Back to her roots

From campaigning for the Green Flag award during her student days, to now leading the charge for UCC’s Green Campus as Sustainability Officer; Maria Kirrane discusses coming full-circle at her alma mater. In conversation with Jane Haynes

5 min read
12 Oct 2018
Photos: Clare Keogh

As one of the students responsible for sprouting the roots of UCC’s Green Campus, there is something satisfyingly serendipitous about Maria Kirrane’s return to her alma mater as its first ever Sustainability Officer.

Although, as an ecology student at UCC in the mid-2000s, Maria didn’t think for one second that the work she was involved in with the Environmental Society would play such an important role in her career.

“It was completely beyond me that there would ever exist a job like this,” she explains.

“I was never thinking, ‘Oh, I’ll do this because it will be good for my career’. I didn’t think it would even be possible to have a career in that area – it all kind of just happened.”

It was in 2010 that UCC became the first university in the world to be awarded the Green Flag, in recognition of its efforts to become a more environmentally-friendly and sustainable campus and community.

An initiative coordinated in Ireland by An Taisce, in schools across the country, it was a group of like-minded students in UCC’s Environmental Society that saw the potential of applying it in their university setting and community.

Mayo woman Maria was among that group of determined students, after the nasty surprise of starting college in 2005 on a campus with no apparent public recycling facility.

“I had taken a year out and gone to Brazil the year before, and worked on a farm there. I had just gotten really into living in ‘the eco-friendly way’,” she explains.

“And so, then I came here to UCC and was a bit taken aback that I couldn’t recycle my rubbish. It might have been recycled after people had put it in the bin, but when you were walking around campus back then, there were no segregated bins.”

Green Flag is a student-run initiative, but it’s more than that – everyone in UCC gets it, and I think that’s very unique.

Maria – then in second year – and the Environmental Society cohort decided the time was right to do something about the problem. An Taisce’s Green Flag programme was already established in primary and secondary schools, and the seeds of their idea to bring it to UCC were rooted in both a desire to make a difference and a refreshing can-do attitude.

“It wasn’t my idea,” says Maria, with trademark modesty.

“Someone at a meeting one day said, ‘I heard An Taisce are interested in doing the Green Flag programme for universities – why don’t we look into it?’

“And it was like this lightbulb moment. It was something familiar, something that everyone recognises – this is how we can get what we want.

“I think it was just a lot of people getting together at the right time and saying, ‘We’re really not happy with the way things are on campus, but we’ve figured out something that we think might work.’”

With the support of UCC’s then-President, Dr Michael Murphy, along with the Buildings and Estates team as well as several students and members of staff, an action plan was put in place, and the mission to make UCC the world’s first Green Flag university was underway.

Maria describes what followed as a ‘massive undertaking’ – one that began with the entire committee donning overalls and getting into a skip, sorting through the rubbish to see what was being disposed of. As unglamorous as it sounds, it was that collective spirit of getting ‘stuck in’ that made the 2010 Green Flag award happen.

“It just seemed liked there was a lot of people that knew there was something that needed to be done, and it was just the right time to do it. I think An Taisce saw that people were committed here as well,” she says.

Getting the Green Flag award was just the starting point – both for UCC and Maria, who admits her desire to see the project over the line played a role in her decision to undertake her PhD (in honey bees) in 2009.

“I am proud of what we have achieved so far, but there is so much more that we can do.”

While she moved on after completing her PhD, going on to work in the Natural Environment Research Council in the UK for a year-and-a-half, and doing a postdoc on sustainability in higher education for a year in Limerick, UCC always had a special place in her heart.

And it wasn’t long until her alma mater came calling, with Maria taking up her role as Sustainability Officer in 2016.

It was the lure of returning to UCC – the place where she had enjoyed such an incredible experience – and the promise of continuing on the work and impact of what is now known as the Green Campus that appealed to Maria.  “A lot of really exciting things had happened while I was away, the ‘Farm to Fork’ initiative with KSG, the University Wide Module on Sustainability spearheaded by Ger Mullally, and the publication of the Sustainability Strategy, for example.”

That impact has only increased over the years, with UCC scoring accolades and capturing international attention on account of its achievements in sustainability.

Those accolades aren’t given lightly, either; they are an acknowledgement of serious and game-changing impact. As of this year, UCC is divested of fossil fuels, and has overseen a 36% reduction in overall waste tonnage since 2008 along with an 84% reduction in student printing – and this is just a handful of impressive statistics.

And so it continues. In the past two months alone, UCC has been awarded the coveted gold rating in the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s STARS programme, and has unveiled Ireland’s first plastic-free café in its Biosciences Institute. UCC Library’s award-winning ‘Love Our Library’ campaign, banning single-use cups, has also garnered widespread praise.

The evolution to Green Campus, a university-wide campaign to improve sustainability, is a way of life now at UCC – but only because of the community-wide effort to make it so. 

Indeed, Maria is supported in her role by the Green Forum, chaired by Deputy President and Registrar John O’Halloran and Director of Buildings & Estates Mark Poland; the wider Buildings & Estates team; on the student side, the Green Flag Committee, and Student’s Union.

The whole point of Green Flag is a group of people that are representative of the whole university, coming together and improving what we’re doing.

“Green Flag is a student-run initiative, but it’s more than that – everyone in UCC gets it, and I think that’s very unique,” says Maria.

When asked if she is proud of what she has achieved along with the UCC community, it’s that same passion, drive and determination from her days in the Environmental Society that shines through.

“We’re not perfect. Having a Green Flag flying over the Quad doesn’t mean that we are a sustainable university – there’s no such thing. It means that we’re committed to being better,” she explains.

“The whole point of Green Flag is a group of people that are representative of the whole university, coming together and improving what we’re doing. It’s that diversity of approaches that has led to some of the most exciting milestones, the Green Library campaign is a great example of that.

“I am proud of what we have achieved so far, but there is so much more that we can do.”

Considering how far Green Campus has come – from the seeds of a student society’s big idea, to an internationally-recognised and community-fuelled success story – it can only continue to flourish.

“I do genuinely believe that whatever UCC’s students and staff experience on this campus is going to impact the way they think and act for the rest of their lives,” says Maria.

“If we can put one little nugget of a thought into their mind that makes them think they can change or improve something, then that’s enough inspiration to get me up in the morning.”

For more information on UCC’s Green campus, visit

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