Ian McDonagh is busy these days. The 18-year-old Leaving Certificate student is studying for his exams. He is also working a 30-hour week as a healthcare assistant in a local nursing home.

"I've been working part-time in the nursing home since last year," he tells RTÉ News. "When the pandemic started I knew I could walk out, and concentrate on studying, but I thought 'why would I leave them in the bad days when they've been there for me in the good?’".

If the exams go ahead this summer the Merlin College, Galway student, who is a Traveller, will be the first in his family to sit the Leaving Certificate.

The nursing home sector has been badly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, with 50% of all deaths occurring among nursing home residents.

There has been no case of Covid-19 at the Bushfield Care Centre, were Ian works.

"I’m working mostly at the weekends," says Ian. "I took on an extra weekly shift when the pandemic broke out."

"I have a great relationship with the residents.

"Their families can’t come in so us healthcare assistants we are stepping into the family role. We are their shoulder to lean on"

"I’d have great times with the residents, sitting down getting stories off them and talking to them about the old days. They’d be educating me about their farms and stuff like that."


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Many of the residents, he says, come from farming backgrounds.

As to his school work, Ian says he is keeping on top of the homework that teachers are setting, "and I’m doing an extra bit of work on top of that," he adds.

He says his teachers are being really supportive.

At a time when many Leaving Certificate students are suffering stress and anxiety related to the postponement of the exams and the uncertainty that has arisen, Ian feels that the fact that he is working at the nursing home is helping his school work. He says it is giving him structure.

"It actually makes me want to study more. When I know I have to be in work I know I have to get the homework done."

"Then when I go into work I leave everything outside and I give my time and efforts to the residents who need me."

Ian is studying seven subjects for his Leaving Certificate. As well as English, Irish and Maths, he is also doing Biology, Home Economics, Geography, and Construction Studies.

Just 13% of Traveller students make it as far as the Leaving Cert.

Ian wants to become a garda when he leaves school. It is a dream he has had ever since he "fell in love with the uniform" as a small child. He wants to become a garda and be open about the fact that he is also a Traveller. "I want to break down barriers," he says. 

Ian says his parents are extremely supportive and are guiding him as much as they can. When asked are they proud of him he admits that they are.

Ian spoke at an Oireachtas committee hearing last year about the difficulties facing Traveller children in the education system.

About the exams and the closure of schools Ian says he feels the class of 2020 are being deprived of their education. "We don’t have our teachers in front of us".

"He is great. He has stepped in,,"  Adrienne Leonard, Clinical Nurse at Bushfield Care Centre, told RTÉ News.

"We really value Ian here. He has a great positive attitude. He is a team player and very good with the residents." 

Ian says he felt proud when he secured his part-time job at the care centre over a year ago. It's clear he feels a strong sense of loyalty towards the home.

"They are fantastic people, the residents, and the staff"

The fact that he is busy working in such an important setting has given him a perspective beyond the Leaving Cert. 

"I'm kept busy," this frontline worker laughs, "if I'm not studying I'm in work, but being here motivates me".