intention of letting people say I was disabled, I hated that anyone was labeled so blindly. I probably concentrated more on that than on perfecting my handwriting.
Later on in the year, my mum decided to collect tokens from the Irish Independent and enter St. Declan’s in the building for the future competition. With a prize fund of £500,000 it was the largest ever competition of its kind. Literally THOUSANDS of newspapers passsed through our house every week and we’d sit in the hall cutting out the tokens. It was quite funny actually because we began to notice that there were tokens for all sorts of things in the papers and ended up winning lots of little things as we started cutting out those tokens too. Collecting tokens was only to get into the competition though, for which the school got a free TV and stuff. The next stage was the competition itself. We didn’t enter in some special needs category but in the same way and in the same category as the 600 other primary schools that entered. The project was called “My favourite building” and we did it on the National Gallery. We got to go to the gallery and visit the behind-the-scenes areas, make questionnaires, interview people, draw, sketch and compile all of our musings and findings into a booklet, and at the end of it all, we won the provincial prize of £20,000.
To come from a supposed disadvantage and win seems like a tremendous triumph. And it is. But the thing that people don’t realize, is that, it is those, who go and who have gone to Saint Declan’s Special School, that have the advantage.
Your special needs are catered for and you learn to gradually put the disadvantages of your diagnosed condition behind you. You learn to interact with the rest of the world as an equal, and not just go on to participate in mainstream education, and mainstream life, but to excel at it.
So to all those in Saint Declan’s who have helped shape who I am today, and who I will be tomorrow.