Metathesiophobia* in education

Yesterday I was reading one those seemingly ubiquitous articles on how the world is changing so rapidly (“exponentially!”) that the education system needs to be revolutionised to make it “fit for purpose” in the 21st century. I don’t know why I read articles like this because they drive me nuts. But These articles usually contain claims about the “4 C’s” or in one memorable talk I went to in DCU (not by a DCU colleague), the 9 C’s! What are the odds that so-called “21st century skills” would all begin with C? Mind you, there is some opposition to the dominance of the C’s and there is growing campaign to advocate for the 4 P’s. One the 4 P’s is “passion”, the favourite word of Masterchef contestants who are invariably passionate about celeriac or turmeric or locally-sourced ingredients.

But despite my irritation, I am genuinely intrigued by academics and consultants who seem fixated on the idea that the world is changing. The world has always been changing. Every single decade of the 20th century saw enormous change. In the 1990s, the world of work was changed utterly and for the better. Whereas once we would print out memos and put them in our colleagues’ pigeon holes, in the 1990s we began to communicate by email. The world wide web revolutionised the way we sought and consumed information. Every year or two Intel would release a new Pentium chip. Microsoft Windows and the mouse completely changed how we worked on our desk-top computers. Laptops (very heavy ones!) came on the market beginning the mobile computing age. And of course, the smartphone was developed and was to become a genuine game changer.

Most of us who worked through the 1990s had come through what many educationalists refer to as the “factory model of education”. Some of us had plenty of experience of programming (e.g. with FORTRAN) on mainframe computers but many had effectively no experience of using any kind of computer.

And a funny thing happened: we coped. In fact, we quickly saw that much of the new technology that we had at our disposal was going to make our jobs a lot easier.

So if we could cope then, why not now. Since the turn of the millennium the constant change of the 20th century has continued but I would argue that change in the 21st century has been more incremental than transformational. There are exceptions of course, especially in molecular biology where gene editing techniques are now widely used. And if you say “what about AI?”, it’s worth noting that the first artificial neural networks began to appear in the 1960s, if not earlier.

One of my big issues with the whole “the world is changing exponentially” meme is that it leads down a sort of nihilistic blind alley where acquiring knowledge is devalued to the point where the very purpose of education is couched purely in terms of “skills”. And so, senior academics are often to be heard suggesting that the purpose of education is not to acquire knowledge and wisdom but to “learn how to learn”. The irony of this particular cliché is that it presupposes that at some point we will have to learn something which kind of contradicts the idea that the purpose of education is merely to learn how to learn.

I have a theory that the people who promote the idea that the world is changing so fast that we need to transform education are the very people who are most fearful of change and showing signs of panic.

 

*Fear of change apparently. God bless Google.

A question of loyalty

Let’s suppose your institution is promoting ideas that you believe are potentially damaging. What should you do? It’s a tricky question, especially if you have a certain degree of attachment to your institution, as I have. As someone who’s been around since NIHE days and who’s probably one of its longest serving employees, I’m very proud of what DCU has become, and I’m particularly proud of the small part I’ve played in DCU’s transition from a small, oddly-named college, to a university with a solid international reputation. But that doesn’t mean that I believe in everything we do.

So when fellow academics promote approaches to, say, teaching and learning, with which I profoundly disagree, I find myself in a mental tug-o-war with myself. What should come first: loyalty to the institution or loyalty to my principles? Of course, the simplest way to avoid a dilemma such as this is to just keep the head down and carry on in my own little bubble. But then I think of my son, who is only twelve, and I worry about the future of our education system. I don’t want it to be engulfed in what I consider to be plausible nonsense.

I think the way out of all of this is to do the work, read the literature and counteract what I consider to be nonsense via the academic literature.

Equity and the Leaving Cert

The Covid pandemic seems to have encouraged many people to think about equity in education – for obvious reasons. And, as one would expect, the Leaving Cert and the industry that has been built up around it are blamed for the inequities that undoubtedly exist. Whether it’s grind schools or the notion that “students learn in different ways” or the claim that “there are multiple forms of intelligence”, or even that “the Leaving Cert was designed for the industrial age”, everyone who has ever been to school seems to have some reason for calling for a revolution.

