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Wednesday 18 July 2018

This is your day. Make your voices heard

Today, a nation of young people will take their places as strong, independent, creative individuals in society, writes Celine Naughton

Children ask the questions: Naomi Moonveld-Nkosi from The Ark Children's Council quizzes An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar about homelessness
Children ask the questions: Naomi Moonveld-Nkosi from The Ark Children's Council quizzes An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar about homelessness

Finally, it has arrived. Cruinniú na nÓg, Ireland's new national day celebrating creativity in children and young people today raises the curtain on an extraordinary array of cultural events for, by and about the bright, talented young generation of our country.

And it's all thanks to the youngsters who sparked a 21st Century cultural revolution when they so enthusiastically engaged with the centenary celebrations of the 1916 Easter Rising two years ago, paving the way for the Creative Ireland programme that was born out of that remarkable anniversary.

Sarah Fitzgerald from Kinsale: 'Reading transports you to another world'. Photo: Mark Condren
Sarah Fitzgerald from Kinsale: 'Reading transports you to another world'. Photo: Mark Condren

This is their day, and these are their voices - a nation of young people taking their places in society not as adults-in-waiting, but as strong, independent, creative individuals in their own right.

Sarah Fitzgerald from Kinsale, Co Cork, is one of them. The 14-year-old is passionate about literature and having just finished second year at Kinsale Community School, she has already achieved more than many would-be writers many times her age. By the age of seven, she had written five books of short stories, the proceeds of which she donated to the Ronald McDonald House at Crumlin Children's Hospital.

More recently, she appeared on last December's Late Late Toy Show as a book reviewer. Then last January Sarah emphatically demonstrated her interest in books again when she appeared as a finalist in the BT Young Scientist Exhibition with her project entitled 'A Statistical Investigation into the Decline in Reading Among Ireland's Youth and How We Can Prevent This From Impacting Future Generations.'

Having surveyed 1,000 students across the country, Sarah found that 35pc of those polled prefer to watch TV or use their phones than read, 43pc of people didn't join a library because it was too time-consuming, and more than half were not members of libraries. The survey also noted a decline in reading as children reached the ages of 13 to 16 years.

An Grianán Youth Theatre in Letterkenny has offered Feargal Lonergan a chance to explore all aspects of theatre and performance
An Grianán Youth Theatre in Letterkenny has offered Feargal Lonergan a chance to explore all aspects of theatre and performance

"Young people engage more with social media as a way of feeling socially accepted, and the increased workload in secondary school also has an impact," says Sarah, whose love of literature stems from her own early introduction to storytelling.

"I was read to most nights as a child," she says. "I love books. Reading transports you to another world. It helps you relax, reduces stress, and improves concentration, writing and cognitive skills, as well as the ability to converse with other people."

It's certainly helped hone Sarah's writing skills: she's currently about to start a blog on writing.ie, and hopes to write her first novel this year. She also works as a book reading ambassador, attending events like Listowel Writers Week, and talking to young people in libraries and schools about the importance of reading.

"Schools are a better place, because I can reach more people who might not be reading. Students hear from adults all day, so it's good to hear from someone their own age for a change.

"Sometimes they tell me they can't find the right book. I say start off with something you're interested in and find a book about that. Harry Potter is one of my all-time favourites, but I don't have favourite authors. I read the blurb on the back and if it draws me in, I read it. For me it's all about the book, not the author."

Sarah recently presented submissions to the Government on ways to encourage young people to read. "One suggestion is to launch a Books Trust, like in the UK, and provide a box of books for free to all children at six months of age," she says. "Encouraging reading at as early an age as possible is the best start. I was lucky, but not every house has books."

Sarah is not the only young person to come to the attention of people in high places. On Universal Children's Day last November, 30 members of The Ark Children's Council trooped over to Leinster House to put a series of questions posed by children across Ireland to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Naomi Moonveld-Nkosi was the first to ask a question.

"Let's start with an easy one," said Mr Varadkar.

"Can you give houses to the homeless?" asked Naomi.

