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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Learning to read

This feels like the biggest home educating milestone, doesn’t it? Still, 27 years into our home educating adventure, I’m not sure how the process happens.. but with a span of 6 children we have seen a variety of approaches and outcomes. I made the Montessori sandpaper letters for Darragh… but he was a year old and they were packed away in one of our many moves (14 in his first 8 years!) by the time they might have interested him. My mother had a copy of Glen Doman’s “Teach Your Baby to Read” but I was trying to be less parent- led about the process. He wasn’t a fan of flash cards.

He LOVED the Teenage Mutant Hero (Ninja) Turtles. So he was 4 years old and we we were walking back from Bushy Park in Dublin and he said “there’s Raphael’s letter” when he saw an “R” on a manhole cover on the road. Hmmm… maybe there’s some truth in this theory that children learn according to their interests,  my 23 year old self mused. We collected various props along our travels… magnetic letters being a favourite. All upper case because “PDBQ” are very different as capitals but “pdbq” are all the same shape, just oriented differently.

We read books. We listened to stories on tape: early 90s folks! (before CDs were much than a twinkle in some-one’s eye). The whole reading thing came together for Darragh before he turned 9, which didn’t seem late or early to me by then; it just WAS. The next 2 boys, Oisín and Emmet, read a Level 1 Ladybird (“3 Little Pigs” and “Little Red Hen”) around the age of 6 1/2 and were reading fluently and for pleasure 2 years later. There was a stage when Darragh stopped reading for his own enjoyment, it seemed to me. (Co-incidentally or maybe not? he went to school aged 12 years and 10 months.) He would read to his younger brothers, though. I tried all sorts. I bought “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”. No interest.  I took out a year’s subscription to an astronomy magazine. The last few month’s envelopes lay unopened. I bought football magazines. Then when he was 14, he was given a copy of “The Lord of the Rings” and he’s been an avid reader ever since. He had finished his early school experiment by then, and came out after completing first year of secondary school. Tolkien remains a family favourite and the younger 5 all like Harry Potter.

“Letterland” was all the rage when Oisín and Emmet were beginning to read and we bought one book each but they were nearly £5 in old money, at least twice as expensive as other books and it felt a bit gimmicky to me.

Elva went from reading a Ladybird Level 1 to an Enid Blyton “Secret 7” 4 months before she turned 9, and by that birthday she had read the 7 Harry Potter books. She generally has at least 4 books on the go and will take at least 2 books on any journey, even if it’s to the post office or some quick errand.

Eamonn is 6 and sometimes demands “teach me to read!” when an older sibling tells him he needs to learn so he can take part in whatever board game they’re playing. He’s writing his own book and learning some words, but the “switch” isn’t quite there… when those squiggles all make sense.

A lovely souvenir we have for each child is a book of pictures and photographs with a line dictated by the child e.g.

“Here is Oisín’s family”.

“This is a giraffe”.

“We saw monkeys at the zoo”.

I made them from photo albums with photos, pictures form magazines and index cards with the words the child said.

I love that books and stories and words and ideas are important to everyone in the family and that most of the children see themselves as authors who are writing their own tales (with a heavy emphasis on mediaeval sagas:swords and horses feature alot!)

Learning and Teaching

Learning and Teaching

This will seem SO OBVIOUS to seasoned unschoolers/home educators (so I ask for your tolerance) but it is still one of the most common misconceptions we try to explore when people ask questions about why our children learn at home for their early years.
The most common question after
“Are you a teacher?” (NO!) “.. don’t need to be; children LEARN!
“Aren’t you worried about socialisation?” (NO!)