The grind school argument is valid but many of the other reasons quoted are spurious and based on pseudoscience. Howard Gardner’s ideas on multiple intelligences, for example, are largely discredited and the idea that the school system is “not fit for purpose in the 21st century” is little more than a cliché, a favourite of education consultants and corporations like Microsoft and Lego.

So, what would an equitable assessment system look like? Most people advocate for continual assessment but it’s never clear how this would reduce inequity. In fact, common sense would dictate that continual assessment, particularly if it were to take the form of project work, would likely amplify inequities depending on the home circumstances of each student.

More fundamentally, when people advocate for the Leaving Cert to be replaced, what they really seem to have in mind is that it should lean less heavily on memory and more on “skills” like problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity. Aside from the fact that these “skills” are hugely dependent on having relevant domain knowledge (in long term memory), the current emphasis on them is arbitrary, not to mention instrumentalist. Yes, we would like students to be able to think for themselves, but why the emphasis on problem-solving and creativity? Why not conscientiousness, attention to detail or simply being knowledgeable; what we used to call being “educated”.

Finally, we need to ask what the key attributes of our education system should be. Should the system be inherently equitable even if it is flawed from a pedagogical point of view? Our should we design the best possible education system while providing a comprehensive set of supports for students from disadvantaged backgrounds? I know which approach I’d take.

Thoughts on evidence based education

Back in 2013, Ben Goldacre (he of Bad Science and Bad Pharma) started a campaign to make education more evidence-informed. His original talk can be found here.

Many educators (teachers, lecturers etc), most of whom could be described as traditionalists, found Goldacre’s intervention compelling and the ResearchEd movement, now a global phenomenon, was born.

Others were less than impressed and deeply resented a medical doctor trespassing on their field and having the temerity to tell them how they should be advancing the craft of teaching.

More than that, however, many educators who are best described as being “progressive”, were much more strident in their criticism of Goldacre in particular, and the research-based approach in general. The problem was, and still is, that education is driven by ideology and gut-feeling. A person’s views on education are deeply connected with their thoughts around equity, diversity, child-rearing, and frequently, politics. Progressive educators have claimed the moral high ground of “child-centredness” and tend to characterise traditionalists as being right-wing, or even alt-right, and, bizarrely, racist. In their eyes, they’re the compassionate ones. They stress that every child is unique and attempting to research your way into teaching excellence is fundamentally flawed, doomed to failure. Some even say the research-based approach is oppressive.

Anyway, when you have a large group of educators who, at the time of Goldacre’s talk, controlled the narrative, and then suddenly found themselves in a position where their beliefs were about to be put to the test, it’s somewhat understandable that they responded with a certain amount of aggression. When observing education debates on Twitter, especially those occurring in England, I am often struck by the extent to which progressive educators personalise the debate and engage in ad hominem attacks on fellow professionals simply because they do not think the same way. So, frequently, you will see Greg Ashman, a maths teacher based in Australia, and a prolific blogger, being accused of being “alt-right”, a ludicrous accusation.

This reluctance to adopt research-informed approaches is a key feature of education policy-making, especially in Ireland. The Junior Cycle is a case in point. It’s a bizarre thing of a yoke, as the fella said. There seems to be no curriculum and the “Curriculum Specifications” are dull, uninspiring and riddled with education buzzwords and clichés. Here’s the Science document.  The constant emphasis on “process” rather than actual content is typical of current ideology (not evidence) an ideology in which specified knowledge is deemed to be unimportant compared to “skills”. One gets the sense that the designers believe that it’s more important to understand the scientific method than it is to know any science. I don’t know any science colleague who believes this. But somebody in the NCCA clearly does. This is not evidence-informed policy-making. It’s policy-making by opinion.

Which brings me to one of the biggest, most profound changes that occurred in higher education in the last fifty years. I’m talking about Modularisation and Semesterisation (M&S).

M&S was essentially a political project. It was designed to facilitate free movement of students throughout the EU and, in that sense, it worked.

