Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Killian Whelan, Teacher and Sports Journalist.

"I'm known as a bit of a talker, and both my jobs require a lot of it." That's true. Killian Whelan is a teacher, and at weekends he's the Sports Editor of KFM. If he didn't have the gift of the gab there'd be some quiet classrooms and a fair bit of dead radio.

Many people in Kilcullen may not know Killian, which is one of the boxes the town ticked for him when he moved here in 2006. "It was handy to both Newbridge and Naas, but it's also a place where I can hide a little bit. Sure, I can go into Nolans and not get out for an hour because James and the lads want to talk about sport, but there are other places here where I can go and just disappear."

Killian lives in one of the Castlemartin area estates, and teaches English, History and Religion in Patrician Secondary School in Newbridge. The direction to the KFM job can be traced back to the 1984 Olympics, when he was still in primary school in Killeshin on the Laois-Carlow border. "I remember watching the TV and thinking that Michael Lyster had the ideal job."

Sport was always in his life. His father Pat was very involved in the local St Abban's Athletics Club, and also regularly took him to watch Laois play football. But it was the shot putt and discus contests where he mostly competed himself. "I was kind of a big lad for my age. I didn't do anything special, but I was always there. My Mam Carmel always encouraged me to follow my dreams, and my younger sister Nessa—who had to put up with me constantly commentating on matches as we played football together in the back garden—also supported me. She ended up in Kildare too, marrying Garry Doyle from Ballyhade, Castledermot, and went from following Blue and White to Lilywhite.”

When it came to getting work experience while in Fifth Year at Knockbeg College, sport became part of the deal. "A former principal from Killeshin NS, Michael Moriarty, had become chief executive of CKR FM in Carlow. He mentioned me to the Sports Editor, Clem Ryan, and I was asked in for a tryout one Sunday."

Clem asked him back on subsequent weekends, first as a note-taker and then moving on to a part-time job as a journalist/producer. By the time he left CKR in 2000, Killian was producer of the sports programmes, and also regularly presenting sport bulletins. He had meantime completed a degree in Humanities at St Patrick's College in Carlow, worked there for a year as Sports Officer, and then went on to earn a HDip in Maynooth University.

"Finally I had to go to work. A year in Wexford CBS coincided with me leaving CKR, so my radio career stalled. In October 2002 I got a job in Patrician Secondary School, thanks to a tip-off from an old college mate who was the chaplain there—Fr Paddy Byrne, now curate in Portlaoise and recently featuring with Hector on RTE 1."

Some time later the new KFM Radio was set up in Naas, replacing the Kildare franchise of the old CKR, with Clem Ryan one of the people at the helm. "Clem approached me and asked me if I'd come on board? I said yes immediately, because I'd missed it. I just love radio. Television is about people looking at pictures, but on radio you're the artist creating the pictures with words for them."

In this era of the internet, smartphones and tablets, radio might seem a little old hat, but Killian doesn't find it so. "I get people of all ages interacting with me, from those in their 70s right back down to the students I teach. And as a sports journalist there's a real buzz. You break stories, get the satisfaction of doing something well."

There's a buzz too in the teaching part of his world. Even if, or maybe because of, how much teaching has changed. "Pupils are much more expressive now, and there are so many avenues open to them to be so. I'm challenged every day. They're a lot different than the kid I was in school."

Part of the challenge is dealing with the rate of changes the youngsters themselves are exposed to. "Sometimes I talk about a time when there was no internet, and no mobile phones, and they ask just how old am I? They never fail to amaze me, the stuff they come out with. When I was at school, we were never encouraged to be so ... vocal ... with our teachers. I think it's better now."

It's easier these days for a teacher to share a joke with pupils, but there are still boundaries. "I think that students recognise the rules you establish, and actually want them. I'll communicate with them, and try and relate with them, but you're always the teacher. They don't want you to be their best friend."

His after-hours involvement as a sports coach at the school helps—he coached the Senior Football team this year. "It's a great way of getting to know the lads, and there's actually a lot of respect comes from that. They appreciate that you're giving your time to them, and that translates into the classroom relationship."

That relationship also requires more considered management these days, not least because the lives young people have at home can be much different. "You don't know what challenges they or their families are facing. Maybe some of them aren't even encouraged to get out of bed in the morning, but they do and they come to school because they have a secure structure between nine and four. It's also where their social life is."

Killian figures he and his colleagues have to be more than just teacher these days. Psychologist, maybe partly a carer, a bit of a parent in some instances. "Sometimes, when parents come in separately to talk about their child, you can feel caught in the middle. I can find myself hesitating before I tell a young lad to cop on. Because you never know where he's coming from in his head."

He doesn't see himself ever leaving teaching. Not least because the option of becoming the next Michael Lyster has receded beyond the horizon. "I did consider whether I should try the national scene, but those jobs are no longer a fulltime prospect. It's all short contracts now. Teaching is consistent, and it brings its own satisfactions." Then he grins. "But never say never ...”

Through almost five years, Killian's girlfriend Ruth has been 'very understanding' as he juggled his two lives. Since she's from Birr, it wasn't always easy for them to make time together. But the fact that Ruth is herself seriously into sport, especially GAA, helped. “She has always had my back over the years. She also changed her career in order for us to spend more time together. Then a job came up in Kilcullen, and she began working as an SNA in the new Autism Unit in Cross & Passion College in September. It all fell into place.

"My grandmother always said I was a 'lucky child', and I am. In my work and in my health and in my head. And as long as you're good in your head, things are OK." And, if you're in teaching or in radio, as long as you can keep on talking, and they keep listening.

It helps too if you have a place where you can hide a little when you need to.