If want to know how to pack a week into a day, you could do worse than turn to Westport resident Declan Askin for advice.
Not only is the blow-in from Ballyshannon the Head of Technology at St Gerald’s College, Castlebar (a title he modestly claims he was given solely because he’s the school’s oldest technology teacher), he’s also a member of rising Westport a capella group Coda; creator of the EA Robot Games Ireland Tournament; the man behind long-running musical ‘Patrick’; a member of Cór Mhaigheo; a member of St Patrick’s Drama Group; one of the regular trad-session musicians in Matt Molloy’s; and now, founder and curator of Novus – a new series of concerts aimed at supporting and developing local writers, singers and musicians.
In between all of this, the 49 year old is somehow managing to raise three teenagers with his wife Emer (principal of St Patrick’s NS, Louisburgh) – and keep fit.
“I moved to Westport in 1993, and got a job straight off in St Gerald’s College, Castlebar, and I’m there pretty much since then,” Askin tells The Mayo News. He first introduced technology to St Gerald’s as a Junior Cert subject and later as a Leaving Cert subject. So what’s involved? “Mostly electronics and computing, and we make robots.”
Robots? That sounds fairly advanced – and so it is. But because Askin makes it fun, the students don’t even realise they’re learning half the time.
“I’m a facilitator really. I set them up. I say ‘Here’s all the equipment, here’s the computer, and here are the instructions and this is how you do that … It’s all here now – it’s up to you to take hold of it and make it happen’. And it works a treat … they’re just mad to get on with it. They don’t even want me around!” he laughs.
Seeing his students’ passion, Askin decided to set up a competition for Irish second-level schools to build ‘sumo robots’ and compete. “It’s just grown every year. Now we’re sponsored by EA Games.”
Sumo? Sounds a little aggressive? “It’s not like robot wars – you’re not allowed break the other robot,” Askin explains, laughing. “They have to find the other robot and push it off a table, like a sumo wrestler.”
When not engaged in mechanical martial arts or teaching, Declan can often be found with guitar in hand – whether it be playing trad at Matt Molloy’s, creating music with Bart de Boer of Clew Bay Recording Studio, or strumming on one of Coda’s instrument-accompanied numbers. It’s what he loves doing most. “The most rewarding thing for me is playing music, without a shadow of a doubt.”
While at times he finds it challenging – for example on a packed-out, noisy night in Matt Molloy’s when a stag party lands in – it’s the pull of perfection that keeps him drawn to music making. “Even if it’s just one moment of absolute flow, when everything is just grooving beautifully, the rhythm is lovely, everyone’s playing is perfect, it’s a great tune or song you’re singing, and everything just works. All the planets align and it works out fantastically. That’s what you’re doing, you’re looking for that ‘moment of flow’.
“I mean I love teaching, absolutely love it, and always have, but I’m teaching now a long time, so I suppose music is a bigger thing for me now than teaching.”
Coda have just released a new album, ‘Train of Spirits’, produced by Donal Lunny. While the album is making quite a splash, Askin says Coda is not about making money. “We do it for the enjoyment of doing it,” he says, adding that playing live is where the real buzz is found: “You want to do gigs, that’s really what you want.”
Now, Askin is fixated on helping others experience that buzz, through his latest venture, Novus. The series of concerts is designed to give upcoming writers, singers and musicians a platform for performing original work to appreciative audiences.
So with so much going on, what does Askin do to unwind? This question is the first to stump the talkative teacher, as if the very notion were alien. After a long pause, he exclaims: “I like art!” Then, almost apologetically, he adds: “In school, in the workshop, I make strange things out of plastic. I enjoy making things.”
And in order to fuel this ever-active life, Askin manages to nip to the gym three times a week. Admitting he’s ‘not a huge fan of exercise’, he’s perfected a way of getting the most out exercise in the least amount of time: high-intensity training. “I go into the gym, I go on the treadmill, I go like the clappers for a minute and I go slowly for 30 seconds, and I do that for four or five minutes. Then I lift a few weights up and down, and then I go into the steam room.”
Musician. Teacher. Robotics fanatic. Singer. Visionary. Dad. Playwright. Organiser. Doer. Who’s Askin? Depends who’s askin’ – and at what time of the day.
Tell us something about yourself we don’t know?
I have no brothers or sisters.
Do you have a pet?
A dog, Lily
What’s the most unusual thing you’ve eaten?
Pig testicles. I was unaware at the time.
A man called Joe Bassett who was in charge of the Irish Parachute Club back in the early 90s.
What makes you nervous?
Heights - I have a desire to just jump off.
Favourite TV show?
Battlestar Galactica - the TV series, not the film.
Who’s the most famous person you’ve met?
I tried to buy him a pint in Leo’s Tavern in Donegal (Home of Clannad) at an event in 1989.
I ordered three pints from Enya who was home for the party and serving behind the bar.
I then discovered I only had enough money for two pints. I tried to attract my friend’s attention to get more money only for Clayton to spot what was happening and give me the extra money for his own pint.
Describe yourself in three words
Rational. Creative. Loyal.