BUSY rearing five children and running a thriving B&B, Maura Dever never had the time to do what she really wanted -- become a nurse.
So when the opportunity arose to go back to college, the 50-year-old mother from Westport, Co Mayo, grabbed it with both hands. She is now a first-year nursing student at GMIT Castlebar -- and she loves it.
But yesterday, she was one of the more than 3,000 student nurses and midwives who took to the streets of Dublin for a rally at the Department of Health in protest against government plans to wind down payments for final-year student nurses.
"I absolutely love nursing -- it's everything I dreamed it would be," Maura said. "But financially it's going to be very tight in fourth year if they don't pay us. I'd be worried about building up debts.
"We were told we'd be getting this payment and now they're taking it away without any consultation whatsoever -- it was like telling a bold child 'you're not getting anything'."
SIPTU nursing official Louise O'Reilly, addressing the rally, warned that nurses would "punish" those who made the decision in the forthcoming general election.
Psychiatric Nurses Association general secretary Des Kavanagh described it as the biggest protest of student nurses held in this country.
With samba drums loudly banging and three tiny children heading up the protest, the student nurses marched from Parnell Square down O'Connell Street in Dublin to a chant from the seven dwarves: "Heigh ho, heigh ho, it's off to work we go. We work all day, we get no pay, heigh ho, heigh ho."
Their banners bore captions such as: "Be Fair to those who care"; "No Pay, no way"; "I am a vote"; and "I don't want to be a stripper".
On arrival at the Department of Health on Hawkins Street, the chants grew louder and several heads bobbed into view at the windows as officials peeped out at the protesters. One department worker even sneaked a photograph.
Health Minister Mary Coughlan last week asked the secretary-general of her department to carry out a review of the decision to abolish student nurse payments from 2015.
Government officials estimate that the cuts would generate savings of €28m.
The unions are meeting with Fianna Fail today to discuss the issue.