The infamous ‘they’ say all you need in life is one good teacher. Someone to ignite a passion in you for something that will succour you through dark days and make good days even better. I’ve been lucky, I had several excellent teachers. My mother, of course, was a marvellous mentor and in my formal education a few stand out - Mrs Curran in Mother Of Divine Grace Primary School in Finglas, Mrs Rigney and Miss Ryan in the Dominican College in Eccles St. Top of the class for me though was my beloved Miss Kirby (later Coffey) in sixth class.
It cannot have been easy being a teacher in ‘60s/’70s Ireland. Schools were run with an iron fist by religious orders, class sizes could reach fifty in crowded urban areas, corporal punishment was commonplace and the curriculum dripped with De Valera’s image of Ireland. It bore little resemblance to life lived in suburban North Dublin. The State Censor made sure our little minds weren’t polluted with any foreign filth. Schools had many teachers who were, quite simply, in the wrong job. Economic necessity and lack of opportunity trapped them in classrooms with children about whom they cared less and less with the passing of each bitter year. It is hard to inspire when you don’t give a damn yourself. Control was the key in getting through the day.
Some people are born to teach though. Miss Kirby was one of those wonderful people. She came into my life when I was eleven, on the cusp of that leap from what once was to what may someday be. She saw my potential, offered me more challenging material, brought me books from her own collection to point me in the right direction. She was from (I think) Co. Kerry and her tastes were more rural than mine, but I enjoyed the books she brought me, I particularly enjoyed the way she spoke to me – as if I was already grown-up. I blossomed under her tutelage.
In October 1973 she set us English homework. We were to write to her as if she were a visitor from another country, and tell her something about St. Patrick’s Cathedral. We had been working on a project about it and I had become fascinated with Jonathan Swift, St Patrick’s most famous Dean. I sat down with my copy and pencil. I loved, still love, the sound of a pencil scratching across the blank page, and I wrote and wrote. I described a time travelling adventure I had with friends, Andrea and Ken Kelly; how we had travelled back in time and been befriended by Jonathan Swift (who asked us to call him Jonath). We lived with him for a while, met his lady friends Stella and Vanessa, toured about early eighteenth century Dublin with him and he discussed his writings with us. Ten copy pages later cramp in my hand forced me to time travel us back to 1973 and The Ha’Penny Bridge. I was amazed that almost two hours had passed since I began and was enormously proud of myself. I hoped I’d get a gold star for it.
I had to wait a few days for the copies to be returned to us. Miss Kirby placed it on my desk and patted the cover. I can still feel the butterflies I got as I opened the copy. At the end of the essay were THREE gold stars, and in red pen underlined twice Miss Kirby had written ‘Come to me, CHILD!! For your just reward!!! Find out who painted Stella’s portrait.’ I glowed.
Miss Kirby made the most enormous fuss of me. I was sent to each fifth and sixth class to read out my essay. I died inside at this, but did it. Miss Kirby asked one of the mothers, who worked in an office, if she could type up my essay. Ken Kelly, who was a talented artist, sketched St Patrick’s on cardboard and we cut it out and stuck it onto the typed pages as ‘illustrations’. Ms Kirby sent the essay to the Dean of St Patrick’s, and told him about our project. He visited the class to look at our work and to shake my hand. He was a lovely man and we were all surprised. We thought Protestants were completely different to us, but the Dean looked just like everybody’s Grandad! He was a kindly gentleman and enthused greatly over our work.
I went off the boil intellectually in secondary school and I didn’t return to creative writing until I hit my forties. But I have never forgotten Miss Kirby, her interest in me and the love she gave me for the written word. One Good Teacher.