But M&S was also an attempt to quantify learning and when combined with the learning outcomes (LOs) philosophy it helped to promote the concept of education as a transaction. Do this many credits and you will have achieved this many outcomes. To use a physics analogy, education became quantised. If taken seriously, M&S and LOs meant that the number of education “destinations” available was finite and well defined. But everyone knew that was nonsense and, in truth, the number of education destinations is infinite. There are many ways of getting 60% in an exam.

But the key aspect of M&S was that it was never subjected to any rigorous analysis from a pedagogy or cognitive science perspective. Yes, there was some scepticism expressed and many academics making the point that it often takes a long time, a lot longer than twelve weeks, for challenging ideas to sink in. But this was a runaway train and nobody was going to stop it. Sometimes there’s a tide in the affairs of men and to oppose it is a waste of time.

I was broadly in favour of M&S at the time. Like many engineers and scientists, I had a systemising mindset (as Simon Baron Cohen might say) and the tidiness of the new system appealed to me. The systemising mindset is common in academia, particular among academics who move into administrative roles and then proceed to impose additional “processes” on academics.

But years have passed now. I’m more comfortable with untidiness, lack of uniformity and academics having the freedom to improvise and go their own way.

I also know a little bit more about education. And I think we created a problem for ourselves and it’s this: under the M&S system, students’ recall of material they have covered seems to have declined. Despite what many educators might say in this Google age, retaining knowledge is a crucial part of learning. I won’t go off on a tangent about this: instead I recommend to anyone who doubts this to read “Seven Myths about Education” by Daisy Christodoulou.

Let’s think about modern higher education and compare it to the Leaving Cert. For secondary school students, the Leaving Cert is a two-year immersion in their chosen subjects. For university students, a module is a twelve-week immersion in the relevant subject. That seems anomalous to me.

But within that twelve weeks, students tend to be busy with continuous assessment (another intervention that is believed to be a “good thing” without much evidence) and anecdotally it seems that students really only revise their lecture notes once. In cognitive science, there is a thing called the “forgetting curve” and what is clear is that unless you intervene, with regular revision, knowledge acquired is lost very rapidly. We all know this instinctively. If someone asks you to recall the plot of a novel you read some time ago, you are more than likely to have forgotten whole swathes of it.

Sometimes, though, if material is very “memorable”, we might remember it for a little longer. This has been the dominant approach in education for a number of years. The focus, therefore, has been on making material more “engaging” and more “relevant to students’ lives”.

But this approach has obvious limitations. It’s hard to see how you can make thermodynamics engaging.

If you want to solve any problem, you have to admit that it exists. This is why I think the Irish Survey of Student Engagement is a missed opportunity. It tells us literally nothing about how students go about their studies.

M&S is here to stay but we have come up with some way of incentivising students to engage in continuous study (not CA).

The unsurprising performance of our work placement students

In my school in DCU we spend an awful lot of time angsting about our students. We worry abut how much they study. We worry about their writing skills, their attention to detail and their numerical skills.

Today, I made two INTRA (work placement scheme) “visits” via Zoom. As expected, I got glowing reports from the employers. They thought our students were hard-working, independent, excellent communicators and, to my delight, very attentive to detail.

This happens every year – I’ve rarely received a bad report on my travels to companies. Occasionally you find that the employer is worried about the student because they are very introverted and are finding the need to connect with other employees very difficult. But most of the time, they are very complimentary about their overall ability and their work ethic.

What this tells me is that we don’t see the best of our students. It seems that when put to the test in the “real world”, they up their game and reveal a side of themselves that we don’t always see. It also suggests that despite everything, budget cuts and all, the quality of our graduates is being maintained.

Sometimes these INTRA visits are great therapy.

PS We need to do more of these remote visits in the future – for the sake of the climate if nothing else.

Why I’m drawn to the humanities

When I was a student I devoured books on astrophysics and cosmology, but also philosophy. In fact, I ploughed my way through Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy and at one stage fancied myself as a disciple of Spinoza. These days, I remember nothing of Spinoza’s thoughts but I remember that Einstein was a fan.

