Stories of Irish Home Educated Adults, No.1 Jude Duffy

I met this lovely young man about thirty years ago when he was two years old.

It was a treat to catch up with him today and listen to his reflections on growing up without state education.

He attended no formal education until he was 28.

He has had a varied career including horse training, carpentry, bar work, teaching English, playing poker professionally and  teaching poker.

He has traveled widely and lived in several countries.

He’s articulate, reflective, humorous and great company.

I hope you enjoy his insights. I find him very inspirational.

Home Educated Adults No. 1 Jude Duffy




Stories of Irish adults who were home educated

When I first heard about home education in 1987, an English family in Kilkenny told me Bunreacht na hÉireann explicitly states that parents are a child’s primary educators.

They were the first home birthing, natural immune boosting, learning at home family I’d ever met.

I owe a lot to the time I spent with them: observing, chatting, reading their John Holt books and “Education Otherwise” newsletters.

I had SERIOUS doubts that it worked.

What if my children FAILED at life because I made a counter-cultural decision?

Would they be able to fend for themselves?

Would they find a place to use their talents and bless the world with their gifts?

4 are adults now with 2 more younger ones, not quite at the “leave the nest” stage.

I feel confident enough to state that without perfect parenting (!), they are doing grand.

And I am collecting stories of Irish unschooled children who are now adults, to add insight to some published accounts from Australia, UK, USA and elsewhere.

I’ll be posting stories here – and videos if I can sort the tech – mainly thinking of myself at 19, with my 1st child then 9 months old, and the reassurance I needed.

They are a fascinating bunch.

They aren’t ALL long-haired, guitar-picking, living off welfare, (insert your own stereotype of non-conformists 😉).

Some are, of course. They are kinda lovely too. Even the ones with short hair.. 😉

Daddy’s First Anniversary

For father’s day


This time last year, we were keeping a vigil in the hospital as Daddy was nearing his end. My sister, who with her family, took care of him for the last four years in their home, and before that, with increasing worry as he tried to live safely alone, phoned me to say he was in the ambulance. There was something different about this call. I packed a small bag, told the children I would be back but was unsure when and drove the hour to the hospital.
He was in a room in A & E and we waited for 2 of our 4 brothers to arrive. He was moved to a ward and the 4 of us waited that night til his breathing got easier. The next day, Friday 18th October, he was moved to a single room and the Celtic spiral “end of life” signs were hung…

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Affirming life, especially when threatened..

Today, I spent serious shopping time looking for the perfect cup.
A frivolous activity, you say?
Well, yes.
I agree.
Today, people died for want of clean drinking water
and I already have MY perfect cup.
This search today was to find a cup for my mother.

Mum with her first grandchild, Darragh, in 1986

Mum with her first grandchild, Darragh, in 1986

I have PLENTY of mugs.
Big ones.
Fat ones.
Small ones.
But my mother likes her tea from a china cup.
With a thin lip. So I searched diligently.
I checked in the St. Vincent de Paul shop.
No luck.
I got one that ALMOST ticked all the boxes, ironically in the Sue Ryder shop.
I say ironically, as that’s the charity that funds the housing complex where Mum lives.
When she comes out of hospital after surgery and radiotherapy, I’ll have the PERFECT cup for her.
That’s a promise.

On Being Responsible

I’m the eldest child in a family of 6. Somehow, by direct instruction or osmosis, I got the idea that I had to be in charge and the misbehaviour of my siblings was my fault. I hesitate typing those words as I see how stark that seems. I mean no blame to attach to my parents, who were doing their level best to feed, clothe and educate us. I also do not blame my siblings. We could be a loud, argumentative bunch as well as being caring, unemotionally demonstrative, confiding, unsympathetic, generous, selfish, etc. etc.

Like lots of families we all know, then!

(This may be similar to your own family of origin or maybe even the family you have created.)

So then, at a very young age, when I was 19, I assumed the awesome responsibility of parenting my own baby.

