Derval O’Rourke, Maria Walsh and Dr Pixie McKenna recall their experiences as teenagers

Derval O’Rourke, Maria Walsh and Dr Pixie McKenna recall their experiences as teenagers
Derval O’Rourke, Pixie McKenna and Maria Walsh

As they gear up for today’s conference especially for teenagers, Derval O’Rourke, Maria Walsh and Dr Pixie McKenna recall their experiences as teenagers to Ciara McDonnell.

IF A scent were to evoke the memories of my teenage years it would be a hybrid of Exclamation! perfume and pressed powder by Constance Carroll. The halls of the all-girls secondary school I attended was a milling, teeming mass of teenage girls boasting a heavy slick of Heather Shimmer lipstick and the smacking jaws of too much strawberry-flavoured Hubba Bubba.

There were no mobile phones; the first Nokia with exchangeable covers was introduced when I was in Transition Year, but you could only make phone calls – SMS text messages were yet to come. The Internet had not been invented yet; we communicated via snail mail – crumpled notes passed from pencil case to pencil case and eventually, through the slits in our locker doors. 

My biggest aim in life was to star in Les Miserables on Broadway; the fact that I was cast in the only non-singing role the fourth-year musical was a solid indication of how this was going to pan out for me.

Teens today have far more to contend with than I did. From technology to perceptions of what is and isn’t healthy, life is moving at an extremely rapid pace. In the Radisson Blu Hotel, Little Island, today, a host of celebrity speakers are taking to the stage at Teen Talk, a health and wellbeing conference that will host over 500 Transition Year students from 30 schools around Cork. 

It has been organised by Cork County Council, in association with their Local Community Development Committees and funded under Healthy Ireland.

Focusing on health and fitness and mental health and wellbeing, experts including Derval O’Rourke, Maria Walsh and Pixie McKenna will be on had to offer their tips to making the most of their teenage years.


Despite being most well known as the Irish national 60m and 100m hurdle record holder, her talent at sport did not translate to confidence for Derval O’Rourke.

Derval O’Rourke, Maria Walsh and Dr Pixie McKenna recall their experiences as teenagers

“Running never made me excessively confident because I always felt as though it wasn’t the best thing to be good at, and that I would be much better off if I was academically successful. I felt like there was no value to my talent,” she explains.

When she was 16 Derval missed out on being selected by the Irish team in the World U16 Championships, and her parents suggested she get a summer job, rather than mope for the holidays.

“I got a job as a waitress in a restaurant in town called Michael Clifford’s,” she recalls.

“I went from being a really sporty kid to finding myself in a fine dining restaurant, waitressing. I had never thought about food really. I didn’t know much about food except I loved it — mostly junk food if I’m honest. I went into this restaurant and I was opened up to a whole new world. Working there showed me a whole other career path that had nothing to do with academics but was still something that I loved.”

Derval in her teens.
Derval in her teens.

There has never been a more difficult time to be a teenager, says the sportsperson. 

“We are living in a time when technology and digital consumption is moving way quicker than we have the capabilities to deal with and put parameters around.” Regulating digital consumption is key, she says. 

I believe our awareness is getting better, and conversation around an age of consent for mobile phones, which I think is a good thing, but we haven’t got there yet.

If Derval could get every teenager do one thing today that would boost their mental health, it would be to keep their mobile phone out of the bedroom. “I know how hard it is, but being self aware is the first step when it comes to digital consumption.”


Even as a teenager, Maria Walsh was her own woman. At the age of 12, she signed up as a Pioneer and at age 14, became a member of the No Name Club, a nationwide club, which encourages life without a reliance on drugs or alcohol.

Derval O’Rourke, Maria Walsh and Dr Pixie McKenna recall their experiences as teenagers

The entrepreneur and former Rose of Tralee is a passionate advocate of instilling confidence in young people from an early age.

“Making the decision to be a Pioneer as young as I was, and going through the peer pressure when I was 12 rather than at 15 or 16, very much formed who I was,” she explains. 

As members of the No Name Club encouraged us to develop ourselves, because we had to organise activities, and we had to give group talks and address adults and members of An Garda Síochána. I had so many years of that kind of growth before I hit the post Junior Cert years that it really helped me.

Sport was a huge part of Walsh’s youth, and helped to shape the adult she became.

“I played on teams from the age of seven ... so that side of my brain really developed. For me, I much prefer playing on teams and working in teams because to me, there’s no fun in something unless you are

supporting each other.”

In an age ruled by digital, Walsh says that she encourages teenagers to communicate directly with each other. “The opportunities that are out there for teenagers in terms of careers with a digital arm are undeniable, but without basic communication skills, they won’t be able to represent themselves in a business environment.”

Maria in her teens.
Maria in her teens.

Maria says that for her, getting outside for fresh air remains her greatest stress reliever. “All the way through school I would get out and get a walk in before studying to clear my head, and it was the best thing I could have done for myself. The societal pressure of getting enough points and having the right shape eyebrow makes this kind of down time essential – teenagers have to have a healthy way to decompress.”


Conformity is the opposite of what Embarrassing Bodies’ Dr Pixie McKenna believes a teenager should aspire to.

While on a school trip to Germany, chaperoned by two nuns, Pixie’s eyes were opened up to a world of possibility. “There is so much to be said for standing on your own two feet and having the opportunity to be just you — not someone’s daughter or sister, just you,” she says.

“It showed me that there was more to life than Cork, and that I was an individual and that I could shine in my own way. It also reinforced to me that I definitely didn’t want to be a nun!”

Derval O’Rourke, Maria Walsh and Dr Pixie McKenna recall their experiences as teenagers

Life, for teenagers today is extremely difficult, says McKenna. “I think the pressure to be all the same is immense.

“I have a huge belief in celebrating the individual, not following the crowd and taking a new path and leaving a trail.

“Nobody remembers the person who fits in — it’s the person who stands out who makes a difference.

It scares me that girls and boys feel like they have to live their lives through social media and they have to look good all the time.”

What will Pixie be telling the audience at Teen Talk?

I want teenagers to know that being a little wacky, or kooky and standing up for yourself is a much better way to be.

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