That was the early 1980s, a time when everyone was anxious that a nuclear conflict was about to break out between the US and the Soviet Union. At the same time, religion was beginning it’s long, slow decline, and many young people like myself were searching for meaning.

I didn’t stick with philosophy for too long although I did manage to complete a couple of adult education courses in UCD.

For many years, though, I stuck with reading books about physics. But, at some stage, I began to realise that no matter how accurate the equations became, we still talked about the physical world using imagery and analogies. You can talk all you like about the “space-time continuum” or “quarks” but you’ll never really know what these things actually are. It’s all too much for our brains to comprehend. But that’s not surprising because our brains have evolved to understand the macroscopic world not the quantum world.

So I found myself drifting away from the hard sciences and began to be more interested in the culture of science rather than the science itself. People were so much more interesting than equations.

These days I find myself increasingly drawn to the humanities. I think it all started when chatting to my late brother, Tony, about religion. Tony read a lot of theology, especially the work of Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict) so when we chatted, I was way out of my depth. What I really respected about Tony was that, starting from some basic axioms (e.g. that Jesus was the son of God), he had a great ability to construct a self-consistent edifice within which all of the church’s teachings followed logically from those initial axioms. The way he argued about religion was not unlike how a scientist might argue: he just had a different starting point. Of course, his arguments were, fundamentally, based on belief while a scientist’s thoughts are based on evidence (or should be), but the two cultures seemed to me to have a lot more in common that you might think.

We need to be careful about placing too much emphasis on STEM.

D:ream, Sexology and Terminators

One of the down sides of setting a target to write everyday is that your mind starts to become very busy. This, in turn, affects your sleep and for the last few nights I’ve been suffering from insomnia. Up to now I’ve been sleeping like a baby so I need to make a few changes in my lifestyle to nip this problem in the bud.

My new plan is to do my walk in the evenings while listening to one of the 4 books I’m “reading” at the moment. In recent years, I’ve found that that’s the only way I can focus: read something different every day and flick between fiction and non-fiction. At the moment I’m listening to “Farewell to Arms” by Hemingway and to be honest I’m underwhelmed. It seems so old fashioned, especially the portrayal of male-female relationships. I’ll stick to it though even if it takes me another month to finish it. I’m still reading “Athena versus the Machine” by Martin Robinson: it’s a fascinating read on the importance of the curriculum and I’d recommend it to the designers of the Junior Cycle who seem to think that what students learn is not very  important. It all about “skills” these days.

I’m also listening to a book called “Atomic Habits”, a self-help book that is surprisingly sensible and short on bullshit. Finally I’m listening to “Bad Blood”, the bizarre story of the Theranos scandal, a story that will probably end with the startup’s founder spending quite a bit of time in jail. It’s the perfect read for these Covid times.

Anyway, today I’m going to lighten up a bit and talk about a few aspects of academic life. In fact I hope, someday, to write a book about education/academia and these “diaries” represent an attempt to get that particular ball rolling: it’s going to take a lot of discipline. I’ve written tens of thousands of words over the years, often as a form of therapy, but I never really felt that I had found my authentic voice. It’s so easy to write what you want people to hear, to caricature yourself, or to fall into the trap of humble-bragging. Writing anything meaningful requires a huge amount of self-analysis and involves confronting your real self, flaws and all. I think I’m nearly ready to be authentic.

A few years ago I took on the role of Associate Dean for Teaching and Learning in our faculty of science and health. For years I had confined myself to my own school, keeping my head down and focusing on my teaching and research. But at some stage, around 2011 I think, I read a book called “Why don’t students like School” by Daniel Willingham and my perspective on education was changed forever. I had been guilty myself of adopting education fads to “enhance” my teaching and I ran many poorly designed, poorly evaluated mini-projects in the broad area of teaching innovation. All around me, many colleagues were doing the same. Innovation has become a bit of a fetish in many walks of life and calls for “change” are now firmly established as the go-to message for politicians, health policy-makers and educationalists. I think the whole “change” thing was started by Bill Clinton during his first election campaign. It was a clever strategy because it offered hope, a fuzzy hope for sure, but hope nonetheless. Indeed, Tony Blair, recognized this and used the D:ream song “Things can only get better” as his signature song in one of this many election campaigns.

