Daniel Coulter. Photo: Ann Hennessy

Enthusiastic about Athlone: An interview with Daniel Coulter

When the prospect of moving to Athlone as part of a college course was first mentioned to Daniel Coulter, he was less than thrilled with the idea.

“I thought, why would you bother going there? What’s in Athlone?” the Navan native recalls.

Now, more than ten years on, the town has become Daniel’s home and the place where the 29-year-old would like to settle for good.

His changed perspective is a result of positive experiences and connections made during his time as student and a students’ union official in Athlone IT, as well as other local involvements with Athlone Community Radio and his current job with St Hilda’s Services.

The Baylin resident had more reasons than most to celebrate this Christmas, as he got engaged to his girlfriend, Orla Dowling, early last month.

He grew up in Navan, the eldest of three boys in his family, and was raised by his mother, Ann, after his Dad died suddenly from a heart attack when he was just ten years of age. Like comedian Tommy Tiernan and TV personality Hector Ó hEochagáin, he attended St Pat’s Classical School in Navan, and hoped to study social care at third level.

When he didn’t get enough points for his chosen course, he began studying business and information systems in Dundalk IT but dropped out of that course at an early stage.

“I absolutely hated it, to be honest,” he says. “I’m a big Liverpool fan, and the last straw for me in that course was that we had to do a business plan on Manchester United! I had already decided at that stage that the course wasn’t for me, but that was the final nail in the coffin.”

After working for a year in a shoe shop in Navan, he enrolled in a social care course, with the first year in Cavan Institute and the second year in Athlone. It was on this course that he met his future fiancée, Orla.

“In the first year in Cavan I lived with four girls for the year and I learned a lot from that experience, as you do!” Rental prices were very different back then – Daniel and his four friends rented a five-bedroom family home in Cavan at a cost of just €40 per person per week.

With an outgoing and engaging personality, Daniel became his class representative in college. When he started in Athlone the following year, he soon had to call on the students’ union for support with an accommodation issue that affected him and some of his friends.

Once this was resolved, he settled quickly into life in Athlone IT. “AIT is a phenomenal asset to Athlone. I learned an awful lot about myself through going there as a student, never mind the numerous things I learned from working there after. It really does give you a great chance.

“The lecturers are very approachable. If you have an issue you can go and speak to them, and they know you by name. There’s a personal touch that maybe you don’t get in some of the bigger institutions.”

“Fr Shay Casey really is the glue that keeps the place together. Over the years that he’s been there, I’d love to know how many people wouldn’t have lasted (in college) only for him. The energy the man has is phenomenal.”

Grateful for the AIT students' union's help with his accommodation issue, he decided to run for the position of accommodation and welfare officer with the union.

Campaigning under a slogan which his mother suggested – ‘Coulter Cares’ – he was surprised and delighted to be elected to the role in 2011.

The position involved meeting with landlords, registering accommodation, and running welfare campaigns in areas such as mental health, sexual health, and physical health. Around this time the recession had hit, and financial struggles became the most prevalent issue facing students.

After two terms as accommodation and welfare officer, he ran unopposed for the position of president of the students’ union.

One of the biggest problems that emerged during his time as president was the arrival of the new SUSI grant system which centralized student grant applications in Dublin and resulted in lengthy delays to their payment.

“We had students who were supposed to get a grant in October - and relied on the maintenance of that grant to get them through college - and they weren’t getting it until April or May, if they got it at all. It was carnage,” he says.

“We ended up organizing a 'soup and roll' voucher system for students who actually didn’t have a penny for college at the time. I know all of the local media covered it, but randomly CANAL, or one of the big (TV) stations in France of Belgium were filming in Athlone at the time and they came in saying ‘what’s going on here?’

“We had students living off pasta and tomato ketchup. That’s not sugarcoating it. It had gotten to that stage.”

Another controversial development at the time was the closure of Scribes, the college bar. While some were critical of its closure, Daniel said the numbers going into the bar had dropped dramatically and it had reached the stage where it was no longer financially viable.

AIT and the students union subsequently redeveloped Scribes into a student social hub and a new headquarters for the union. This opened in February 2015, shortly before Daniel's second and final term as students' union president came to an end.

Students' union officers sometimes go on to political involvement but Daniel, who is not party political, said he doesn't envisage himself running for political office.

For almost three years now he has been working for St Hilda's Services as a support worker with a group of 11 people with intellectual disabilities.

“The idea is to support their choices and help them to have a socially valued role within the community,” he says.

While the role has its challenges, Daniel points out there are great people working with St Hilda's.

“We work as a team to do the best we can, and I’d have to say that the community of Athlone is a massive support to us.”

One aspect of his work is assisting with a radio show made by St Hilda's service users, which airs on Athlone Community Radio every Friday at 12 noon. The show was put forward for the CRAOL (Community Radio) Awards where it earned a distinction in the area of under-served voices.

Daniel has been involved with Athlone Community Radio for several years and, as someone with a keen interest in music and sport, he would be interested in working with a commercial radio station at some point in the future.

When asked about his plans for the new year, he replies he hopes to start planning for his wedding in 2020.