Enjoying benefits of lifelong learning

Lord David Puttnam with IRL lifelong learning participant Kitty Flynn from Killbeggan, Co Westmeath

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, “is to learn something.

That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lay awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love.

 There is only one thing for it then – to learn.” (TH White, “The Once And Future King” And that quote, from the lovely book is an eloquent testimonial to the value of life long learning.

 Lifelong Learning has taken a firm hold within Irish society and recently I was fortunate enough to talk to Sonny O’Brien, 80, from Lackagh, Co Galway and Kitty Flynn from Killbeggan in County Westmeath two vibrant examples of the value it can have. 

Three years ago, Irish Rural Link (IRL) introduced their basic computer-training course, aimed at people who have never used a computer before with the objective of being able to send an email and Skype after the eight-hour course. 

IRL have delivered the course all over the country to different age groups, providing a social outlet and freedom for people especially elders who have restricted transport opportunities and who are geographically isolated.

 “I trace my original reluctance to participate in this training to fear,” Sonny told me. “To think that someone who graduated from an ink well and nib in Armagh National School many decades ago could be introduced to the world of computers did not appear realistic. “Today however I have another fear, and that is what I would have missed out on if I had not availed of this wonderful opportunity.” 

Sonny had an illuminating moment when he went to pick up his grandson who had just completed an advanced IT course at the University of Galway. He was reminded of a conversation he had had with his own grandfather in 1946, and the difficulty he had trying to explain the concept of Secondary School to him.

 Sonny realised that he was as much in the dark when talking to his grandson as his own grandfather had been all those years ago. And he decided to do something about it. Sonny learned all about emailing, Skype, paying bills, banking on line and the joys of being able to access unlimited information. 

“I came out of the course with a feeling of well- being, not with the sense that I had a great future that was all behind me, and no longer thinking that Google was something on a Chinese menu,” Sonny says. “It makes keeping in touch so easy. I’m Chairperson of our Community Alert and email is essential here, not a hobby. We have the option of getting prepared for all these changes or of being left behind. And thanks to our incredible class tutor Geraldine Delaney, I have seen my horizons broaden beyond belief.”

 Like Sonny, Kitty Flynn completed the course.

 “It is so important that we, members of the older community keep up with modern technology and means of communication,” Kitty says. “What I found most rewarding was the session using the Census. I am a member of the local historical society and in 2001 we carried out a survey of an old local graveyard.

 “We gathered the data from all of the gravestones and published it online and for the local library. And sometime later, I learned that a woman from Tasmania had discovered her grandfather’s burial place through our online data.”

 Kitty has also completed Diploma and Degree courses in Community and Family Studies and has learned how to pay bills, do her banking and keep in touch with family through Skype.

 “I can remember street scenes here from years ago, men singing in the streets, sharpening knives and one man who would walk up and down shouting “Cork Examiner, Cork Examiner” It was a different world. But today, I think being computer literate – especially for rural, older and isolated people – is just as important as rural electrification was all those years ago. And thanks to Mary McMahon and Mary Mulligan, our fantastic tutors, I’m a committed lifelong learner too.”

 Seamus Bolan, CEO of IRL, told me of the huge success the computer literacy programme is enjoying. 

Q. Seamus, I believe you’ve been surprised at the response.

 A. Yes. It’s been amazing. The feedback has been fantastic, far more than we were expecting. The people who have got back to us have told us how they have felt as if they have been given a new lease of life. I think many of us have swallowed the myth that computers and IT were all for the young. But this has not been our experience. People are telling us that it’s as if they have discovered another sense, one that they have never used before.

Q. Gaining this knowledge has obviously had a huge impact on many people, particularly in rural areas.

A. There are considerable problems for older people in rural areas who are living alone, and this is a good way of using existing resources to deal with this issue. We’ve been told time and time again that taking these classes has literally been life changing And in the beginning, we were actually calling different groups up and asking them if they had anyone who would like to attend the classes and would they ever persuade them to come. There are so many bank branches closing down, particularly in rural areas and older people are very well aware that the whole way of conducting business is changing. Post Offices closing down, banks and a lack of transport mean that being able to transact business on line is becoming vital.

 Q. And then of course, there’s the question of social contact.

 A. Yes. This programme has huge potential. Best of all, it’s not too expensive to implement And while it’s great for keeping people in touch with each other and Community Alert, it’s still important for people to have human contact. Now we would like to see fibre optic broadband made available to small towns, villages and townlands, and not just to the larger places. We have to remember too that not everyone who lives in the country works in agriculture and with an efficient broadband service; there is a huge untapped wealth of talent, skilled people who could be working from home. And that includes older and retired people too. With schemes like this, rural dwellers – old and young – have a much better chance of a future."


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