As a lone parent.

With my parents doting on their grandchild and despairing of me in equal measure.

I was the absolute best mother that I could possibly be. I say this without pride, I hope, and just the amount of self-awareness that I can muster at the distance of 28 years.

I was a good patient in the maternity hospital so my son and I suffered unnecessary separation.
I made choices I have since regretted (vaccination) or not repeated with later babies (staying out of maternity hospitals and planning home births (good choice!), and when I “had” to go in, asking questions to get myself and baby more humane, less conveyor belt, “sure everyone does it” care).
And I made new mistakes on each baby.

Somehow, we have emerged from my searching and seeking, chopping and changing, to still be on speaking terms,
a testament to the power of love and self sacrifice and the innate human decency and forgiveness which I choose to believe are human traits.

I did have a moment of revelation, caused by what specifically, I have no idea at this distance. A child was saying he was bored or unhappy from some cause or other and (I hope) without utterly invalidating the expressed feelings, I said:


I think it can creep up on us, when of course, in infancy, we are responsible for our children’s very lives. We breastfeed, clean, love and adore them or they would die, physically and emotionally. And gradually they gain independence and can meet their own needs for food and dressing themselves, entertaining and learning, following their interests, with our encouragement, at best, or without too much interference.

So I’m not sure when that changed, my being responsible for EVERYTHING to letting go of what the child could do or manage. It’s gradual and evolving, not static or always forward-moving.

But it was powerful to hear myself say it, to articulate a message, the truth of which I was only beginning to fully appreciate.

And I would love to say that from then on, I didn’t hover around my children’s emotions but hey! I’m only human!

Books I read in 2014

I LOVE having others recommend books to me… so I’m going to tell you a few books I read this year and perhaps you’ll find a new friend for your shelves.

Roddy Doyle’s “A greyhound of a girl” entertained and moved me. I liked John B. Keane’s “The Bodhrán makers” and Frank O’Connor’s “An Only Child”.

I enjoyed Charles Frazier’s “Thirteen Moons”.

It wasn’t as affecting as his “Cold Mountain” but still an amazing read, as a 12 year old narrator is given a key, a horse and a map and sent to run a trading post at the edge of the Cherokee Nation.
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Of course, as usual I re-read Anita Shreve’s “The Pilot’s Wife”.

I LOVE this book. I live differently after I read it. I got it in 2000 when I was pregnant with Oran. It was free with a box of tea bags and I was very dubious that it could be insightful or moving but it proved to be both.
She published her new book “The Lives of Stella Bain” which harked back to an earlier novel, which I can’t name or it would spoil the twist!

Kinta Beevor’s “A Tuscan Childhood” is autobiographical and evokes the landscape and artistic milieu of the author’s family.

I’m currently reading Barbara Ehrenreich “Smile or Die” which is a perfect antidote for anyone who’s fed up with the devotion to “The Secret” by Rhonda Byrne. I get the theory of the Law of Attraction and creating vibrations to attain our desires, but the die-hard proponents of the theory seem sadly lacking in compassion to me… if you take the theory to its logical conclusion, then EVERYONE deserves their circumstances, and my 47 years have shown me that’s nonsense; we all need to help each other and be sympathetic and empathetic, rather than judgemental. Ms. Ehrenreich’s personal experience is with breast cancer treatment and what she identified as a dangerous addiction to preaching positivity to ill and depressed people.

I found two John Holt books which I hadn’t read before: “Instead of Education” and “Freedom and Beyond”. Like so much he’s written, I found myself nodding along.

I’m re-reading Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations” after studying it 33 years ago for my English exam. I usually read very fast but am trying to deliberately slow down and savour his brilliant story of Pip, Joe and Mrs. Gargery, Miss Havisham and Estella.

For Christmas, as well as a bookshop voucher, I got a copy of Charlotte Bronte’s “Villette” which looks brilliant – based on her own experiences teaching in Brussels. The cover says it’s about bearing repressed feelings and cruel circumstances with heroic fortitude.