is actually not really even asked. It’s clear that people think whichever adult is at home with the children needs to know ALL the answers; that we sit with the same books as our children’s same-aged peers; that we are at desks with a timetable. Some homeschoolers fit this perception, obviously, but an increasing number, in my experience, are on the unschooling continuum. Especially as they gain confidence with just how much children want to learn, many parents are reassured and realise that Minecraft, music or learning to perform magic tricks can be routes to literacy, numeracy, self-confidence and all the traits, knowledge and skills we’d like our children to possess and understand.
I have some sympathy with the belief that effective education at home involves an adult “knowing more” and imparting this knowledge to the children. I am reminded of a lovely geography teacher who explained to us in our teen years that we were “empty vessels” and she a jug, going to fill us with knowledge….
I met my first home educating family when I was 19 and my first child, Darragh was 9 months old. Some days the 8 and 10 year olds sat at the kitchen to do a page of maths and English after the cow was milked and the sheep were fed and the sticks had been brought in for the fires and the compost bin had been emptied. I read their John Holt books, “How Children Learn”, “How Children Fail” and I watched the family go about their lives with the discussion and endless questions that to me are the key to our children’s (and our own) learning.
So I took a deep breath. Darragh learned to walk and to climb stairs without me deciding when he should. Maybe I could TRUST his other (more academic?) learning would unfold like this?
But I did sign up to a correspondence Montessori course so if we were stuck, I’d have a way to “TEACH”.. forgive me, I was 19.
I was always grateful for the time I spent learning about the Montessori approach (I worked briefly in a Montessori school in the USA) and the respect for children she exemplified. Her book “The Absorbent Mind” is a classic, in my humble opinion. But I don’t think it ever fulfilled the reason I undertook it, to enable me to TEACH something, if I were stuck..
You could be the most gifted communicator. You could have prepared the most beautiful lesson plan. You could have engaging resources and props and tools to hand. You may have catered for the child’s dominant learning style, whether that be auditory, visual, kinaesthetic, or whatever.
But if your chosen “student” is not receptive to whatever your subject or topic is, you will have a very frustrating session.
Children LEARN… children love learning, they are on fire about the things that they passionate about. What I have learned over the 28 years of being my children’s learning companion, is to sometimes just BE.. Don’t try to explain everything unless asked, don’t try to turn every experience into a “learning opportunity”.
Just breathe.
As Alison McKee says in “Homeschooling our children, unschooling ourselves” , she had to train herself to stop killing the love her children had for topics, by learning not to butt in, with helpful suggestions or commands about making them document or record or quantify whatever their particular passion was.
As John Holt advises:

Bye Bye Baby

This is hard to write.
Two years ago, October 10th 2012, I lost a little boy in a miscarriage at 16 weeks.
I had known for 2 weeks that we might not get to keep this little guy. I had begun to bleed a little and had a scan which showed he had gotten to 12 weeks (he should have measured 14 weeks gestation at this stage) but now had no heartbeat. I remember the feeling of devastation when the midwife showed me the ultrasound, my first with this pregnancy. She was concerned because Elva, then 10, was beside me. Elva has seen kittens and pups born and is robust about birth and babies. Eddie was outside in the waiting room with a young foster child. It all felt surreal and wrong.
Just wrong.
No heartbeat.
No life left.
No Baby to birth in joy.
The midwife was concerned that I wanted to be at home.
“I’d like to avoid a D & C,” I explained.
“Your Baby’s too big for that,“ she said gently. “It has to be an induced labour if you stay in.”
We had talked about our families. She had two children and had grown up with fostered siblings.
“You have a lot of people depending on you,” she said.
We had the last 4 of our 6 birthed at home with a midwife. The idea of being in hospital to have the loss of our Baby medically managed just didn’t feel right.
She was caring and empathic. She didn’t tell me I was young (I was 45!) and that I had plenty of time for other babies. She didn’t say I was lucky to have 6 children and other foster children. She was respectful and concerned and I am forever grateful for her kindness.
I got a text from a friend involved in birth and breastfeeding activism.
“Whatever you do” she emphasised “DO NOT take misoprostol.” I didn’t ask why and I didn’t do a google search to find out what effects the drug has. This was as much of my power as I could hand over. I trusted K and her suggestions for homoeopathic help.
The midwife went to consult with an obstetrician.
She returned to tell me that the opinion was I’d do okay at home, but would I please come in if I bled profusely? and in the meantime, make an appointment for a scan in an month’s time?