While the children listened to the Taoiseach's considered response, Naomi was unfazed by her first experience of the corridors of power.

"Children are as important as adults," says the 11-year-old from Ongar in Dublin 15. "A lot of children's voices are not heard, and we have to stand up for each other, no matter how rich or poor we are."

The daughter of an Estonian mother and a South African father, Naomi took the opportunity to draw the Taoiseach's attention to the run-down state of her local playground.

"Mr Varadkar has an office in our community, so he said he'd talk to some people and try to work something out," she says.

The Ark in Dublin's Temple Bar provides access to the arts and culture for children from the ages of two to 12. Each year it appoints a new Children's Council, giving a group of 5th class children access to events at The Ark for a year and participation in a range of activities.

Meeting once a month with an artist-in-residence, council members take part in bespoke drama workshops, get to work behind the scenes with Ark staff and collaborate on events throughout the year.

"They also give us feedback and this influences our decision-making," says Project Co-ordinator Liam McCarthy. "They're like a mini board of management and constantly amaze us with their blue-sky thinking."

The next council will be recruited in July, but before then current members have put together a mini-festival for today's Cruinniú na nÓg

"Called 'Still Loading,' it's a mixture of different pieces of drama that aren't yet finished," says 11-year-old Conn Butler from Cabra. "As council members, we're not the ones doing the drama, but we've helped organise things behind the scenes. We'll introduce the different pieces to the audience and arrange a Q&A after each performance.

"This will be our last session as the 2017-18 Ark Children's Council. It's been a really interesting experience that taught me a lot about creativity - not always having to think the same way, but thinking outside the box. I got to meet people I didn't think I'd ever meet, like Brad Bird, the director of films like 'Ratatouille' and 'The Incredibles'. That was really cool.

"As council members, we're meant to be a voice for the children of Dublin, and I feel very privileged to have been able to do that."

In Donegal, Feargal Lonergan found his tribe in An Grianán Youth Theatre, where he's been not only treading the boards but exploring other aspects of theatre and performance, from scriptwriting to stand-up comedy. And now, having completed the Leaving Cert, the 18-year-old hopes to do a drama degree in Trinity College Dublin.

"When I started secondary school here in Letterkenny, it was an all-boys school with a lot of sporting activities, which I'm not into, so theatre gave me the social outlet I needed," he says. "It also helped me grow as a person, as I was fairly quiet and reserved.

"I don't get nervous acting on stage, although stand-up can be terrifying because you have no character to hide behind. I'm glad I tried it, but my preference so far is for writing, because a writer has a lot more creative control. Instead of being part of somebody else's creativity, I want to make my own."

The performer he most admires is writer and Olivier Award-winning actor Pat Kinevane, whose one-man play, 'Silent,' is about a homeless man who has lost everything, including his mind.

"It was so powerful, I could never look at homeless people in the same way again," says Feargal. "That's the power of theatre - it can make the humanity of other people so real that the audience can see things in a new way."

An Grianán is one of 57 members of Youth Theatre Ireland, a network of local theatre groups that puts the needs of children and young people centre stage in their communities. The benefits of youth theatre are widely acknowledged. It provides a safe environment where young people can express themselves creatively. It promotes confidence and communication skills, and gives youngsters a chance to meet other people and discuss issues important to them.

To find out what's going on in your area, check out the 'Find a Youth Theatre' menu on youththeatre.ie.

For some reason, Westmeath is the only county not to have a YTI-affiliated youth theatre. If anybody from the Lake County - or anywhere else - would like to set up a youth theatre in their community, the first step is to connect with interested parties on the ground, according to Youth Theatre Ireland Director Michelle Carew.

"Talk to your local arts centre, arts officer, youth services, amateur dramatics society and parents' organisations," she says. "Find out who's interested and what amenities are available. But above all, engage with the young people in your area. Find out what kind of youth theatre they want.

"Adults can provide the framework and supports, but the level of ownership and decision-making lies firmly with the young people. We can guide you through the steps in setting up a youth theatre, but it has to respond to the needs of the young people concerned. They're at the heart of the process."

Irish Independent

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