He struggled with reading and writing and recalls how at the age of 12, he had to sit at the back of the classroom because his teacher, with a class of 35 children, just didn’t have the time to give him the extra help he needed.
But thanks to a move to St Killian’s School, a pioneer in the provision of specialist education programmes for children with a range of learning difficulties, Michael Hegarty said he learned not just to read and write, but also learned a range of life skills which have helped him throughout his almost 30-year career in construction.
Although Michael left education aged 14 to work full-time, he used the skills he learned at St Killian’s to rise through the ranks of a contracting firm to become site foreman, overseeing the vast paving contracts for the multi-million revamp of Cork’s historic St Patrick’s St and Grand Parade, as well as the complex overhaul of the streetscape in Castlemartyr in East Cork.
Now, he helps to run his family’s successful commercial flooring business, Hegarty Flooring, alongside his father and brothers. They floored the Elysian, Ireland’s tallest residential building.
He also sits on the board of management of his original primary school, Upper Glanmire NS, where his own children are pupils.
“I am so grateful to St Killian’s,” said Michael.
“I built my own house with the skills they taught me. The time I spent there meant the world to me. I wouldn’t be where I am today without their help.”
Mr Hegarty was speaking last night as St Killian’s marked its 50th anniversary at a function at the school on Cork’s northside, attended by deputy Lord Mayor Joe Kavanagh and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, a staunch supporter of the school.
Mr Hegarty urged the Government to do more to support such schools and the families who rely on them.
“The Government just doesn’t give enough support to schools like this, or to schools in general. Early intervention and the right supports at the right time are so important for the children who need those supports,” he said.
St Killian’s was founded in 1969 with just 19 pupils and Noreen Minihan as class teacher. It relocated seven times over the years and is now based in Mayfield, with 80 pupils, 13 teachers, and 17 SNAs across 10 classes.
It caters for students with special learning difficulties such as dyslexia, students with a speech and language impairment, physical or medical disabilities including dyspraxia, or with a diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder.
The Department of Education is funding the revamp of some of the school’s rooms but more sensory rooms are needed, said principal Sue Lenihan.
The department is aware of the school’s requirements and is providing support but Ms Lenihan said there is a huge demand for places, with around 20 parents on a waiting list hoping to secure a school place for their children.
Fiona Hoey, who works at the school and who is a member of its anniversary commemoration committee, said the school’s greatest achievement isn’t really their achievement at all.
“It belongs to the children who have found themselves and their confidence during their time with us,” she said.
“I think of many children who arrive anxious, angry, and confused, feeling they have failed.
“We watch them change in an atmosphere where it is safe for them to kick back and when the situation calms, they can talk and learn from what just happened.”
Her nephew, Donal McNinch, attended St Killian’s from 1996 to 1999.
Mainstream school was so stressful for him that he used to vomit at home every morning.
His mother took him out of school for a year while she battled to get him a place in St Killian’s.
Donal told guests last night that he is a fiercely proud past pupil of the school.
“I owe so much of my ability to live in this literate world to my time spent there,” he said.
“If it wasn’t for the amazing staff I genuinely don’t know where I would be in my life. Thank you. You gave me back my life.”
Ms Hoey said stories like that inspire the staff to continue their work.
“I know I speak for the rest of the staff, both present and past, when I say our proudest moments are seeing our children graduate, standing in front of a full hall of parents and peers, reading out a speech they have written themselves about their time in St Killian’s,” she said.
“Even though the thought of leaving and going on to the unknown secondary school is scary, they have found their wings.”