Then she gave me a coffin.

About 14 inches long.
Lined with satin.
A white coffin with a cross on it.

I had nothing to conceal it in. My bag wasn’t large enough. She wrapped it in a blue and white incontinence mattress protector. I walked out of that hospital past women with lovely bumps and Babies in car seats and Babies in buggies. Babies with futures ahead of them… while mine was dead inside me and I didn’t want to upset any of them with the sight of the coffin.

I know the statistics. I know how common miscarriage is. I know how many women report pregnancy loss. But I thought of none of that. It was irrelevant when what matters is: I loved this Baby I’d been talking to in the bath every night, promising to give her (I called her Maireád – Irish for Margaret – until I realised she was a he) a lovely pregnancy and peaceful birth and glorious infancy and the BEST I could manage.

So we came home.
And waited.
Labour can be exhilarating, frustrating, tough, painful, ecstatic, empowering.
Labour when your baby is dead is cruel.

My neighbour loaned me her angel figurine. She buried a son and this is her symbol for him.

After another 10 days, A made me up a herbal concoction. It was AWFUL. But after 48 hours, I had a real labour.

And no-one warned me that he would come out head first, all 8cm of him, and there’d be a pause, just like a real live Baby-labour, before the rest of him emerged and the placenta came out 20 minutes later, like on all my births.

We had our new Priest come to bless him with our mothers present. I thought he‘d use some appropriate scripture:
“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.“
“I have carved you on the palm of my hand“ – all the uplifting words of the prophet Isaiah. I was amazed that he had a whole service of prayers in his breviary which were specifically designed for this occasion.

“Have you picked a name?” Fr. asked.
Eddie suggested Michael. It’s my fathers’ name. My grandfather’s name. My brothers’ name. Three of my twenty-one first cousins are called Michael. I don’t call Babies after others in the family, though I think the name is beautiful. But all I had was Maireád Catherine so that wouldn’t do. So Michael it was. Two days later, I woke with a start, saying “Daniel!” So I’m not sure.

After two days we buried him, where I can see the spot from our bedroom. The coffin just didn’t seem appropriate and H crocheted him a white blanket so we wrapped him in that.

What I’d like people to understand is the sorrow so many parents feel they have to conceal because our culture does not acknowledge this tremendous loss.
“It could be worse!” a family member said.
To my credit, I still am civil to that person.
Some people sent cards or texts or email messages. Many people prayed and sent love and healing thoughts. Some people brought food. It was so comforting to have acknowledgement that he was real, and though brief, his life was important.

The Miscarriage Association of Ireland has a Remembrance Service in November every year, support meetings and a newsletter. I bring my mother to the Service. She lost 5 of my siblings in miscarriage. We sit and listen, light candles and cry. We buy the Association’s Christmas cards as it’s something we can do, in the season when we celebrate babies and life and children, for the ones we didn’t get to carry for very long.

Sometimes all I need is not to feel alone.

Birth affects us all

Because how we are born can have a huge impact on our lives.

Because how a woman gives birth can determine how she feels about herself and her baby.

Because a birth where a woman feels safe and supported gives her an edge when she mothers that baby.

Because breastfeeding is so much more enjoyable when you don’t have stitches in your abdomen or an episiotomy repair.

Because home birth midwives and mothers remind us that respecting the needs of labouring women is part of being humane.

Because I want sane birth to be an option for my grandchildren.

Because we were all unborn, because we all got born, because most of us will be parents.

These are a few of the reasons why I will be at the Dáil on Wed at 10.30am to support midwife Philomena Canning and the 25 mothers who engaged her services, and had their right to have her superlative care terminated brutally by the HSE.

Hope to see you there if you care about PEOPLE in any shape or form!