TOWN MEETS GOWN: University College Cork gives its first Honorary Doctorate to a member of the Travelling Community

2 June 2017
By Bryan Smyth


Traveller activist, Brigid Quilligan, will be the first Irish traveller to be conferred with an Honorary Doctorate at University College Cork today in acknowledgement of her leadership in securing recognition of the distinct ethnic identity of the Traveller Community in Ireland.

UCC will honour four distinguished Irish people at its Honorary Conferrings across the worlds of media, business, the arts and political activism.  They include Fr Pat Ahern, founder of Siamsa Tíre; Michael Dowling, Chairman, Kerry Group Plc; Miriam O’Callaghan, Broadcaster, RTÉ as well as Brigid Quilligan.

Biographies of todays Honorary Doctorate recipients

1. Brigid Quilligan, Traveller activist – Honorary Doctorate of Laws.

Brigid Quilligan was born in Limerick, eldest daughter of 11 siblings.  Education and respect were among the core values present in the Quilligan household from the start.  Respect for all and a huge value in education were to inspire Brigid in her early life and her human rights campaigns that were to follow.

At age 17 Brigid started her active citizenship in a public way involving herself in youth politics and working for human rights at a European level. She went to college and studied French and Marketing and later took a Certificate and Diploma in Youth and Community work in UCC.

Brigid is the former Director of the Irish Traveller Movement and is currently Manager of the Kerry Travellers’ Health and Community Development Project. She represented the Irish Traveller Movement at the UN Human Rights Committee’s review of Ireland under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, highlighting the need to formally recognise the distinct ethnicity of the Traveller Community as an ethnic minority and the urgent need to improve state provision of accommodation for Traveller families. She has been a long-time campaigner for access to education for the Traveller Community, at all levels, and has highlighted the barriers arising from a legacy of discrimination and prejudice.

“Today UCC recognises and honours Brigid Quilligan as a leader in our community,” says Professor John O’Halloran, Vice President for Teaching and Learning at UCC.  “We salute and acknowledge her for the leadership she has shown and the critical role she has played in the campaign to secure recognition of the distinct ethnic identity of the Traveller Community in Ireland. She has worked tirelessly for women’s rights, and in particular, access to justice for women in the Traveller Community, and for the human right to health and accommodation. Through her actions she has removed an injustice for all.”

UCC has spearheaded many initiatives to improve participation in third level by under-represented groups.  Once such initiative is a Traveller Mentoring Programme delivered in 10 schools by UCC and also to five city schools in collaboration with Cork City Interagency Traveller Education Committee.

UCC recently secured funding for initiatives to widen access to teacher education.  The groups targeted include students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, students with a disability, and members of the Traveller community.  The School of Education in UCC recognises the importance of having teachers in place who understand the challenges that these groups often face.  Financial scholarships will be available in addition to mentoring and personal supports.

2. Miriam O’Callaghan, Broadcaster – Honorary Doctorate of Laws

Broadcaster Miriam O’Callaghan was born and raised in Dublin. She qualified as a solicitor before beginning her broadcasting career on ITV’s This is your Life. She joined the BBC as a producer in 1987, and went on to become a reporter on BBC2’s Newsnight.

In the early ‘90s Miriam returned to Ireland to present RTÉ’s current affairs flagship programme Prime Time, while continuing to cover the Northern Irish peace process for Newsnight.

Miriam was voted Best TV Personality at the Irish Film and Television Awards in 2003. In June 2013, her Prime Time interview with Praveen Halappanavar, won the Television News Category of the Justice Media Awards.

Outside of her work on Prime Time, Miriam presents her own chat show during the summer, Saturday Night with Miriam, and a radio programme Sundays with Miriam. She has previously presented Miriam Meets…. which won the PPI Radio Award in 2011 for best Speech Driven Magazine Programme. In 2011 and 2012 she presented RTÉ’s New Year’s Eve show attracting huge audiences. Miriam also supports a large number of charitable causes throughout the year.

“In almost 30 years working in news media in Ireland and the UK, Miriam O’Callaghan has made an art out of holding that delicate balance between empathy and building trust, yet remaining fearless in asking what needs to be asked,” say Prof Fennell.  “And in so doing, she has become one of the most trusted broadcasters working in Irish media and one of the most popular public figures in the country.”

