Writing Deaf history. Josephine O'Leary
How would you describe yourself? Who is Josephine O’Leary?
For the past 50 years, I have been involved with the Irish Deaf community. I have helped on organisational matters on a voluntary basis and I continue to do so. I was born in Mullingar, County Westmeath and am the middle child of nine siblings. When I was six years old, I lost my hearing from meningitis and then went to St. Mary’s School for Deaf Girls, Cabra in Dublin. I went through my primary and secondary education and left when I was eighteen.
I have a love for drama and got involved with 'Dublin Theatre of the Deaf' for many years. I then wrote a play called 'The Rejected Child.' This received an award at the Czech Republic International Festival for Deaf Theatres. It was one of the highlights of my career.
My career also includes the Civil Service Department of Transport. I was the first Presenter and Researcher of 'Sign of the Times.' This was a Television magazine programme for the Deaf Community. I presented many TV programmes during my ten years on it. I was also a news signer on the RTE news and a Community Development Officer with DeafHear.
I married Patrick O’Leary and have three children and eleven grandchildren. I am now retired but I keep busy with various projects and hobbies.
You edited the historical book with Alvean E Jones called ‘Through the Arch’ This contains 170 years of St Mary’s School for Deaf Girls history. I know that both of you worked very hard to make this possible. Tell me more about your book in detail and the journey you took to get it published.
I was always interested in the history of my old school. For the past thirty years, I went about searching for resources. There was no book on the full history of St. Mary’s School for Deaf Girls. Getting started on the book was not easy. There was not much paper-based information available. The school was reluctant to assist.
In the last ten years, things changed. technology and Google meant that I started to find some invaluable resources online. There were changes at the school and I was able to access their archives. The Deaf Community became aware of our work. They provided me with more stories and photographs. Important information and records also became available from the Dublin Deaf Heritage Centre. as it moved to a new location in the Deaf Village.
Finally, Alvean, my co-editor, and I started to put things together. We decided to edit the book rather than writing. We wanted to include many extracts from old records and we preferred to leave the text in the language of that day. We initially thought of doing a small book. But with so much information now available, we decided to produce a bigger book!
In 2016 we launched the book. It was a perfect time. It marked the 170th year since the foundation of St. Mary’s School for Deaf Girls and the end of an era. The old school was demolished. A new school has been set up and is now known as the Holy Family School for the Deaf. It is a mixed school for both deaf boys and girls
What stories in the book struck a chord with you?
Many stories struck a chord with me. I was able to picture how the girls lived at the school in the early days. The lace-making by the girls was world famous. It was very hard work. They got many awards for their work on Limerick Laces. Can you imagine the girls doing the work by candlelight? It was jaw-dropping to learn about them making and weaving all their clothes.
Do you feel confident about the future of education for Deaf children in Ireland?
Many Deaf children nowadays receive encouragement to enter mainstream education. My concern is the high number of children in the hearing classroom. There is usually an average of eight Deaf pupils in any class in the School for the Deaf. Many Deaf children are nowadays fitted with a Cochlear Implant. This is not the answer for every Deaf child. In mainstream education, I don’t feel there are enough extra resources. There is not always enough support. This needs to be looked into further.
Tell us about your career to date. How did you get to be an Editor?
I always had an interest in reading and tried my hands at poetry. I set up a magazine ‘The Deaf Journal’ with the Irish Deaf Society and was its editor for three years. That magazine continued for many years. I wrote articles for many magazines alongside this.
I am a self-made editor. This is the first book I have edited. Along the way, my co-editor and I did make mistakes but we learned from them. It was a good learning curve. The publisher gave some helpful hints. We got someone to do the layout and to proofread. It took us two years and we worked on a voluntary basis. All proceeds from the sale go to St. Mary’s Deaf Heritage.
If you'd been told one thing that you weren't told when you were a teenager, what would you like to have heard?
Told by whom? Most of my young life was in the convent school. I had very little knowledge of what was going on in the world while I was there. We were not allowed newspapers or comics. Sometimes the nuns would tell stories but I missed out on so many things. When I was home on holidays I could not ask my family anything as my communication with them was not great. I did not know what to ask.
Your 5 favourite books. Why?
I read anything interesting. There are no favourites. When at school I would read most of the few books available in the library over and over. When I was a teenager, I would go home during the summer holidays. I would spend a lot of time in the town library and second-hand bookshops. At the time, I enjoyed reading Agatha Christie novels. Most of my siblings love reading and we would exchange books, magazines, and comics. We did not have a television set in our home.
Later in life when I got a television I continued reading. There were no subtitles on television at that time. I watch a lot of television now as subtitles are available. Currently, the television acts a source for my main ‘reading material’.
If we googled your name, what would we see?
The first ever "Sign of the Times" broadcast. RTE Magazine programme for the Deaf.
Signer/presenter. St Mary's Deaf Heritage website.
When people look at me, they would never guess that I …..
am Deaf and that I have overcome many obstacles and achieved many things.
What makes you unique?
I am Deaf and an achiever. I love to take on challenges to prove that Deaf people ‘Can’. I am respected within the Deaf community and am classified as a leader and role model for them. In 2016 I received an award for ‘Deaf Woman of the Year’ from the National Deaf Women of Ireland. I am also well-known for my TV programmes.
What motivates you?
Frustration! I like to show that I believe in myself. Being Deaf is not an obstacle to achieving things like hearing people do. If I am interested and believe in something, even when I meet objections, I do it and make sure I succeed.
If you were to write a book about yourself, what would you name it?
Well, I am taking steps to write a book about myself. People have been telling me for years to do it. I am not sure what to name it yet. But, it may be something like ‘My Challenging Life – Being Deaf is no barrier’ or ‘Hear Me – how I lived through my deafness’. Perhaps I will pick something else in the end.
Name one thing that drives you crazy.
I've got a few things that drive me crazy! They are:- (a) A person’s misunderstanding of deafness and sign language. (b) Getting left out of the conversation when a group of hearing people are in the room. (c) When a professional who is hearing thinks that they know better than the Deaf person. They then make decisions for them. (d) Most of all I hate being patronised.
What do you miss most about childhood?
I missed out on being close with my parents and siblings. Being away at boarding school since I was seven years old, I was a holiday child. I did not learn sign language while at school and my family were told not to sign to me. I had some kind of speech and could lip-read somewhat. But I was not able to carry a good conversation at home until I was older. I was always happy when at home but had my share of tantrums.
What one thing (modern convenience) could you not live without?
I have to name two things: my mobile phone and computer.
What inspires you at the moment?
The good news is that Irish Sign Language (ISL) has finally been officially recognised. The declaration was signed into Law by President Higgins on 24th December 2017. It is now the third language in the Republic of Ireland. Things are looking good for ISL but much work still needs to be done in its promotion and usage.
How would you describe your creative style?
I love trying new things and this helps my creative style. My self-belief also helps.
I don’t have a particular favourite colour. I love so many colours.
What is the best thing you have done in your life?
Challenged my deafness.
What skills and techniques have you applied in your career?
I have had to work extra hard in all I did to show that my deafness is no barrier.