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Celebrating an IASCE Lifetime Achievement Award

Niall McElwee, PhD

We Irish are internationally renowned as a nation of begrudgers. But, every once in a while, we rise above this national trait and celebrate the individual. On my visits there I am always impressed at the willingness of North Americans to do this, and would like to start a trend this side of the pond whereby one celebrates the receiving of an award, recognition, praise or even a slap on the back with the words, “Well done. You did a good job”.

A couple of months ago, I nominated John Hanna, the ex-Director of St. Augustine’s Special School in Limerick City, Ireland, for an Irish Association of Social Care Educator’s Lifetime Achievement Award whereby his lifetime contribution to child and youth care might be acknowledged. To date, this is the only award our Association as given out and I feel that is particularly appropriate that a national body of third-level educators should give praise to a man involved in the other spectrum of education – first level or, what we call in Ireland, national school.

In my capacity as President of the Association, I invited John to our annual conference under the pretence that he would facilitate a workshop on his work. His long-suffering wife, Geraldine, also was invited and I somehow managed to keep the award a secret. This was despite several calls from Geraldine who, truth be told, was somewhat suspicious. However, both turned up and all of the delegates assembled for the evening meal. During the course of the meal, we presented John with a framed sketch of an owl. It was a simple sketch, unhurried and unfussy.

It was as John is himself. I was then, and am now, delighted that such an influential figure in child and youth care and special education over thirty years has had his life work formally appreciated. I called to visit with John a couple of weeks ago and he was still humbled by his award and recognition. Later that day, I met one of his ex-pupil’s on the streets of Limerick and mentioned that we had given him an award. “An award?” says the young lad, “Ye should have given that man the freedom of the City for what he done for us.” And, of course, the youth was right.

With John’s permission, I include the text of our award below. It speaks for itself:

It is appropriate that this presentation is being made in a year where the Olympics have just been held, for I cannot think of any one individual who brings those lofty ideals of fair play, truth and honour to his life and his work.

This presentation is being made to John Hanna formerly Director of St. Augustine’s Special School, Limerick City, Ireland. John is originally from Northern Ireland but has lived in Limerick for three decades. John recently retired from service to the Limerick Youth Encounter Project and I want to mark this tonight.

I first came across John Hanna as a supervisor to students on practica from Waterford RTC back in 1992. He has since taken students from many colleges across the country and has always provided excellent supervision and a nurturing environment so many of you will know his name at least. But let me personalise things for a moment.

John Hanna is child and youth care to his core. He is an inspiration to any of us educators and those practitioners and supervisors here who are in the field. He is a constant advocate for change and has been, quite rightly, a critic of successive governments who have done all too little for children ‘at risk’.

I had the opportunity to work closely with John Hanna in 1995 when I took part in the summer programme at his project as I was writing a book at that time. John was endlessly patient with me and always facilitated my questions about why something was done or, indeed, not done in a particular way. Indeed, much to the humour of the children and youth I was allocated a caravan for my laptop whilst they had only tents. But, they soon made it up to me by threatening to shave off my eyebrows and set me on fire! I survived the experience and have continued to work with him over the years.
There are dozens of Limerick families who owe John Hanna a great deal. For some children and youth, John has been, quite literally, the difference between life and death. John has been the difference between personal and professional success and failure, between his graduates staying in Ireland or emigrating, between success or failure in life.

John has sat in cold courtrooms, he has attended dreary Department of Education and Science meetings and passionately pleaded for his children. John has sat through thousands of parent/child meetings.

And always, always, always, John has engaged with everyone with good humour, deep and genuine respect and an open tolerance. John has touched more people than he will ever know. John is an inspiration to anyone who would consider a career in social care and this is why we celebrate his career tonight.

His work since 1977 in the Youth Encounter Project (which remains hidden down a Limerick Lane) was not glamorous; his charges were not always thankful for his interventions, his parents were not always their for their own children and the Department of Education and Science was not always supportive. But, John kept going because he believed in what he was doing. He taught me early in my academic career that everyone deserves not one chance - but several chances. We just have to look harder sometimes.

I have been spending quite a time considering what I might say that would be eloquent, but remembering that John remains a teacher at heart and will probably give me some feedback later tonight on my speech I hope to have done him some justice!

Perhaps another one of our IASCE members, Dr John Ennis, has already written it best in one of his wonderful poems.

"Choreograph the daily griefs, dramas, joys, the little harms
And let them know our love for them is sound:
We that have known the ripple and the wingspan in the arms
The attempts at flight that never leave the ground"

John Hanna, our Association salutes your work as a professional and you as a person.

May your retirement be blessed with all you would want. May your work be continued. May your legacy in Limerick ring true.

There is no gold wristwatch for you here tonight. No garish golf set. These are not you. Instead we offer you a simple yet elegant print; a Picasso of an Owl. It signifies your wisdom as an educator. (And may I say John that I chose this without Susan’s help!)

We thank you for agreeing to share your reflections of three decades in the field with us.

So, John ... “Well done. You did a good job”.


Ennis, J. (1994). Vedic, from Down in the Deeper Helicon. Dublin: Dedalus.


Niall with son Conor