Damien O'Connor, Brown Bag

Animator Damien O'Connor“If I go out there and work hard and do my best, things will come right.”

As heard on The Ryan Tubridy Show

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Not to be wishing the summer away, but, before we know it the Leaving Cert results will be out. Every paper from The Irish Times to the Limerick Leader will have photos of beaming teenagers sporting a brace of A1s on the front page. TDs will take to Twitter to remind everyone that it’s not the be-all and end-all, and national nostalgia will throw up tales of how mediocre results were elevated to heroic levels of achievement, once they were “better than your cousin’s”. In the midst of these colourful anecdotes, we’ll be reminded once more that exams are a blunt instrument. Their ‘one-size-fits-all’ design is fundamentally incompatible with many people’s intelligence and learning styles. One such person is Damien O’Connor. He joined Ryan to talk about dropping-out of school and his route to becoming an award-winning animator.

“Me and school never gelled… I gave it my best shot, but from a very young age I didn’t like it. I was never particularly good as a student. I knew what I liked. I was always interested in reading, but when I got into a classroom, I found being punished for not knowing the difference between a stalactite and a stalagmite just felt unfair.”

After what Damien calls “an abysmal Inter Cert”, the writing seemed to be on the wall. He couldn’t imagine that two more years would culminate in a different outcome to that of the previous eleven.

“I went to London for the weekend and I basically stayed for three months. There was little choice but for the school to make the decision for me. I was gone. No Leaving Cert.”

On his return to Dublin, Damien moved between odd jobs before a neighbour who taught in the National College of Art and Design (NCAD) wondered whether he might have some artistic flair. He set him a drawing test and the results were encouraging.

“It was the first time someone acknowledged, you’re good at this thing, and therefore maybe we should focus on that.”

An animation course had just started in the Dún Laoghaire College of Art and Design. Together Damien and his neighbour made admission to that their goal. Ryan wondered whether this local mentor ever understood the effect his kindness and attention had.

“He was brilliant. His name is Joe Wilson… to this day I thank him on the end credits of all of my films… for him to just take the time and do that, yeah it had a big impact.”

The lack of a Leaving Cert almost scuppered Damien’s plans to study animation, but a fortuitous meeting with an interviewer about to leave the country, worked in his favour. Although Damien struggled with the structured learning environment, he was adamant he was going to learn as much as he possibly could from the course. He technically got his diploma, but it came with a dash instead of a grade. That didn’t deter him one bit.

“If I go out there and work hard and do my best, things will come right.”

He wasn’t wrong. After many more twists and turns along the way, Damien now works as a Series Director with Brown Bag Films. His mantle piece is heaving with awards and he’s currently nominated for an Emmy for his work on an adaptation of Frank McCourt’s only children’s book, Angela’s Christmas. Ryan wondered what the 17-year-old Damien, so fed-up in school that he left, would make of where he ended up.

“Anyone out there listening, honestly there are so many routes now, with technology, into any discipline… if you want it, you have the world of knowledge at your fingertips. Use it for good. Learn this stuff. If you show passion and drive, you’ll get it… When I’m looking at job applications, I don’t look at the CV or the cover letter, I just look at the work. If it’s good, I don’t care where they’re from or what their history is. If they want to do it and they’re good at doing it, come on in.”

You can listen to Damien and Ryan’s chat in full on The Ryan Tubridy Show page here.  

© The Listener 2019

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