The Story of Ginger Mick

Sep 13, 2013 9:50:24 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

“Thoughts on Education Abroad” is a monthly column written by CAPA International Education's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.

In this month's column, he discusses the idea of "home" and what it means to engage with other "worlds" through study abroad.


I am a child of London’s East End and grew up in the 1950s (what was called the age of austerity). In my early memory, we had no television or indoor toilet but I was oblivious to the fact that we were poor. We all lived like this. It was not until later that I discovered there are spaces beyond those narrow horizons. I now live in various worlds: much of my time I live in an international context and that is where I define and locate myself. But, I also gravitate back towards the place of my youth; not geographically (it does not exist anymore) but for what it meant in terms of a form of imagined community, what A.E Houseman called “the land of lost content”. The past may be another country but it exists in the imagination, in the places we seek and in the worlds we dream. It is “home”: a simpler place where you can just be, without the burdens of aspiration, status, and ambition.

When I was a child, the streets I lived in made up the entire world. I never knew, nor did my friends, that there were other places. That is where we all begin and as we grow the worlds we inhabit proliferate and the connections with the landscapes of childhood are loosened. That is what education gives and takes from us: we learn to inhabit worlds elsewhere. There remains, however, an atavistic desire to return “home”. My other world is working class London and I am at ease there. I love some people who cannot read properly; I count some madmen and petty crooks as friends. This is a largely male, narrow, ill educated, sometimes bigoted place. It is, though, a place of comfort and welcome. When I need it, I find this world in my local pub. I am as at home there as I am in universities, in international conferences, in the offices of professional educators.

One of the objectives we have in education abroad is, in clichéd terms, to “broaden horizons”. What we are aiming to do is to give students the capacity to engage with other “worlds”. That is, of course, broader than geography – it encompasses emotional, intellectual, social, cultural and political space. The most important journey that we all take, after all, is not that governed by planes, trains, passports and visas; it is the journey across those borders that are the most difficult to traverse: between ourselves and the spaces beyond our narrow horizons. We want our students to live, in short, in many worlds.

Photo: Ginger Mick and family

My world became a smaller place on June 3rd 2013 when Ginger Mick died in Donegal. Ginger’s life was shaped by Irish history, like many of his generation (he was just a little older than me when he died at the age of 67). His life resonated with a legacy in Ireland most strongly symbolized by the Great Hunger or potato famine of 1845 to 1852. One million Irish people died of starvation; one million left in despair. Somewhere between 20% and 25% of the population was lost. History (as our Dublin program will show) is very close to the surface there. The destiny of Ireland and its peoples is shaped by events like the massacre at Drogheda (1649), the Great Hunger, the Easter Uprising of 1916 when, as Yeats said, “All changed, changed utterly / A terrible beauty is born.” The curious idea that beauty may also be terrible makes total sense in the troubled history of Ireland and persists in the consciousness of the nation.

One legacy of that painful history is emigration. Generations of young Irish people came to London (and the cities of the East Coast of the USA) for work. Many of them labored, as Mick did, in the building trades as described in Dominick Behan’s song “McAlpine’s Fusiliers”:

Don't ever work for McAlpine
For Wimpey, or John Laing
You'll stand behind a mixer
And your skin is turned to tan
And they'll say, Good on you, Paddy
With your boat-fare in your hand

I've grafted hard and I've got my cards
And many a ganger's fist across my ears
If you pride your life don't join, by Christ!
With McAlpine's fusiliers


There is hardly an Irish song that does not resonate with the sadness of separation; exile permeates the psyche of Ireland. The priest at the mass for Ginger Mick said that the Irish had a special ambiguity around the notion of “home”. It was, of course, where they currently lived. For Mick that was Archway, where we met and became friends. It was also another place of pain and separation. For many Irish people abroad there is a connection to a community that is stronger and more real than it is for most of us. It exists in geography as well as in the mind. For Mick that place was called Donegal and that is where he went to die.

He had no skill with the written word. He was probably dyslexic but in Donegal in the 1950s, there was no such thing. Mick could barely read or write and he worked in hard, physical labour until well into his 60s, until diagnosed with leukemia. We had been friends for 15 years when he told me that the doctor had told him three things: he had about three months to live; he should give up smoking; he should give up drinking. Somehow or other he knew that I was some kind of “doctor”; not the useful, medical kind but I would do for what was likely to be a more sympathetic and congenial second opinion. He always called me Mikey (the only person who ever has done). He held me as I tried to restrain my own grief (he comforted me) and said: “Mikey, I’ve been smoking since I was 11 and drinking since I was 14! What should I do?”

My advice was not aligned with conventional medical wisdom. I advised him that, in his circumstances, the doctor’s advice was good but received some 40 years too late and that, in his shoes, I would drink more, smoke more, and maybe take up heroin. The last piece of advice he ignored. Ginger did not live for three months but for four years and, I am pleased to say, did not suffer inordinately or painfully. He said his last words at home in, in the house where he was born, in Donegal, to his brother: “I have a weakness but not a weakness like I’ve ever had before.” To be born and to die in the same house is to become part of a rare continuum of community.

Stories about Mick abound. On one instance, he said he would catch a flight to Ireland on his own. This was, given his difficulty with deciphering signs, not a good idea. Normally one of his children would take him to the airport and get him on to the correct plane. On this occasion, he was taken off a flight moments before departure to India having mistaken Delhi for Derry.

Ginger Mick had no intimacy with the written word but was a wonderful and funny talker, and a most kindly human. Throughout his illness, he comforted his friends. The last time I spoke to him was some weeks before he died. He said: “Cheer up Mikey, you miserable bugger, and have a large one on me. I’ll pay for it when I get back to Archway or when you get to Donegal!” Neither of us made those journeys.

Storm at Old Castle Keep
Photo: Storm at Old Castle Keep, Donegal by Michael Kirwan

What has this to do with thoughts on education abroad? I realize that I am writing this partly to articulate personal loss but also because Ginger Mick’s life demonstrates the persistent presence of the past in Irish experience. This also resonates with something at the core of our learning and teaching objectives. We want our students to live in other worlds because they see many riches and experience many wonders. What we aim to do is to heighten sensitivity and intensify vision so they may also see the world they already inhabit with greater clarity. Education abroad should teach us to see the world in a more profound, textured and nuanced way. When we return “home”, wherever that place is, we may understand that knowledge is not the same as wisdom; the value of things is not measured only in the price we pay; that there is something ineffable and beautiful in the human heart.

That is why I have written about Ginger Mick.