Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 December 2014

In from the wing to take walk on the wildlife side

The remit for these pieces is ‘ordinary people, extraordinary tales' and this week's subject fits the bill aptly.

Having never met the man before, he was kind enough to pick me up in his car when I arrived at the wrong destination. The back seat of the car was strewn with children's toys and the tell tale signs of a ‘dad rocker': Led Zeppelin CDs.

When we arrived at our actual destination, the ‘right' end of Belvoir Forest Park, he made me a cup of tea, and told me his story. A gaeilgeoir who plays rugby, read Law at Cambridge and likes to take a turn in the spotlight, Aodhan Connolly is originally a Portadown man, who now resides in the leafy suburbs of Holywood. It is obvious he is a ‘family man' at heart, but he is passionate about public affairs, the environment and history too.

Having worked mainly at the fundraising and PR end of a range of organisations, he is now public affairs manager at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, based at the charity’s headquarters in the south Belfast beauty spot.

He said: “I've been in the RSPB for about six months. When my son was born I was very into cultural heritage. In the past few years I've wanted to get into natural heritage. When this job came up it linked my passions, green issues and public affairs.”

He told me about how he gained an interest in wildlife: “In Portadown it was second nature to us. A lot of the time my dad worked from home so we would go on lots of nature walks; dad was always pointing out trees, birds, and all types of wildlife.

“It's stranger now where my parents live, there isn't the same amount of wildlife as there was when I was growing up.

“I've had an interest in all wildlife since I was young, I kind of fell out of touch with it in my 20s but in the past few years it has come back with a vengeance.”

Aodhan says his interest in the world around him helps him bond with his son.

“It's a great way for parents to spend time with their children without having to spend any money,” he said.

“I hope my son will look back fondly on it when he's my age and will be able to teach his children about wildlife.”

Aodhan, unexpectedly for a man from Portadown, speaks Irish fluently. He told me how he came to be a veritable poster boy for cross-cultural interaction. “My father was always interested in the Irish language, he spoke only in Irish to us and mum only spoke English though she understood Irish as well,” he said.

“That opened a lot of doors for me, it gave me a sense of place, of who I am. A couple of jobs I've had were in the Irish speaking sector. And once you've two languages you can learn to speak others.”

He added Danish, Norwegian, Italian, and Spanish, to name but a few, to his list of languages, but said he was not fluent in all. He should be able to get a beer wherever he goes though.

“I decided to do the same for our son,” he said. “Language and culture is open to everyone from this island. It has nothing to do with politics or exclusion, but is a rich heritage and part of everyone's life. My wife and I are from different backgrounds so our son can know more about our collective past.”

Of his sporting prowess, also of a cross-cultural nature Aodhan said: “For years I played Gaelic but at university, in Cambridge they didn't have many fixtures for Gaelic football teams. I was always a dirty GAA player so moving to rugby suited me to the ground.

“I play for Holywood Rugby Club now, but I'm not playing at the moment through injury, I still follow Holywood, Ulster and Ireland though.

“My wife's family are big into rugby, and I like it because in Holywood it is very welcoming to the community and an inclusive place.”

Aodhan spoke of his love of English which has led to his writing columns in local newspapers. “I've always had an interest in English. I was lucky to have good teachers at St Patrick's in Armagh. I didn't study A-level English but I wrote for the school magazine. At university I wrote for the student newspaper and do freelance for different publications,” he said.

“The column came up by accident, a friend of mine said I should try it out. I usually write features or news, but I can talk the leg off a donkey as my mum says, so I've done columns for a couple of papers. I wrote for the now defunct Irish Language newspaper An La and the old East Belfast Herald.”

He also said how he came to be such a outspoken character and of his outstanding moral compass.

“I used to do a lot of acting. I started off with Dennis McKeever, who was my mentor. He and some other people ran the Junior Phoenix Players in Portadown,” he said.

“I think that's the reason why I can do what I do now. It gave me a confidence to be able to stand up in front of people. In 2000 or 2001 I won the best actor in the Amateur Drama Festival, I was very lucky to win and to have such a great bunch of people I could work with.

“A big driver in whatever I do is a very strong sense of justice. If I see something unjust then I will have an opinion on it and I will get my point across. From small things like people parking in car parking spaced designated as parent and child when they shouldn't to big things like the cuts in the budget.”

He added: “There is still wastage and £4m has gone from the DOE budget, and there is the idea of a plastic bag levy. So the Government will try to get that £4m back on the bags. And that money goes on the environment. But for years we and other environmental charities have said we shouldn't be buying plastic bags.

“The Government and Executive should be smart enough to know that by not looking after the environment now it will open up more costs in the future.”

Like other charities, the RSPB is anxiously following the progress of the Executive towards its new budget.

“Although like every other charity we are concerned, we are hopeful that the Government will see sense and not be penny wise and pound foolish,” said Aodhan.

Aodhan also spoke of how his education led him to where he is now. “I'd always wanted to read Law, but when I got into it I realised it wasn't for me,” he said. “I had a good time at Cambridge though, I was president of the college students union, involved in student politics and met some wonderful people.

“It was a huge culture shock though for a naive boy from Portadown to go to Cambridge. It was very bohemian and cosmopolitan. It was a good experience though. I studied Modern History at Queen’s and enjoyed it much more.

“I was lucky to have the great David Hayton as a lecturer and he has continued to be a great friend. He once said, ‘Slaughter your darlings’, which means, when you've finished a piece of work you go back and take out what isn't needed. I've always tried to get clarity and conciseness in my work.”

Aodhan added: “I'm into historical books, anything from modern history, so basically from 1485 to 1800. I like Irish history, British history, but mostly social history, I like to know what the normal person thought. I'd like to do a PhD on the subject of how people got their news and spread it about before the advent of the media. I like the subject of folklore by mouth, of the ballads and oral histories.

“Some of the old ballads are as bawdy as The Sun is today. I would like to see what life was like for those other than kings and queens,” he added.

It is truly calming to know that the birds of Northern Ireland are so well represented by such a well spoken, polite and thoroughly interesting character. And whether those birds are Irish or, Northern Irish, he and they will be able to communicate.

If only the same could be said for the people on the island.

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