Proud feminist: An interview with Darina Dolan

Story by Adrian Cusack

Tuesday, 9th April, 2019 11:43am

Proud feminist: An interview with Darina Dolan

Darina Dolan. Photo by Corin Bishop.

She retired as principal of St Peter’s National School in Athlone last August, but Darina Dolan’s schedule has been anything but quiet since then.

The Coosan resident is now working for a pilot project run by the HSE and TUSLA on helping teachers to manage pupils’ behaviour, and she is also midway through a one-year term as national president of the Soroptimists in Ireland.

On a Friday afternoon she meets with the Westmeath Independent after a busy day in which she has already visited a school in Mountmellick, as part of her new role, and met up with Bernie Egan, the president of the Soroptimist club in Athlone.

Originally from Connaught Street, Darina is a past pupil of St Peter's NS and she has been involved with schools in the parish of Saints Peter and Paul throughout her life.

She began her teaching career in Clonown National School after graduating from Carysfort teacher training college in Dublin in 1977.

“I worked in Clonown for 21 years, then I moved to St Paul’s NS, and then I moved to St Peter’s NS. So I didn’t go too far, did I?” she smiles.

For fourteen years she was principal of St Peter's and she says the work of principals involves “an awful lot of deadlines to meet and applications to send in”.

“You are very much living in the future when you’re in a principal’s role, because at this time of the year you need to have almost everything set up for September,” she says.

“You need to have your open day for enrolment over, your applications for special needs resources done, your teacher allocation worked out. It’s constant forward planning. But I did like that, because that’s the sort of person I am anyway.”

She was particularly proud of the growth in the school's music programme during her time in St Peter's, as well as the opening of a school garden as part of its science programme.

“We got the school orchestra up and running and we had two super choirs, a junior choir and a senior choir. There was always a good programme of music in the school but we maintained it and grew it.

“Everybody in fifth and sixth class learned how to read music, which is a huge achievement.

“I am proud of that and I’m very proud of the garden, which was one of my 'babies'. The school bought a bit of ground and did the work to develop it. It was lovely to get the garden and put the Green schools' project into practice, to show that you were planting things to save butterflies and encourage bees and things like that.

“I loved working in the school. The staff are lovely. And I still go in and volunteer with the garden. I’d hate not to be involved (in any way).”

She decided to retire as principal last year to take up her role in helping to implement the 'Pax Good Behaviour Game' in the Midlands. This is a programme which was developed to help manage classroom behaviour.

“It's about teaching behaviour, rather than assuming that the children know it,” says Darina.

“You teach the children the vision you want for the classroom; what the proper behaviour for an activity is and is not. And then you have rewards at the end of it. It’s designed by an American psychologist and the teachers love it.”

The teachers involved are each given two days of training and three mentoring visits to the classroom, and Darina's involvement spans the Midlands counties of Longford, Westmeath, Laois and Offaly.

Last October, she became national president of Soroptimist International, an organisation with a focus on helping to improve the lives of girls and women across the world.

Darina had been a member locally since 1992 and it’s a perfect fit for the self-described “out-and-out feminist”.

She defines a feminist simply as someone who wants women to be treated equally. “It’s nothing about superiority, it’s totally to do with equality,” she says. “Things like that pay gap are huge.” 

A book which recently made an impression on her is ‘Deeds Not Words’ by Helen Pankhurst, granddaughter of the suffragette activist Emily Pankhurst.

“In the book, she is talking about various areas of women’s lives, what has improved in the last 100 years and what hasn’t. She goes through politics, money, identity, violence, culture, power. And the one area of life that has really disimproved in the last 100 years is violence against women,” she says.

“That’s just in our world. In Pakistan, and places in Africa, education for women is really difficult. That would be one of the big things I love about the Soroptimists, that it’s global.

“Some of the projects that we do help support girls to get to school in Africa. They wouldn’t manage it without the supports they’re getting. There’s another project in Nepal taking girl prostitutes off the streets and training them to become dressmakers so that they can earn an income in another way.

“In lots of ways we (in Ireland) are streets ahead of so many women in the world. There are so many women that have an awful life.”

She says the Soroptimists is a “friendship and service group” and its Athlone branch is doing well at present with approximately 28 members.

“We do events here to fundraise for local charities. We’re very involved with SAFE Ireland and domestic violence, which is our national project,” she explains.

As national president of the Soroptimists, Darina campaigned for Ireland to ratify the Istanbul Convention which obliges the Government to tackle violence against women. This was ratified here on International Women's Day, last month.

“Before that we were one of ten countries in Europe that hadn’t ratified it, along with Croatia and Estonia and others. Ratifying it meant the Government had to put in place resources and systems to protect people in violent situations,” she says.

“Last week, the local club had an event (in AIT) where we had people from SAFE Ireland giving a talk to students in the social care course about incidents of domestic violence, how to recognise the signs, the effect it has on people, and the cost to society.

“So the work of the Soroptimists is not all to do with fundraising or having lunches. It’s about doing other things as well.”

She has been travelling to the Soroptimist clubs around the country in order to support and encourage their members, and on September 21 she will host a national event in the Shamrock Lodge Hotel which will include a dinner and speeches by Sheila Nunan of the INTO and Athlone native Renata Dwan, an expert on disarmament with the UN.

The theme of her year as president is 'the power of one' – the potential for one person to make a positive change to the lives of others.

“I think that comes from my background in teaching and education,” she says. “One person can make a big difference, even if it's down to something like recycling your rubbish.”

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