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Relational Research: Keeping it ‘raw’ and ‘real’

Niall McElwee, PhD.

A couple of years ago, we completed our first major ‘relational’ study at the Centre for Child & Youth Care Learning called Darkness on the Edge of Town (co-authored by Grainne Monaghan) which explored heroin misuse in two Irish towns in the midlands area of Ireland called Athlone and Portlaoise. I thought it would be interesting to return to a micro-sample of our interviewees a year after the book came out to see what these people made of the study, what changes had taken place in their lives, what new contacts were made, what extra services had come into place and the like. As with the first book, I recruited one of my more motivated students to undertake this project with me which resulted in Yvonne O’ Shea (a Diploma in Child and Youth Care holder) completing undergraduate Thesis research. And, I’m happy to state that she received an honors grade for this!

The academic supervision process reminded me that there are many very personal reasons why people come to study child and youth care. My experience is that, often, personal experiences (and, of course, non-experiences) play a very significant part in this career choice – a point made obvious in Yvonne’s very emotional, honest and raw introduction which I reproduce here with her kind permission.

Thesis Introduction
I first became interested in the area of drugs misuse when I was about sixteen years of age as it was then that I was first introduced to the ‘Darkness on the Edge of my Town’. Working in a fast food restaurant, I met lads that had come to Athlone from Dublin to a rehabilitation center. I became friends with some of them over time and became quite interested in the stories they had to tell me about their past lives in Dublin where some had had problems with alcohol, cocaine, ecstasy, LSD and cannabis, but hadn’t ever tried heroin.

There were also one or two I knew that were in there specifically for the treatment of heroin, one of whom told me he had contracted Hepatitis C as a result of his addiction. They all told me their stories, of the lives they lived in Dublin which involved drug abuse, alcohol abuse, armed robberies and homelessness, all of which contributed immense misery, pain and suffering, not only to the drug abusers themselves but to their families, the victims of theft and the community in which they resided. About half of these are now using drugs again, a quarter moved back to Dublin and I lost contact with them, and the other quarter are in Athlone but have partners now and are living there new lives clean.

It was around this time that my best friend that I had grown up with became involved in drugs. Because of a lot of personal stressors and family issues, he had been taking ‘hard’ drugs for two years and then tried to get help, but that proved unsuccessful and shortly after he came out of rehab he was found dead at the back of a house in an estate in Athlone as a result of inhaling a cylinder of gas. He was eighteen years old. Shortly before he died he told me he was never going to be able to get off drugs and that he felt his life was over, he then made me promise to him that I would never experiment with hard drugs as he never wanted to see the same thing happen to me. I made this promise to him and it is one I will always keep.

Two years on, my sister got involved in drugs and started dating a guy who was also involved in drugs. She got pregnant by him a year later and both of them gave up everything. Her partner changed his whole lifestyle, changed his job and tried to break away from his old circle of friends. My father started building a house for the two of them and their baby and it was due to be finished around the time that the baby was due. He got killed when my sister was six months pregnant with his baby. He was spiked with poison in a pub in Galway in the middle of the day... He was alive but in a coma for eight hours before he died and we did not hear of his death until the next day because nobody could identify him. It made it even harder to bear knowing that he died all alone ... His death was extremely hard on his family and my family and what was extremely hard for everyone to bear was that he never got to hold his unborn child that he was so excited about seeing. But again, this is just yet another of the stories that are yet again caused by the Darker Side of drugs.

It was these stories that stemmed my interest into doing Social Studies as I wanted some day to be able to see myself being of a more substantial use to victims of drug abuse as well as, but not just, someone to talk to. So, when it came time to decide what I was going to do my Thesis on, I wanted to do something on drugs as this will be the area I hope to work in when I finish my education. I had heard a lot about Dr. Niall McElwee’s book Darkness on the Edge of Town and so I went to him to ask him for advice on what area I should do my Thesis on as I knew he had a lot of experience and knowledge of research in the area. He was very helpful and gave me the opportunity to do my Thesis as a one-year follow up on his book Darkness on the Edge of Town. I found the book an excellent read. I was both shocked and surprised at what I read. The authors of this book have shown that heroin use and abuse in local communities is fundamentally a personal and family issue that touches on the lives of far more people than one might have previously thought.

Wow! After this ‘raw’ introduction, I felt drawn into Yvonne’s world. I could empathize with her pain and turmoil in this. Should I agree to supervise a student who wants to write about an area that has directly affected herself and her family in such a profound way? What right do I have to decide what is appropriate and inappropriate subject matter? At least, Yvonne was honest about the backdrop to her research choice. In our system, the undergraduate Thesis is really the only very significant piece of work that the student chooses herself. I am reminded here of Jack Phelan’s comments in last month’s CYC-Online Interview where he stated:

Teaching Child and Youth Care practice is a complicated process. I have been getting smarter about it over many years, and have come to these conclusions: you can’t teach Child and Youth Care practice effectively if you haven’t done it yourself for at least a few years; the theory has to be Child and Youth Care based, not adapted from another professional discipline; relationship is central both to the learning and the doing of Child and Youth Care work; and most of what one learns in school isn’t useful until the practitioner has been out in the work for at least a year. (2006: 1).

Well, Yvonne has worked in the area. She is very interested in the idea of ‘relationship’ and she wrote her Thesis thru a child and youth care lens. Bravo.

No doubt, some colleagues may feel that an academic supervisor should not facilitate this process (and it is a process for sure). But, that is not how I see it. I believe that we should write about areas that really challenge us, motivate us, force us to question our own belief systems and experiences. This should be approached in a supportive manner, and in my next column, Yvonne and I are going to put forward our thoughts on this.

Now, that’s relationship. 


McElwee, N. & Monaghan, G. (2005). Darkness on the Edge of Town. Athlone: Centre for Child & Youth Care Learning.

O’ Shea, Y. (2006). A One Year Follow up to Darkness on the Edge of Town. Undergraduate Thesis for the B.A. in Social Care. Athlone: Centre for Child & Youth Care Learning.

Phelan, J. (2006). Brian Gannon talks with Jack Phelan, CYC-Online, Issue 89. Retrieved from