03 Dec 2021

'I ask myself, was I kind?' Portlaoise school deputy principal retires for new career

Deputy Principal Meree O'Sullivan recalls her career and shares her views of mental health

'I ask myself, was I kind?' Portlaoise school deputy principal retires for new career

Meree O'Sullivan who has retired from her post as Deputy Principal at Holy Family Senior School.

It was a joyous last day at work for Meree O’Sullivan at Holy Family Senior School as the school broke for Halloween holidays recently, and it brought back memories of her first year as a teacher.

Children lined up to give her flowers and gifts big and small, but for Meree one of the most precious was from a little boy who knocked on the staffroom door, with his gift of a wrapped slice of buttered barm brack and a bag of monster munch.

“He was crying. He said ‘I’m just going to miss you’.
“It reminded me of my first Christmas teaching. There was a always a big disparity in wealth, from very privileged children to those with nothing. There was a doctor’s son in my class and his mother came in to give me an amazing gift from an expensive boutique. And then a little fella gave me a brown paper bag. He said don’t open it until you get home. It was a used bar of soap. Life just doesn’t change, kids are very good.”

The school staff had arranged a retirement do for Meree in the staff room, with husband Eoin and their two daughters Brianna and Aoibhinn on hand (below).

 “I was surprised and delighted, nobody needed to have done anything. They had the room like a wedding venue. It was really lovely,” she said.
“Leaving the kids is the hardest thing. They have always been the focus of my attention. I will miss my colleagues too. The atmosphere here in Holy Family is amazing, everyone is so young and talented. Three different schools came together three years ago to make a real sense of family, it’s just a lovely place to be,” she said.

She recalled some of her activities over the years.
“As a young teacher I used to take the kids camping overnight. It was so much fun. The kids were fantastic. They just enjoyed themselves. Can you imagine thirty or forty kids gathered around a bonfire and telling ghost stories? The atmosphere was electric.

“School tours were the highlight of the year. Johnny O Brien drove the bus. He had a microphone at the top of the bus and the kids went up one at a time to sing. It was pure entertainment. Johnny was always so kind and so complimentary. We all loved him.
“Teaching every class standard gave me such a wide experience. I always feel lucky at my work. St. Pauls mightn’t have been the best building in the world but what happened there on a daily basis was first rate. It was a home away from home for kids and teachers,” she said.

She described how ‘Danny’s Shop’ started.
“Not all kids like to sit down and learn. Some kids found it so boring and tough. Frustration can lead to new initiatives, and so began Danny’s shop on Fridays. The shop is named after a young boy, Danny Whelan, who taught me so much about human behaviours.

“The shop was opened as a reward scheme, a behaviour modification programme that set out to be short term and didn’t close for 15 years. It was run by the 6th classes. We sold everything... chocolate, sweets, taytos.
“The kids decided what would be best to sell. Some Fridays we cooked sausages and put them in bread rolls and called them hot dogs. Some Fridays we sold ice cream. Bernie McEvoy, ever so practical, kept everything running smoothly and always with a smile.
“That shop was full of life. Kids were taught about customer care and respect. Being behind the counter wasn’t all smiles and fun. It was a lot of hard work too. Thursdays were shopping days. I would like to thank the staff of the Old Dunne’s stores, particularly, Mary Phelan who always always had a kind word and our order ready when we called. Also the staff of the 4 Aces who never failed to give us our free lollipops,” Meree said.

Club nights became another memorable feature of school life.
“We met on Monday and Wednesday evenings from 7pm to 9pm, and then after school on Fridays. We played cards, darts, told ghost stories and in general, just had fun. There was only one rule-you had to show up. And they never failed to show up even in the coldest nights. We had the most meaningful conversations. We got to know each other and more importantly we got to know ourselves,” she said.

Meree O'Sullivan with some of the students she has said goodbye to at Holy Family Senior School.

“I am a very lucky person. Not only do I love my job but I worked with a remarkably talented and learned group of people. In our school everyone is welcome. Our ethos is kindness. The teachers and SNA’s in our school are fantastic and go way beyond their remit to do everything they can to help, with children always the focus.

“I have to mention our caretaker, Damian. He is one of the most talented and is ever- ready to make, fix and do anything that is needed. Recently he crafted benches for the school yard and they are such an addition .
“I have to thank all The Boards of Management over the years. They are a great source of support to me personally and to the school. The parents’ councils have been a rock of advice and friendship. They were and are such friends, and always there to advise, help and fundraise,” she said.

Meree thanks in particular Des Sutton who retired as principal last year.
“I owe Des a debt of gratitude, he was a great leader in our school. And I thank our new principal Roisin Brennan and wish her well in the future. I'm also very grateful to Monsignor John Byrne for his motivation and drive in building our magnificent school.

“Also thank you to my lovely husband Eoin and my greatest joys, my fabulous daughters, Brianna and Aoibhinn,” she said.

“I am glad to be leaving our school in such capable hands. It’s not easy to leave a job and a place I love. At the end of a career there are a lot of thoughts, a lot of feelings. I don’t want to have any regrets. I ask myself did I do my best? Did I make the most of each privileged minute? And most of all I ask myself was I kind?”

Meree’s career is taking a new exciting turn.
Back In 2003, she completed an INLPT Master Practitioner Course in Life Coaching, and then went on to receive a BSC in Psychotherapy and Counselling in 2011.

“It facilitated me enormously in helping with all of the issues that were evident in our kids in school. Even before Covid, anxiety was a growing problem in our young people. If all teachers had to do was teach the core subjects of Irish, English and Maths, I think our job would be very easy,” she said.

She has been working in the evenings as a counsellor and psychotherapist, and now intends to open a business to do it full-time.

“Mental health is such a big issue, not just in adults but in kids. We are allowed to talk about it now. In the past you couldn’t, It is great that we have such an open society now. It’s ok to have depression and worries and to show it. Kids always worried but now society can equip people to deal with it,” Meree said.

See more pictures of Meree's final day at Holy Family Senior School below. 

Below: Meree with her family.

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