I had bought into this notion of change because I was finding teaching harder and harder. The arrival of hand-held devices, especially smartphones, had affected student’s attention span as well as affecting their ability to write and do basic mathematics. It was easy to convince myself that there must be a better, more engaging way.

One of the reasons I wanted to become ATDL was that I felt a need to have a voice, to disrupt the groupthink, to influence people and, I have to admit, to educate people. I wanted academics to know that there was a great debate going on in the world of education and, no, inquiry based learning was not going to save us, and, no, engagement was not the same as learning.

While I got to do some of those things, what I really remember about my times as ADTL is the people I interacted with. I made it my business to talk to colleagues as much as I could. This was not something that came easily to me – I’m a shy person at heart – but I had worked on my communication skills over the years and got to enjoy interacting with people. The main weapon in my armoury was humour but at times I think I overdid it and tried too hard, becoming a bit manic in the process.

As I progressed though my term of office, I began to detect some subtle differences between the personalities of academics from different disciplines. My biology colleagues were generally good-natured, hard-working, excellent organisers and generally very enthusiastic about their research. Nurses were hard-working, very committed to teaching and student wellbeing, practical and generally a very diverse bunch. Psychologists tended to be reserved, serious, intelligent, highly committed, and unashamedly ambitious for themselves and their school. Some of our sociologist talked a completely different language to me but I enjoyed interacting with them especially one colleague who, one day, over coffee, exclaimed “it’s a scandal that there is no programme in sexology in Ireland”. I was afraid to admit that I actually didn’t know what sexology was! It was obviously not the same as “sexuality” but what was it?

Physicists tended to be very smart, down to earth, and generally very reasonable: a bit like engineers. All of humanity is to be found in chemistry departments. Some of the best people you’ll ever meet are in chemistry but there are plenty of eccentrics knocking about as well. Maths people are mainly introverts, often very nice to chat to over coffee but many have a ferociously stubborn streak. They can be like the Terminator: they can’t be reasoned with.

While being in a role like ADTL you often have to interact a lot with administrators and I really enjoyed working with the faculty team. I never got an “us-and-them” feeling in the three and a half years I did the job. They play a vital role in ensuring that are systems are fair and equitable and many have a deep and invaluable knowledge of how institutions operate. I couldn’t have survived the job without the Assistant Faculty Manager that I worked with. Whereas I tended to focus on the big picture, she was the detail person, the person who kept me on track.

I’ve certainly no regrets about my time as ADTL.

That’s another fine corner you’ve backed yourself in to

I was reading about XtraVision the other day. Remember them? Remember when you had to get in the car to go to your local video shop to collect a couple of movies on VHS only to have to bring them back the next day. I don’t know about you, but I was regularly fined for late returns. At the time, though, it was wonderful – you didn’t have to wait years for films to appear on regular TV.

Such a system seems clumsy and inconvenient in the age of Netflix but, at the time, the trip to the local video store became part of our culture.

XtraVision expanded at a rapid rate – too rapid – and they seriously over-valued their stock. Their demise was inevitable.

The reason I was reading about XtraVision the other night is that the higher education system in Ireland reminds me of the Xtravision fiasco.

Let’s think about what has happened in the last 30 years or so. Some time in the 1980s, a policy emerged that put education at the core of our economic development plans. There’s nothing wrong with that; education is a “good thing” as I’ve written in previous posts.

Typical of this policy of using HE as a key component of our economic development was the creation of the NIHEs, now DCU and UL. These were to be a new type of institution, designed to be unashamedly vocational while offering courses that were targeted at specific areas of the economy. Many of these new courses were also unusual in that they tended to be multidisciplinary in nature.

But soon the numbers of school-leavers attending third level began to rise and the HE system developed into a market with all institutions competing for the best and the brightest students. So institutions began to think hard about the type of programmes they offered and many began to mimic DCU and UL and offer programmes that were prestigious while also offering outstanding career prospects. The whole purpose was to attract the very best students, the ones with 500+ points and to enhance the prestige of the institution in the process.

