I qualified as a national teacher in 1972 at the tender age of 19. (Yes! they let 19 year olds loose on the children of the nation in those days. Not a good idea). I began my teaching career in Saint Patrick’s National School in Avoca, Co. Wicklow and two years later moved to Limerick city to teach in Christ the King National School in Caherdavin, returning to teach in my native Moyvane, some 7 miles from Listowel in County Kerry, in 1975. Those were good times in education. The “New Curriculum” of 1971 was up and running in our national schools. It was a child centred and child friendly curriculum full of new, exciting subjects like speech and drama. Creativity was encouraged in both teacher and pupil. I loved it. I was particularly excited by the possibilities of introducing new poetry, in Irish and English, to the girls and boys in my care. Then along came An tOchtapas, Gabriel Rosenstock’s landmark collection of poetry for children, published in 1977. It consisted of 14 short, humorous poems in the Irish language and my pupils LOVED them.
At the same time I was running out of new poems to bring to my pupils so I decided to write my own. The children loved these poems. Needless to say, I didn’t tell them that I had written them in case they would fake their response in order to please the teacher. Eventually I had enough poems to make a collection. At that time, very few Irish publishers were willing to risk publishing poetry for children. Seamus Cashman of Wolfhound Press agreed to take a look but decided not to publish the book on the grounds that it contained “too many poems about school”. I then gave the poems to Liam Miller of Dolmen Press, Ireland’s premier poetry publisher, who loved them and agreed to publish them under Brogeen, his children’s imprint. Then he died! I was at a dead end.
In desperation, a thought struck me. The Kerryman, our local newspaper, occasionally published books. I sent them my manuscript. They published The Moving Stair, my first book for children, in 1989, distributing it mainly in Kerry, Cork, Limerick and Dublin with the weekly edition of the newspaper. It sold over 1000 copies in a few weeks. It came to the attention of Denis Courtney of the Setanta Book Club who bought the remaining copies to sell in schools. Some time later, he informed me that Faber and Poolbeg Press had seen the book and were interested in publishing it. For reasons best known to myself, I decided to give an expanded version of The Moving Stair to the Irish publisher, Poolbeg Press, who published it to runaway success in 1993. I have never regretted that decision.
From 1993 to 2004 Poolbeg Press published 7 of my books for children. But they were victims of their own success. The Arts Council, in its wisdom, decided not to grant aid the children’s publishing department of Poolbeg Press on the grounds that the company, a highly successful one, could afford to fund it from its own resources. I saw red and immediately moved to Mercier Press with whom I have had a wonderful relationship. From 2005 to 2012 they published 4 of my books in English for children and one bilingual collection for the young as well as poetry for adults, essays and translations from the Irish.
Now at Listowel Writers’ Week 2016, I launch Will You Be my Friend?, my latest, and final, collection of poems for the young and young at heart. It consists of the very best poems I have published in my previous collections as well as nearly 30 new poems.
Why have I decided to stop now? Well, I have written out my childhood (they tell me I was a VERY cross child!); I have exhausted my 35 years as a primary teacher; I have plundered the lives of our two children, John and Nessa, now grown adults, and I have written a few poems about our two grandchildren, Katie Crowley (six-and-a-bit) and her brother Paddy (nearly two).
People often ask me if I miss teaching. My reply is a pure Kerryman’s: “I do and I don’t”. I don’t miss the red tape, the endless filling in of forms and the pointless ticking of boxes that are destroying the profession, but I do miss the children. I miss their challenge and inspiration. So Will You Be my Friend? will be my final book for the young and young at heart. It will be launched in Listowel at Writers’ Week on Saturday, June 4 by Joanna O’Flynn, daughter of my great friend, John B. Keane, who launched Rainsong, my first book (poems for adults) there in 1984. It has been a long journey but I’m glad I took that road. As Bryan MacMahon used to say when he had completed something worthwhile, “something done; rud éigin déanta”. And so say I. Something done.
(c) Gabriel Fitzmaurice
About Will You Be My Friend?
Will You Be My Friend? brings together over 100 of Gabriel Fitzmaurice’s best-loved poems chosen from his thirteen collections for children together with nearly thirty new poems. Enjoyed by both the young and the young at heart, the poems range from the silly to the serious, from the sad to the happy, from the naughty to the nice. Childhood, family, school, animals, the seasons and festivals of the year are all seen through the eyes of a child.
Will You Be My Friend? is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!