When a teacher stands in front of their class, they know that they are like an arms dealer, passing on the most powerful weapon in the world — the weapons of knowledge and education. Education is what remains in your mind long after you have left behind your schooldays. Its role is to replace an empty mind with an open one. It is that process that continues throughout life in the race to become a better person. And when you see a class of young students enforcing change, it is most refreshing in this age of cynicism.
This week I am full of pride for the role in which a west of Ireland school played in righting a half-century-old wrong. You are probably familiar with the story of Jadotville and the role played by heroic Irish soldiers when massively outnumbered in the Congo. The story of their struggle to be recognised as heroes is well known, but even with the advent of a major movie starring Jamie Dornan, the campaign seemed destined to run into the ground, until the intervention of fifth year history students at Galway Community College who informed themselves about the famous siege, asked questions, met the survivors, and driven by a motivating teacher, Philip Cribbin, they sought a way to draw a path to the corridors of power.
This week they were rightly rewarded, when in one of his last acts as taoiseach, Enda Kenny said that the State would grant medals to the entire company who were caught up in Jadotville. The medals will be awarded to all soldiers from 35th Battalion A Company at Jadotville or their next of kin for full and due recognition in honour of their courageous actions. It will happen in the next few months and it promises to be an emotional ceremony for the survivors and the families of those who have passed on.
A haf century after their siege, they are to be remembered as heroes. The history books will be rewritten, and probably too, the credits at the end of that movie.
So this morning, I say well done to Head of History Philip Cribbin and his pupils. You have done the country a great service by driving a campaign to ensure that a right was wronged. You have shown the way for other classes around the country to take on issues such as this and bring them to the attention of the legislators who can actually get things done. To this end too, I say well done to the politicians such as Noel Grealish who enabled access for the students.
This is a great story, a great example of what can be achieved when you inject your classrooms with empathy. When you take away the bullishness of preconceived ideas and you enable students to see a way in which they can change the course of this country.
A conference held here in the west this month talks about the importance of empathy in the modern classroom and how it can be channelled in a bid to understand difference and conflict. By enabling students to walk in the shoes of people across all spheres of society, you are arming them with the ability to change the world. One step at a time.
New Taoiseach Varadkar is the first leader of the country who is younger than I am. His election can, if enabled, allow this country to adopt a different way of thinking, in a global political sphere that seems determined to drive us all back to the bad old days.
To enable a new generation to take the problems that have dogged this country since its formation and to tackle them with the vision of new thinking, allied with the wisdom of old thinking. The opportunity exists. Whether he will avail of this remains to be seen.
The team at Galway Community College have always been innovative in the way they have disseminated education. This can be replicated across the country. I hope that this Jadotville campaign is taken as a case study and that Mr Cribbin and the education authorities allow it to be used as a template for the social causes that can be raised by students and other inspirational teachers . There are many issues here in the west that we can right if we can engage students and get them behind a campaign for change.
By doing this, we are telling the young people of Ireland that this is their country and that only they can change it into the type of State they want it to be.
Those who faced down the attackers on that dusty buildings of Jadotville a half century ago are rewarded for their bravery. By empowering our students and giving them a strong social consciousness, we might ensure that it does not take so long for future wrongs to be righted. Or indeed for wrongs to ever happen again.