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CYC People

John Digney




I was born in the very very late 1960’s in the townsland of Tyrella, in Northern Ireland (about 30miles from Belfast). I am led to believe that the name Tyrella comes from the old Irish words – Tí­r & Eile and translate as ‘other land’ or ‘other world’. Of course those acquainted with Celtic Mythology should be familiar with the most famous ‘otherworld’, Tí­r na nOg or ‘The land of youth’. As a kid I wondered about the significance of this and also about the notion of being eternally young (or never growing up) I now know what that is. See the following link for a very brief overview:

I must admit that I wasn’t the world's most enthusiastic student, but did make a deal with myself that I would stay in education until the ‘system’ had had enough of me. So, in 1987 I began my third level education in the University of Ulster (completing a Psychology degree in 1991). Over subsequent number of years I have been a student at a number of colleges and universities, including University College Dublin, University of Limerick, Dublin Institute of Technology and Dundalk Institute of Technology, where I have completed various third level courses including diplomas in Management Studies, Training and Education, a Masters degree in ‘Project Management’, another in ‘Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis’ and a PhD in 2010. I think the system must have had enough of me by now.

I worked for almost 25 years within Residential Care, having cut my teeth in a young offenders centre (AKA Special School) working with an extraordinary team of professional people. I left there to take on a supervisory position within the Health Board, managing a therapeutic unit for extremely challenging kids. My next move was to a ‘High Support’ service, at that time a new concept in Ireland. More recently I have been employed as National Learning Development Coordinator for Irelands Child and Family Agency (Tusla).

With almost 25 years of marriage under my belt, I can also brag of having 4 amazing kids, now aged 21, 20,16 and 7, aargh!

How I came to be in this field

I often consider how I come to be in many different places and seldom really ever figure it out. How I came to be ‘in the field’ pictured above is a more interesting story than how I came to be working in the field of child and youth care.

Following my graduation in 1991 I made the decision to take a couple of years away from college to gain some work experience, so began working in a residential programme for adults and young people with learning disabilities. Now, at this time in Ireland (both North and South) jobs were few and far between, so I spent the next while looking for something more challenging and one Friday I called to collect a friend from work and was approached by the Director of the programme and after a short chat he had persuaded me to apply for a job. He gave me an application form to complete and about three months later I was offered a job (of course having gone for interview in between times). So that was it, the following February I commenced work as a Residential Social Worker in a juvenile justice program and there I stayed for almost ten years.

This is me again (far right and no hat this time) with Susan Cater, Joe Markey and Thom Garfat, at the Nova Scotia Child and Youth care Workers Association Conference in 2005.

A favorite saying

In the work that we do we can achieve so much with kids and their families and yet this is seldom ‘recognized’. If a kid is viewed as ‘not doing well’ or ‘having a bad outcome’, we can be (and have been) described as ‘inept’ or ‘a waste of resources’. However, if a kid ‘is doing well’ or has ‘a good outcome’, then they ‘never needed our interventions anyway’. Because we do what we do for the kids and not for ourselves and because we must never seek or expect credit or reward, one of my favorite sayings, credited to Harry Truman is:

‘It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit’.

Of course being Irish we have many of out own sayings, such as: Ní neart go cur le chéile (There is no strength without Unity)

A few thoughts about child and youth care

We are a new and evolving discipline that has arisen from a need that others have not been able to meet and as of yet we don’t have all the answers (and may never have them). But so long as we keep looking and listening we will keep learning. Also, remember to keep it positive. As Eric Idle sang, ‘always look on the bright side of life’.

Last thing I read, watched, heard, which I would recommend to others

Pedagogy of Hope by Paulo Friere, I usually have a novel or two on the go at any given time and like to cross genres as much as possible. A book I finished recently called Secret Scripture was an incredible read and it has now been made into a movie ... I’m looking forward to see if they made it well.

A few thoughts for those starting out

Always remember we’re in it for the kids. As Thom Garfat reminds us all so often, ‘it is about ‘doing with’ the kids.

A recommended child and youth care reading link 

Garfat, T. (2008). The inter-personal in-between: An exploration of relational child and youth care practice. In Bellefueille, G. and Ricks, F. (Eds.) Standing on the precipice. Edmonton, Canada. MacEwan Press. pp. 8-9.

A writing of my own

This is the first in the series of 36 ‘Celtic Connection’ articles, co-written with my very good friend, Maxwell Smart. 

Influences on my work

Initially I being to think of the amazing and renowned influences in my career, such as (believe it or not) Sigmund Freud, Garfat (my friend and mentor), Brendtro and Maxwell.

Realizing that these wonderful people are all relatively recent influences, I need also to acknowledge my mum and dad. They made things better, made problems easier to cope with and were always there looking on in an unassuming, responsive and non-judgmental way (and that can’t have been easy with seven kids). Parents. I salute you both!

Finally, when considering where I get a chance to practice what I preach (and not always successfully) I must admit that I have been very influenced (on a daily basis) by Alison (my long suffering wife), Leanne, Hannah, Jake and Isaac my home grown guinea pigs, always reminding me of the complexities of life and relational care.

Anything else

‘So long and thanks for all the fish’ - Douglas Adams still shining through.


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