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Remarks at the Gaisce Gold Medal presentation

Education Centre in Midlands Prison, 9th November 2012

Dia dhíbh a chairde agus go háirithe, a bhuaiteoirí an Ghradaim Óir, is cúis mhór áthais dom a bheith anseo in bhur measc an iarnóin seo le haghaidh bronnadh na bliana seo de Bhoinn Óir Ghaisce. Táin buíoch as an gcuireadh agus an fáilte a thug sibh dom.

Ladies and gentlemen and, most importantly, Gold Award recipients, it gives me immense pleasure to be here with you for this presentation of the Gaisce – Gold Medal Awards. I would like to thank Catherine MacNamara, an Gaisce Co-ordinator, and Linda Tynan, Head Teacher, for their kind invitation.

In my inauguration speech last November, I said that I would seek to be as inclusive as I could to all in society including those in detention or institutional care, during my term in office. Rehabilitation programmes, both in the community and in penal institutions, which aim to strengthen a person’s skills and personal development to enhance their chances of meaningful re-integration not only help the individuals concerned but have a benefit for wider society.

The Education Centre here in the Midlands Prison has been operating with An Gaisce since 2008. In October last year, two participants were awarded Gold Medals. Both of those participants were the first students in a prison setting to complete Bronze, Silver and Gold Medals.

So I am especially pleased to be here today to present another two Gold Medals to students who are also now completing the cycle of bronze, silver and gold. It is a great achievement for you individually, for the staff working in and with the Education Centre, and for Co Laois VEC for their ongoing support.

I am pleased that I will have the opportunity to meet with members of the teaching staff later today, and I want to acknowledge their work and their particular contribution. I am aware of research which has found that almost 80% of those in prison had left school before the age of 16 and overall prisoners were exposed to high levels of adversity in their young lives. I am also aware from reading the 2011 annual report of the Midlands Prison Visiting Committee that the Committee acknowledged the ‘excellent and varied range of classes and courses’ in the prison, resulting in
14 students who were successful in Leaving Cert Exams and 3 students successful in their Junior Certificate exams. The contribution of teachers working with students in the prison system is immense, and I salute you for it.

I am also aware from reading a number of annual reports from the Office of the Inspector of Prisons that there remain important challenges in bringing aspects of the prison system in line with international best practice and in areas where the vindication of prisoner’s rights remains inadequate.

On this day of celebration I want to acknowledge the valuable work done in the Gaisce project here to strengthen your links with the outside community through fund-raising endeavours for local charities. Charity beneficiaries have included Pieta House, Laois Down Syndrome, the Block Project, and St Vincent de Paul, and some of the charities are represented today to show their appreciation for the help they receive from Gaisce students.

Going for Gaisce gold is not a challenge for the faint hearted. To achieve this highly regarded award, participants must set and achieve four specific challenges in the areas of community involvement, personal skill, physical recreation and a combined project. Unlike some other awards, there is no competition against other contestants. It is very much a personal journey of self discovery for your individual tasks, along with the learning that comes from working collectively on the group tasks.

Obviously there are more obstacles to be overcome to achieve these goals within a confined prison environment. So it is to your individual credit that you came through such a challenging process and refused to give in until the tasks have been completed. And it is good to know that along the way you were personally involved in caring activities to support local charities. You also took part in the HSE Safe Talk Programme which is a suicide training prevention programme. This is the kind of programme that needs active support given the increased risk in the prison environment.

I am pleased that for one of your collective tasks, the students involved made an audio submission to the Being Young and Irish Initiative which I set up this year.
I listened to their tape with great interest and found it both informative and moving too. It reminded me of what I learned in the McBride Report many years ago, and it was an invaluable contribution to the Being Young and Irish consultation.

The initiative aims to reflect and explore themes beyond immediate legislative demands but which were important to the shared life of the Irish people. And what could be more important than ‘Being Young and Irish’ at such a challenging time in our history. I will be launching the final report on 17 November and am particularly grateful to Gaisce, and to the students who made their own unique contribution, for their active involvement in the Initiative.

And I also understand that you were part of a mural project to enhance the physical environment around you, which is something that will live on for the benefit of others. I was fascinated to learn part of the story of the mural which involves the legendary Welsh bard from the 6th century named Taliesin (meaning Radiant Brow). His name is associated with the Book of Taliesin, a book of poems that was written down in the Middle Ages.
The story told through the poems is a fantastical tale from Celtic mythology that has echoes of the Irish hero Fionn MacCumhail and the salmon of wisdom in some respects. It deals with themes like rebirth, living through different forms, and striving for the secrets of wisdom.

At the heart of the story is Taliesin, a beautiful baby with magical powers, who is found abandoned in a basket on a lake by Elfinn, a salmon fisherman who feels he is the unluckiest man alive. The boy speaks in poetry and is raised by Elfinn and his wife as if their own. Taliesan grows up to be a bard supported by his magic powers.

Taliesin ends up having to save his adoptive father from the king’s prison. A bet is struck that Elffin’s lame old horse, Dobbin, will win a race against the king’s best 24 horses. Taliesin is the rider of Dobbin, and by using magic, the race is easily won to ensure that Elfinn will get out from jail. In addition, Taliesin leads his Elfinn to buried gold treasure as a way to thank his adoptive father for taking him in and raising him.

So how appropriate that the mural should contain such a rich story with biblical elements, Celtic mythology, the eternal search for wisdom, magical transformations, and a secret gold.

I think the symbolism of Taliesin’s story, and how it may speak to today’s winners, is remarkable. As you receive the Gaisce Gold Awards, it is symbolic that you have potentially received your own salmon of wisdom.
The Gaisce award journey ends today, but you have learned the tools which can allow you in future to change your own life, and indeed the lives of others, in so many positive ways. It will involve more hard work but as gold medal winners, you are showing the right determination as you face your own future journeys through life.
One verse from the Book of Taliesin captures particularly well the possibility of learning from the mistakes of the past to build a new life:

“I have known exile and a wild passion
Of longing changing to a cold ache.
King, beggar and fool, I have been all by turns,
Knowing the body’s sweetness, the mind’s treason;
Taliesin still, I show you a new world, risen,
Stubborn with beauty, out of the heart’s need.”

That too is the message in the tape I heard which was sent recently.

Twenty thousand young people took part in Gaisce activities in 2012, and over 70 people from both north and south have been awarded with gold medals at a national ceremony I attended in September.
Is é atá sa chuid seo de shearmanas an lae inniu ná go bhfuil aitheantas á thabhairt don bheirt mhac léinn sa Phríosún Lár Tíre a bhfuil éirithe leo ar an dul céanna an ceann scríbe a bhaint amach le cúnamh óna nIonad Oideachais, aitheantas atá tuillte go maith acu as a n-éacht mhór.

[This part of today’s ceremony is about recognizing the two students in Midlands Prison who have similarly crossed the finishing line through the help of their Education Centre, and are now receiving deserved recognition for their outstanding achievements.]

This is your day when you, your families, teachers, award leaders and all who have been part of your journey to Gold can and should feel immensely proud.

Comhghairdeachas libh go léir ar an ócáid speisialta seo ‘s go n-néirí go geal libh sna blianta atá romhainn. Go raibh maith agaibh go léir.