After 35 years as principal of the Education Centre at Loughan House Open Centre, Blacklion, Brenda McMullan could tell many a story of what she has experienced in the Irish Prison Service and the brilliant effect education has had on the people who have gone through the system.

As she begins a new journey with her retirement, she looks back on her time at Loughan House through the rough and the smooth very fondly

Originally from Cavan, Brenda relocated to Enniskillen many years ago in order to work in Loughan House with the Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board (CMETB).

After qualifying as a teacher from University College Dublin (UCD) in the late 70s during a recession in the country, Brenda got the opportunity to work in Arbor Hill Prison as she began the journey as a teacher before moving to the Blacklion prison five years later.

“When I qualified from UCD in the late 70s, prison education was just starting to open up,” recalled Brenda. “I mean up until then there was no education department within our prisons and at that time there was yet another recession and full time jobs were very hard to come by.

“I was 25 at the time I was kind of bowled over by the whole idea and I had all sorts of perceptions watching too many American movies thinking they would be going round in chain gangs, in striped uniforms with their numbers on their back.

“When I think of it now how ridiculous but at the time that was very real to me.”

Brenda believes that she and her colleagues who entered into the prison education system at the time were leading the way at that time.

“When I look back, we didn’t know it at the time we were just young ones out of college open to jobs, open to paying bills, open to building our careers and getting permanent jobs but looking back now we were actually pioneers in the whole area of prison education.

“And it unfolded into a very interesting career and to see the way now the service has developed is very gratifying.”

Brenda admits that throughout her career there were good years and bad years. There was the threat of closure of Loughan House on a number of occasions as well as poor numbers taking up the opportunity of the education.

Over 35 years she has seen many changes. Through the amount of subjects and courses offered, to the development in the amenities at the prison which has let the prisoners reap the benefits.

Brenda has many success stories of prisoners who have taken advantage of the education system in Loughan House that will give them opportunity to get their lives back on track when they leave and reintegrate into society smoothly. With many of them having dropped out of education at 15 years old. Former prisoners have went on to complete University courses, become barbers, sports and science courses and drug and alcohol awareness courses.

The past decade has seen massive changes with the building of a new education centre at the prison which Brenda believes has brought it all to a new level. “The amenities were very poor but that has all changed and we have to be very grateful for all of that but we had to wait a long time.

“We got a new education centre a few years ago and it upped the ante, everything seemed to shift up a gear.

“I wouldn’t have liked not being there for last decade because I would have missed all that and it was important for me to have that experience.”

The work of Brenda and her colleagues has given those in the prison system a second chance to get away from the life that landed them in prison in the first place and she is grateful to have been a part of it.

“Despite all the sadness and troubles they would have often the prison is the least of their worries. It’s the worries of their own families and all that is going in the background.

“When I started off first I would have had great sympathy for what they had lost, their jobs, their marriages, their children all off that had to go by the wayside.

“While they accepted that for some of them it’s been the making of them because if they continued with their chaotic lives they would be dead by now.”

And although it was a difficult decision to make to retire, Brenda is confident of the team that will continue on the work in Loughan House.

“Making the decision to retire despite my age and long service has been one of the most painful decisions of my life because I am so enlivened by what can be done.

“There is a very good team that has been behind me. I am very confident that it will go from strength to strength.

“It’s no harm to have a fresh vision and I think it could go in a different direction again. That’s the nature of education it should be a fresh and dynamic programme.”

Brenda has been at the forefront of it all at Loughan House, and as she settles into retirement she is grateful for all she has experienced and learned in her 35 years as principal.

“I’m proud and grateful to have worked with excellent people in the prison service.

“It has been a long career and a long learning curve all the way along.”