Noel Treacy TD, Brendan Smith, Tom Hyland, Galway Science & Technology Festival 2012
Noel Treacy TD, a personal tribute to a Hero of Science & of Education
For twenty years I have been an educational science and technology officer working with third level colleges, schools, businesses, NGOs and local communities in Galway, Ireland, the Middle East and Africa. I consider myself extremely fortunate and blessed to have served in this fascinating role. During that period, I have worked with, learnt from and being inspired by so many fantastic transformational men and women. Thanks to them and to the people that I serve, nearly every day at work is a joyful experience and a challenge to do better. But the origins of my involvement in science education is due to three great individuals that I will be eternally grateful to.
I was not too long back from Iceland where I was involved in the hospitality sector for a number of years and continued to do so for a while after my return to Ireland.
But I had a yearning for a move back to my former professions of teaching and information technology. In their respective roles as chairperson, secretary and patron of the Galway Science and Technology Festival, Dr Jimmy Browne (then Deputy President NUI Galway), Bernard Kirk (Director, Galway Education Centre), and Minister Noel Treacy TD gave me in late 2001 an unbelievably exciting opportunity to manage a pilot scheme that we later named ‘Fionn’ which was about utilising digital technologies to support the introduction from 2004 of science as a new subject into Ireland’s Primary School curriculum.
‘Fionn’ is an amazing story that needs to be told and will be in the not-too-distant future. Suffice to say for the moment that it was Noel Tracey, who as Minister of State for Science, secured funding from Minister of Finance Charlie McCreevy within the 2001 government budget to support this pioneering initiative.
Sadly Noel died a few weeks ago. I have read the many warm and heartfelt tributes from journalists and politicians that have been written about him. What they all said about Noel is so true. He was kind, charming, honest, hardworking, family orientated, ever loyal to his party of Fianna Fáil, possessing a deep affinity of the Irish language, of Irish heritage and of the GAA. He was the consummate grassroots politician who cared deeply about his constituents, the people that he served from morning to night, seven days a week. He entered politics not for personal gain but for a greater societal good. On the many occasions I saw him at local events, I never witnessed a politician to ‘work a room’ as well as he did. He would go from person to person giving each and every one a strong firm handshake and an intense warm look, remind them of previous times when they met and often astonish as well as delight them with stories of their family members going back generations. As my wife Cepta is from east Galway, I would attend family funerals with her over the years where I would often meet Noel at these communal gatherings which are so deeply ingrained into the fabric of Irish farming and village life. One can be cynical about politicians attending funerals in their constituents. But for Noel his presence was sincere and all those present knew and respected that.
Whenever I heard him speak at a event in his role as a government minister, I was always so impressed in how he started his speeches with a great flourish in the Irish (and not just a token cúpla focail) language that he so loved, and admired how he always went out of his way to individually name and thank everyone in the audience that contributed to the success of proceedings.
Yet there is a side of him that has been rarely mentioned in the glowing references. Though he was renowned as the archetypal rural grassroots politician, Noel had an impact on Irish educational and business development that has been long lasting but is rarely mentioned and maybe not fully appreciated.
Ever the networking diplomat, in his capacity as Minister of State for Science, Noel in 1998 brought together in a small hotel room, an influential but disparate group of individuals drawn from third level colleges, schools, health, development agencies, state organisations, local government, media and business. Noel told them that he wanted to make Galway a science and technology hub second to none and this meant encouraging young people to value it as a worthy career choice. He told the audience that in a recent trip to the Hebrides he encountered a very successful festival of Science and Technology aimed at the islands’ school-going population. He saw no reason why Galway could not replicate this Scottish model and he formed there and then a multisectoral committee to organise Ireland’s first Science and Technology Festival with the dynamic Bernard Kirk as its secretary. Twenty four years later under its wonderful manager Anne Murray, chairperson Paul Mee and their brilliant team of movers and shakers, the festival is as vibrant as ever and has in the intervening period spawned a myriad of similar festivals nationwide.
For a man that did not go to third level college for a degree, Noel was passionate about encouraging children to consider further education and employment in science. As aforementioned he acted as a catalyst in the introduction of science into the primary school curriculum. The subject was actually taken out of the curriculum during the early 1920s by the Free State government to make way for the Irish language. With state funding secured by Noel, I was hired by the Galway Education Centre in late 2001 to prepare a pilot programme that would help schools transition over a four year period into the teaching of science in the classroom and in their hinterland. Our mantra was “All Science is Local”.
Later Noel became Minister of State for European Affairs and continued to do so much good, encouraging the fostering of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) with creativity, arts, innovation and enterprise, as well as in developing educational connections between Ireland and the rest of Europe.
For a number of years after his retirement from government ministry, I continued to meet Noel, along with Marie Mannion of the Galway county council Heritage Office, in his role as Cathaoirleach (Chair) of the Galway GAA via the schools/communities BEO online local heritage archives project that he also supported due to his love of preserving using digital technologies the stories of the past.
Like so many members of the original festival team that he established which included Bernard Kirk(Galway Education Centre), Tom Hyland(IDA), Jimmy Browne(NUIG), Sean O’Muircheartaigh(GMIT), Pat Morgan(NUIG), Simon Lenihan and John Cunningham(Connacht Tribune), Noel was a visionary that facilitated the building of a resilient modern, outward-looking, collegiate, educated, sustainable Galway and Ireland that was at the vanguard of meeting the global challenges that we faced. More than ever before we need that “we are all in this together” spirit and scientific/community ethos to tackle the Climate and Biodiversity Crises which requires a sustained united active approach.
Finally the photo shows me in 2012 at the Galway Science Fair standing between two legends of our times, namely Noel and his good friend Tom Hyland (RIP) with whom he worked closely alongside over many years in encouraging industrial and educational development. Tom was at the helm of the Industrial Development Authority (IDA) of Ireland Western Region for much of the period from the 1970s to the early 2000s, helping attract high profile global investment and corporations to the city and county, ensuring that it became one of the country's key hubs of and business.
Let’s not forget the accomplishments and impact of Noel as a politician. We need such ‘role models’ today. His legacy should be preserved, possibly through the establishment of an annual educational or enterprise award for young people.