3. Fr Pat Ahern, founder of Siamsa Tíre – Honorary Doctorate of Laws

Moyvane in north Kerry is Fr Ahern’s place of origin where he was born 85 years ago in 1932 into a musical family: he learned the fiddle from the playing of his mother, Margaret Walsh, her father Dan Walsh also being a noted fiddle-player.

To this hereditary tradition of music in the family Fr Ahern attributes, in part, the germ of the idea that would become Siamsa Tíre; for another part he gives credit to the last of the itinerant dancing masters, Jeremiah Molyneux, who taught dancing locally, and whose unique style of dance Fr Ahern introduced to Siamsa Tíre from the very beginning. The depth of this north-Kerry tradition, which formed the bedrock of Siamsa Tíre, gave it an authenticity – free from any whiff of artificiality but always open to innovation – which was recognised by all who saw it as the real deal.

Fr Ahern would go on to study organ and piano in Maynooth, and to continue his musical studies in UCC under Aloys Fleischmann graduating with a BMus in 1962.

Remarkable achievements followed rapidly on those early establishment years: the TV shows for RTÉ, the first American tour where Siamsa sold out on Broadway in 1976; the many other tours that followed; the performances for the Pope at Limerick in 1979, for the Queen of the Netherlands, for the King and Queen of Sweden, and in response to a personal invitation from Bob Hawke, the performance at the Australian Bicentennial celebrations in 1987. This international aspect to Siamsa’s work was encapsulated by their collaboration with Bill Whelan and Maria Pages for the Seville Suite, performed by Siamsa in Spain and Dublin in 1992, and acknowledged as an inspiration for what would become Riverdance.

“There is an expression in Irish that refers to a person as being lán de cheol literally ‘full of music’. It does not necessarily mean that such a person is musical at all,” say Prof Ó Macháin “but it indicates that he or she is an energetic, entertaining, affable and pleasant person, and that, in turn, music is associated with positive, personal characteristics. One might think that the formulation of this expression, whenever it happened, was done with Fr Pat Ahern specifically in mind, because he embodies its spirit literally and metaphorically: this modest man is lán de cheol in every way imaginable, and a more than worthy recipient of the highest honour that this University can bestow.”

4. Michael Dowling, Chairman, Kerry Group Plc – Honorary Doctorate of Science

It would be extremely hard to identify any other individual who has been so associated with Ireland’s food and agricultural landscape as Michael Dowling. He has been a leader and influencer in many areas, varying from his extensive experience in the Department of Agriculture and Food where he successfully progressed to the role of Secretary General and led many key international negotiations for Ireland, to his most recent role as Chairman of the Board of Kerry Group Plc, which is one of the world’s largest food companies, employing over 23,000 staff worldwide and serving over 140 countries.

After finishing secondary school in the “Sem”, as St Brendans was affectionately referred to, Michael made the move to Dublin, where he initially studied Public Administration in UCD, followed by a BA degree in Philosophy and Economics.

In 1984, Michael took on the post of Assistant Secretary within the Department of Agriculture, with specific responsibility for EU and International trade policy, along with domestic policy in the milk sector. During this time, he was also the Irish spokesman at the EU Special Committee on Agriculture and the Chair of the OECD Committee on Trade and Agriculture. Michael’s representation of Ireland food and agriculture at the highest level in Europe underlined his excellent reputation and the regard to which he was held in.

Michael’s happy relationship with UCC first began when he became a visiting Professor of Agriculture and Food Policy in the Department of Food Business, providing lectures and advice to young students. The opportunity for students to learn first-hand from a seasoned trade negotiator was warmly received and the feedback from students hugely positive during Michael’s 17 year stint with the University.

In his most recent identifiable role, Michael returned to his schoolboy roots and was elected Chairman of the Board of Kerry Group in 2015. The Kerry Group, which last year made a trading profit of €750m, is synonymous with quality Irish food ingredients, and still maintains its corporate HQ in Tralee.

“Across the areas that Michael has contributed to, he is held in the highest esteem by his many colleagues and friends, and was previously described as ‘outstanding’ by Minister Joe Walsh,” says Prof Paul Ross.  Professor Charlie Daly, Emeritus Professor of Food Science in UCC, described Michael as a “true poker player, who helped achieve many late decisions which helped the Irish cause in Europe.”

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