While this was happening, unfortunate students began to be bombarded with unsolicited advice: STEM is the future! Go into coding! Do honours maths! It was all based on a rather fuzzy idea that because we lived in a technological society, the future of work would require highly-skilled STEM graduates. Of course, the reality is that if you walk into many high-tech companies, especially in the biopharma sector, most staff work are in offices doing paperwork.

As all of this was happening, costs were rising and government funding began to decline. Rather than circle the wagons, the HE institutions experienced a severe bout of mission creep. Some of this was driven by the need to attract funding from the private sector but a lot of it was ideological in nature. “Impact” became the new buzzword and universities began to be over-run with “initiatives” of all kinds. Many academic staff began to feel that while there was always money for the next pet project, undergraduate facilities were allowed to go into decline. Whether they were right or wrong is open to debate but the lack of resources earmarked for teaching became a big factor in the decline of staff morale.

All of this commercialisation and an increasingly instrumental approach to education was exacerbated by globalisation. We were now “competing in a global marketplace”. Our need for more funding to boost our rankings meant that we now had to wander the world looking to attract international students who would pay huge fees. We were backing ourselves into a corner and making ourselves vulnerable to shocks like a global pandemic, a war or simply a recession. The fact that many universities were now borrowing hundreds of millions of euros (often to improve the campus “experience” rather than improve the quality of the programmes being offered) only added to the vulnerability. Take a stroll through Belfield campus and, if like me, you studied there in the 1980s, you’ll be flabbergasted by the level of investment in bricks and mortar. And a lot more is planned.

Throughout all this time, there was constant clamour from institutions and unions that more state funding was required. The word “crisis” began to be bandied around, with some people referring to “catastrophic” staffing levels. Nonetheless we continued to claim that quality was not being affected. Naturally enough the government wasn’t forthcoming with more funding: why would they be given that they were receiving such mixed messages?

Now, as we continue to emerge from lockdown, we find ourselves in a genuine crisis. Recent experience has shown that universities can respond quickly when they have to but we are in the dark as to how effective our efforts to teach online have been. We urgently need feedback from students.

As Einstein said, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result” and if we do not embrace a new model of higher education, we’re going to remain in a constant cycle of borrowing, chasing students, staff freezes and budget cuts only for it to start all over again a few years later. A bit like the Irish state really. We will not be rescued by the state – other areas of our society and economy will be prioritised – so we have to sort this out for ourselves.

No doubt, online teaching will be a significant part of any new model that we develop, but more than anything, we need to rationalise the system, renew our focus on education and stop trying to be all things to all men.

Could we not have a bit of inspiration?

Having challenged myself to write every day, I’ve turned off Netflix and turned on my computer. I feel I need to keep up with Mary Gallagher (author of Academic Armageddon) who continues to produce fascinating blogs as part of her “In a strange land” series! As an engineer, I always like to read the perspectives of colleagues who work in the humanities. We’re all so focused on our own little niche areas that we fail to stand back and look at the big picture.

For the last number of years, most Universities have been led by academics with a STEM or medical background. Not to go off on a tangent but I have very fond memories of Michael Murphy, former president of UCC, who was one of the first registrars I encountered in St. Vincent’s Hospital. He was always a funny guy and I’d never have pictured him as a university president.

But the emphasis on STEM is a problem in my view.

Anyway, when I was a Newman Fellow in UCD many years ago (I was in the first ‘batch’), Paddy Masterson was the president and he was a lovely man. He was a true academic while being warm, sociable and pretty much the antithesis of the modern CEO. At least that was my perspective.

But those were simpler times, long before the massification of higher education and the demands on senior managers in universities was not what they are today.