The book which has had all of the older family members laughing this Christmas is the compilation of satirical news stories from Waterford Whispers News.
One of our favourite spoof stories was:

WWN story

And this one:

I’m reading Roald Dahl’s “Esio Trot” to Eamonn and we are both loving the story of Mr. Hoppy who loves his neighbour, widowed Mrs. Silver, and gains her love by “magically” helping her to achieve the dream of having her per tortoise grow bigger.
Anthony Hopkins, playing C. S. Lewis in “Shadowlands” says “we read to know we’re not alone”, (quoting a student’s father, I think, who was a primary school teacher). That phrase stays with me and I feel there’s truth in it. I guess it’s why the breastfeeding, home birth and home education newsletters are so important to me from my memberships of these support groups. I have old newsletters from MANY years ago (20, even) and I know they may seem superfluous now that all information appears available on-line (for a fraction of the cost of felling a tree) but I am SO GRATEFUL for the trees and process that produces paper for me to hold. I can’t imagine nursing a small baby with a phone or screen in hand instead of a newsletter or book!
Here’s to many happy hours reading in 2015!

The Christmas Box from America

I grew up listening to lots of radio. Radio 1 was the soundtrack of my childhood. This time of year, there would be plays, letters and essays read out about an author’s Christmas from a previous year. A common feature, especially if the author was from the west of Ireland, was the arrival, to great fanfare, of a box of gifts from relatives in the United States of America. I remember talk of parcels of clothes which would be worn to Church for Midnight Mass. There was a touch of the exotic about these gifts. The clothes would be new and unusual, not the staple fare of a drapery in a small country town.
With my mother’s family living in Australia, we would receive calendars with photos of landmarks there. At least once, a box with clothes arrived. My Aunty Fran sent her daughter Judith’s beautiful white dress which I wore for my Confirmation ceremony.
My mother’s Christmas present one year was to call her mother and sister in Brisbane for 45 precious minutes. The price of that call was £45. This must have been in the early 1980’s.
We just got off the phone with my eldest, Darragh, who lives in Maui, Hawaii. Last week we spoke to him for almost 4 hours, at a cost of the princely sum of €5.
But this evening, joy of joys, the box of gifts he put together for us arrived.

Elva and Eamonn with the box from Darragh in America

Elva and Eamonn with the box from Darragh in America

Such excitement! Such joy!
Among the thoughtful and carefully chosen presents, was a box of 12 packs of BRAND NEW PLAYING CARDS!!! A gentle comment on how often we have been about to play a game of cards, only to discover that the Queen of Hearts and Knave of Spades have gone gallivanting somewhere, only to be discovered shivering disconsolately, down the side of a chair or under the couch, or cunningly, masquerading as a bookmark in some tome on the shelf.
Eamonn sorting a new pack of cards

Sometimes happiness really is in the SMALL things.
Darragh won’t be at our table this Christmas time to share dinner and woeful jokes from crackers. But it feels as though we are very close, just the same.

Waiting for Christmas

I love this time of year; this season waiting for the birthday of Jesus. I love choosing which photo of the children to send out with Christmas cards to faraway relatives and friends. My overseas card destinations include: Australia, USA, Germany, France, Italy, England and Wales.
Advent and Christmas can seem like a time of traditions: for us, always having a real tree is important. A family can often be a clash/compromise of the parents’ family-of-origin traditions. My birth family valued home made decorations with a minimum of tinsel and glitter. We would make coloured paper chains and string them around the kitchen and the room Granny called “the parlour”.

Home made decorations and tinsel co-existing peacefully!

Home made decorations and tinsel co-existing peacefully!

I like to wait until the last Sunday of Advent to get the tree decorated but this year, the excitement of the younger people has been at fever pitch and the tree is in situ, its lights winking cheerfully, wrapped gifts beginning to appear from hiding places in bedrooms and cupboards, and a fervent hope that our kitten’s playfulness won’t extend to clawing through any wrapping paper until the day itself.

