Miriam Kerins chats with BT Young Scientist entrant Ian McDonagh who shows us just what young Traveller teens are capable of achieving when given a chance.

If you’re the parent of a teenager, you may often find yourself on the receiving end of endless eye rolls, slammed doors, disagreements and major attitudes; much as I did when my own kids were going through  their precocious teen  years;  sure it’s all part and parcel of growing up and growing into themselves.  And didn’t we all hang out with questionable pals, defy our parents’ curfew and hand in half completed homework to our teachers at some stage of our lives?  However, when you meet Galway teenager Ian McDonagh, such are his impeccable manners, it’s really hard to imagine that this extremely articulate young man, who is a member of the Traveller community, could ever be cheeky to his parents or even arrive late for class.

Ian won second place in the BT Young Scientist’s Biology and Ecology section

One of six kids, Ian lives at home with mam and dad Julia and Patrick McDonagh who are both extremely proud of their Junior Cert student son; especially now, as he prepares for his second foray into the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition, set to take place at the Royal Dublin Society (RDS) in January 2017. Ian’s unimaginable journey began during a simple lesson in school, continued with an idea and some intricate research into the stages of the moon, and culminated in this ambitious young man entering and winning second place in the prestigious BT Young Scientist’s Biology and Ecology section in the Junior Individual Category landing him (and his school) a Blue Ribbon and a cheque for €225.00. This was not just a momentous occasion; it was also a historical one because, according to Ian, “It was the first time the school had entered.”

“I was in class one day and the teacher spoke to us about the Young Scientist (Exhibition); we went up to Dublin as a group to visit it and I started to take it all in and said ‘I’ll be here next year.’”  Says Ian whose entry last year focused on the moon and the effects it had on pregnant mares as they were foaling. “My grandfather on my mam’s side, Jack Donoghue, breeds horses in Galway and I always had an interest and helped him out. I took horse riding lessons and I’m a very keen horseman and I’m interested in equine welfare.  My granddad said that horses are always born at night, I disagreed and wanted to be able to prove my theory and my research has been helpful to him; he can now know when a foal will be born;” says Ian who was proud to meet a fellow Galway man, our very own President, the honourable Michael D Higgins who presented him with his prize.

Ian is a very talented, respectful, well-mannered young man.

While Merlin College student   Ian says that neither his mam or dad completed a formal education; but from chatting with him, it’s obvious to me that, despite not reaching academic heights, Julia and Patrick McDonagh have still managed to achieve a great deal by raising, what has to be said,  a very talented, respectful, and well-mannered young man. “The work was on me; mam and dad wouldn’t have had the education but a neighbour helped me out with getting the information together;” explains Ian. However I believe from chatting with Ian’s dad on the ‘phone and meeting his lovely mam Julia, the apple didn’t fall far from that particular tree because they are both lovely people with a strong sense of morals and values who have certainly made a mark on their teenage son, and I have no doubt, these virtues have also certainly been instilled in the couple’s other five children.

Ian is a very conscientious child and we’ve never had any problems with him.

Fast forward to 2017, and, with nearly ten thousand students having entered  next year’s Young Scientist Exhibition; including six pupils from Merlin College, and with standards being very high,   only a select and lucky few made the grade; however, Ian is one of them. “I was the only one successful from my school this year and last year as well.” Says a proud Ian who tells me his project involves a “Scientific Investigation of the Cures and Folklores of the Irish Traveller,” with an aim and objective to “prove the authenticity of the cures and the fact they were created and derived by Travellers and used as an alternative form of medicine… and they worked.” Explains Ian, who adds, “I prefer to use a bit of moss from the wall and put it onto a cut if it worked, sure why would you sit in a hospital for five or six hours If you could save time and money?” Ian says his rationale for this project was spurred by the fact he claims “it’s the biggest one in Ireland. I got on with this project myself and I never even told my family how big it was. My research will be tested under laboratory conditions and I will come to a conclusion,” says the young man whose dream, is to join an Garda Siochána when he leaves school; something his mam Julia has no doubt he will achieve saying “He is very disciplined and he researches a lot.  He’s a very conscientious child and we’ve never had any problems with him.”

As well as having the support of his proud family, Ian also has the assistance and encouragement of his school, Merlin College and his teachers Claire Cunningham and James McHugh with Year Head  Mr McHugh telling us “I taught Ian from first year and it’s amazing to see him transition and progress.” However, upon visiting the school, one certainly gets the impression that the overall quality, teaching and environment are excellent, with students being respectful and well behaved; indeed, the entire building appeared to be spotless.  There was also evidence of a distinct sense of community and inclusivity on display; giving a clear indication that the essence and the climate displayed in Merlin College benefits all students who attend.

As well as studying for his Junior Certificate, perfecting his 2017 BT Young Scientist project, and preparing himself for his Transition Year work experience with the local Gardaí, Ian also involves himself in charitable work. “I’m hoping to set up a charitable event in conjunction with a Longford lady to raise money for children’s charities in 2017. I work with Galway City Council getting speed ramps in the area and play facilities for the kids and I’m Chairperson of the Student Council;” explains a very busy and active Ian who is far from being an average teenager, rather he’s an exceptional young man who is not just aspirational, he’s inspirational, proud, ambitious and a credit to his family, his school and to himself.