These days, we have backed ourselves into a corner. We have the highest rate of third level participation in Europe but the reality seems to be that we can’t afford it. And so universities have had to turn themselves into corporations. I have a great deal of sympathy for senior managers who have to somehow balance the books at a time when student numbers are increasing and state funding is reducing. But some universities have taken to this corporate approach with gusto. I particularly worry for my alma mater, UCD, which seems to have embraced corporatisation like no other. Other institutions have recently launched strategic plans and they all sound the same: more students, especially international ones, more engagement with industry, more facilities to enhance the attractiveness of campuses. More online learning.

And it seems to me that the world of education has found itself in a vicious circle of growth. I can see why this had happened: I think in most cases it’s not ideological but borne out of necessity. Money has to come from somewhere. But it’s all a bit depressing.

Somewhere along the line the pronouncements from all our institutions has become soul-less. Where is the inspiration? Where is the love of knowledge for knowledge’s sake? I know I’m being harsh and I realise that presidents and senior managers have a very tough job but could we not have a bit of hope? You know, the Barack Obama kind.

Thoughts about my brother

My annus horibilis was 2010. I spent the entire year on dialysis and I found the whole thing head-wrecking. But the lowest point in the whole dialysis experience happened in October of 2010 when my brother died. Tony, who also had CF and was the youngest of the five siblings in the family, died at the age of 42. If he had lived he would be 52 today, May the 16th.

Ironically it wasn’t the CF that killed him but oesophageal cancer. I first heard he had cancer when I answered a called for him while driving around the roundabout in Carrickmines. I had known that he had undergone some tests and when I saw his number on the screen I had a bad feeling about it all. Even today, I get flashbacks to that call whenever I’m in Carrickmines.

Tony had a terrible last year and because he lived in the UK and I was on dialysis I didn’t see him throughout the period of his illness. In a way I was lucky because the manner of his death was traumatic both for my mother and my siblings. Let’s just say that he suffered a lot and some of that suffering could have been averted.

Tony was a complex character. Five years younger than me, he was an opera and classical music buff with a sharp mind, and he was always ready for a philosophical discussion that was quite likely to descend into a full-blown argument. He was one of the smartest people I’ve known.

In his early twenties, and armed with a degree in Law from UCD, he had emigrated to the UK along with his wife-to-be. After doing a number of ‘character-building’ jobs, notably in telesales (at one stage his job was to sell black plastic bags!), he eventually forged a highly successful career as a tax consultant in KPMG and settled into the madness that is the City of London, commuting daily from Wickford in Essex to Canary Wharf. It turned out that he had a special ability at coming up with tax avoidance schemes for corporations and he took great delight in being able to find loopholes in Gordon Brown’s overly-complex tax codes. Although he was in good CF health when cancer struck, he had had his ups and downs and had endured numerous spells in the Brompton Hospital in London. Unlike me, he had suffered from CF-related diabetes, a condition that on its own would present plenty of challenges to the average person. And, although he had his struggles with controlling his sugars (and once he suffered a hypo and got lost coming home from Dun Laoighaire pier) , he did eventually reach a point where he had everything under control. Then the cancer struck.

Towards the end of his life he had become a deeply religious in a very traditional Catholic sense and he even published a short philosophical/theological book which was mainly about death. To me, it was pretty depressing stuff and I only ever leafed through it. It wasn’t my kind of thing. I don’t really know if his religion represented a genuine, heartfelt set of beliefs or whether it was just his trying to rationalise the sheer unfairness of life. Who knows what’s in a person’s head?

Our relationship was complex – we were very different people even if we shared a defective gene – and in the end he still remained a bit of a mystery to me. But one thing I do know is that every time I think of him I feel desperately sad and it’s not just because he died so young and in such a painful manner. It’s something deeper than that, something I can’t quite put my finger on. All I know is he was a brave guy in every sense of the world. He had struck out and made a life for himself and he had done things that a normal, healthy person would have found challenging. Everything he achieved was due to his own determination and resilience and although this might sound a bit presumptuous, I was, and am, very proud of him.

The English don’t do death and funerals like we do in Ireland but on the day of Tony’s funeral in Sallynoggin, the day his body was buried closed to my Dad’s in Shangannagh cemetery, a large contingent of his English work colleagues were present having made the trip over from London. He had earned that most valuable of currencies: respect.