Our Christmas tree

Our Christmas tree

Angel on our tree

Angel on our tree

This year, Elva (11) organised the Advent wreath and it is often lit during meals.


The crib is very important.

The Crib, awaiting the birth of Jesus

The Crib, awaiting the birth of Jesus

It is set up way ahead, with Mary, Joseph and the donkey having to make a long journey around the windows until Christmas Eve.

The 3 Wise Men start out at the same time, from a different direction, and don’t get to arrive until the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th.


Mary, Joseph and donkey

Mary, Joseph and donkey

I heard a psychologist speaking about why Christmas is so important and why we have such high expectations (often dashed) of how we hope to FEEL. She talked of how people with insecure attachments often had the greatest unmet expectations at this time. They make a big deal of the season but can be terribly disorganised. She had some lovely phrases about how often the “kin-keeping” falls to women, who seem to be particularly charged with doing the “work of belonging”. She advised that we would all be mindful of who is doing the social labour and support each other and be gentle with ourselves if the task of making the season joyful falls mainly on our shoulders.

I wish you joy as you make memories with your kin.

Our 6 year old: learning to spell and read

Learning to read… that magic when the squiggles on the page become something you can decipher!
This is not a “how to” post, merely a description of what’s happening now for our youngest, the 6th child to learn to read from our family. He’s aged 6 years and 11 months.

Yes, I know I could have taught him years ago. (My mother had Glen Doman’s “Teach your baby to read” which describes a process of using flash cards and having a fluent reader, aged 2 years).

Yes, I know I could have read up on all the latest teaching fashions.. it was Letterland in Ireland for some of his older brothers at this stage, who are now aged 19 and 21. Now many schools seem to be using Jolly Phonics.

Yes, I know I could get exercised about whether phonics or whole word methods are preferable. I could engage in heated debates regarding the orthodoxy of teaching reading methods.


A little Secret…

I have NEVER TAUGHT a child to read!!!
Or spell!!!
Or do times tables!!!
There… sue me!!!

Here’s what I did:

I read books.
And newspapers.
And magazines.
I got membership newsletters from La Leche League, the Home Birth Association of Ireland, “Sa Bhaile” (former Irish newsletter for home ed.), Home Education Network, the Miscarriage Association of Ireland, the Irish Haemophilia Society, The Mother magazine and before that, The Compleat Mother.
I borrowed copies of “Education Otherwise” magazines and John Holt’s “Growing Without Schooling”.
So I’d be nursing a baby/toddler/older child(!) and reading.
Whatever I wanted to read.
I read Jane Austen, Maeve Binchy, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Ina May Gaskin, Marian Keyes, Sheila Kitzinger, Alexander McCall Smith, Anita Shreve….

So all the children here think books are sacred.. and important… and worth looking at everyday. They picked up the idea (along with mother’s breastmilk?) that words have power and magic and are enjoyable and a GOOD THING.

I never told them they SHOULD read.

I just read.

For myself.

I read to them too, of course… we read Walter Macken and Shirley Hughes and C.S. Lewis and Dr. Seuss and Tolkien and Enid Blyton and Michael Morpugo and J. K. Rowling…

We went to the library and borrowed books on tape and CD.

So last night at a time that was more than 2 hours later than his notional (more honoured in the breach than in the observance) “bed time”, Eamonn (6) said:

“Will you snuggle me?”
“How do you spell ‘snuggle’?… NO! WAIT!!”
Deep quiet thinking..
“S… N…G… now wait, DON’T tell me…”
More thinking, I swear I could hear the cogs turn in his brain, or the synapses firing..
“S.. N.. U.. G”
“Well done! ” I said. “You got SNUG .. now, you just need the “gle” sound…”
More thinking..
Let me remind you, he is not yet a reader. So SNUGGL is a pretty brilliant try, I think.

I’ll keep you posted!