HAVING learned to read in his 50s, Sixmilebridge-based Joe McDonagh will give a talk in Shannon Library next Tuesday at 11am about his journey as an adult learner.
Originally from Fedamore, he left school at the age of 13 and admits that he had almost no understanding of the written word.
“I could just write my own name. I used landmarks to get places. If you showed me a place once, I could get back there but if I saw a sign, I wouldn’t know what it meant.”
A painter and decorator by trade, he spent years in England, originally working with his uncles and sending money home to his parents in Limerick.
“I’d paint rooms, pass bricks; you didn’t need to read or write to do that,” he reflects.
In the early 2000s he was back in Ireland when his working life came to an abrupt halt.
“I got scoliosis in the spine and got vertigo. The doctor told me that I couldn’t work any more. I would be grand one day but the next day I might go to pick up my keys and my back would lock. I used to be very depressed at home.”
At the time, his literacy was so poor that he couldn’t help a small grandchild with her schoolwork.
“She asked me to help her with her homework. She was only about six at the time and I couldn’t. She asked me to help her again but I’d always make an excuse to go away. I’d say I had to meet someone but she said ‘oh, you can’t read or write can you’?”
The child, with fantastic indiscretion, told her teacher the next day that Joe couldn’t read or write. Joe admitted to her that he did have an issue around literacy and the teacher gave him a number for a place where help was available in Shannon.
At this stage, he still had no notion of going there or even calling the number.
“I put it in my back pocket and went off and thought no more about it. A few days afterwards, my wife found it and asked what is this number? I told her about it and she said ‘why not give it a go, you’re bored sitting here at home’.”
That was the start of a journey that would see him complete his Junior Cert and Leaving Cert in English.
Incredibly, given where he was at on his 50th birthday, by his 60th, he was a member of the Shannon Creative Writers Group.
He talks with enthusiasm about writing and says a lot of his creations haven’t yet seen the light of day yet.
“I have a lot of stories that I haven’t put out yet. I have a play that I’m ready to go doing too.”
A book called Beneath Cannock’s Clock, written by the late Dermot Walsh, is one of his favourite novels. It is the story of the last man to be hanged in Ireland, Michael Manning, a Limerick man who murdered a nurse in Castletroy in 1953.
“People used to meet at Cannock’s Clock and go from there. I read it three times; I couldn’t put it down. It was based on a true story. I love that.”
Ten years ago, he would have been as well off to throw a book in the fire if he had one but his house has plenty of them now.
“My wife says to bring no more books; the place is full of books,” he jokes.
Along his literacy journey, Joe used the services of the National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA) and the Limerick and Clare Education and Training Board. A member of NALA will also speak at Shannon Library next Tuesday, as will Máire Dempsey of the Shannon Adult Learning Centre of the Limerick and Clare Education and Training Board.
Getting education as an adult can make a huge difference in a person’s life, he feels, while he says people shouldn’t be afraid to go because of any bad experiences they had in their youth.
“No-one should sit at home doing nothing; there’s plenty there to do. There are courses there and they’re free. It’s not like going back to school, where you were afraid you’d get a slap. They’ll help you and you needn’t be frightened to ask them; they become your friends.
“Máire Dempsey is fantastic. She opens doors for us. Her and her group have got me where I am today. Michael Ryan in Ennis is great as well,” he concluded.
By Owen Ryan