You grew up in Belfast in the 1970s. Would you say that your upbringing has had a strong influence on your career path, your passion for language and your cultural identity?
Absolutely. In terms of cultural identity, my parents and grandparents were a mixed bunch from Antrim, Tyrone, Westmeath and Inverness-shire. My parents were also a religiously mixed marriage. My cultural identity, as long as I can remember, has always been Irish with a strong sympathy for Scotland. And I despise sectarianism, as a consequence of which I have always been deeply opposed to partition.
Hurling was part of that upbringing, but the Irish language played only a small part in it, for we didn’t have it in the family, though my father’s best friend and his wife, Liam and Cris Broderick, were one of the five founding couples of the Shaw’s Road Gaeltacht and the first Irish-medium primary school in Belfast. But I hated Irish in school and couldn’t wait to drop it when I was sixteen. Yet within a few months I found that something was missing. It was about my personal sense of identity. I eventually came back to the language in my thirties, did an A Level, short courses in Glencolmcille with Oideas Gael, and took a degree part-time at Ulster while working as a lecturer there. Part of the motivation was that if I ever had children I wanted them to be bilingual. My daughters are now growing up beautifully bilingual here in Galway.
But my first love was German. I fell in love with the sound of the language on a school trip to Austria when I was ten. I didn’t know it then, but that was a life-changing event. Later, I gave up a degree in Maths and Computer Science to follow my heart, and I became a lecturer and then a professor in German. To this day I love the sound of German, and reading German literature and history.
Your remit is broad, from responsibility for the University academic strategy, promotions and quality to chairing many boards, including Sustainability Advisory Board and until very recently, the Board of the Central Admissions Office. You are also a member of the IUA Registrars’ Group and the Royal Irish Academy. How have you managed to find balance and succeed in these various areas?
It is broad, but not one of the things you mention isn’t worth it. Sustainability is about our very existence as a species. Academic strategy, quality and the CAO are all about the value of our young people (and some not so young) and their future. Academic promotions are about recognising achievement among academic colleagues and doing so in a way that is rooted in equality. The IUA and the RIA are about engaging across the country for mutual learning and improvement.
I am passionate about education and doing all to ensure that others succeed. That passion was instilled by my parents, but you have to want it yourself, too. Long hours are part of it, but bringing teams along also, consulting, recognising not only what’s needed but also what’s possible with a bit of imagination. We have had some significant successes in the areas you just mentioned, sure enough. All these successes are built on the work of teams, teams that are led, challenged and listened to in equal measure. An occasional bit of levity helps, too!
You have talked about the correlation between inflated accredited grades and increasing requirements for CAO points. Does the current entry system for domestic students support equal educational opportunities? What kind of new routes can we develop for prospective students to access University?
Equality is a massive word. It’s not just about systems. On one level the CAO entry system could not be fairer, since it is about the points and the points alone, unlike the UK system, for example, which introduces statements about interests etc that have been shown to influence University selectors in biased ways and have also spawned an industry in writing such statements for applicants, if parents can afford to pay. I’m glad we don’t have that.