Goodbye, Fr Donnellan

March 23, 2010 at 22:51 (1)

Bas and I are back home now from Dubai. I’d meant to write about our last few days there, but tonight I found out that one of my favourite teachers from the old days of secondary school had died. He was called Fr Donnellan, and he taught me English. He also taught me a lot about football and humility and editing and decency and a while lot of other things. I was asked by the Times Educational Supplement, way back in February 2000, to write an article about my fave teachers, and Fr Donnellan was the main man. Rather than try to come up with anything new to say about him, I’m going to include it here. It’s a piece I’m very glad to have written, especially since Fr Donnellan read it and was delighted — he invited me down to the school for lunch shortly after it was published, and we spent a great few hours together, chatting about the old days, books, writing and lots more. I had no idea at the time that it would be the last time I would ever chat with him. I kept meaning to pop down to see him again over the years, but as we lived so close to one another, I never quite got around to it — “I can always do it next week.” Alas, life being what it is, “next week” became “next month” became “next year” became… never.

Father Donnellan taught English, ran the school sweetshop and played football almost every lunchtime.

Father Donnellan, a priestly Pele who also ran the school tuckshop, was the teacher who had the biggest impact on me. More about him in a moment.
My original teacher was my mother, Bridget. A primary teacher, she was the first to encourage my love of books. My parents had come over to London from Limerick in the 1960s and we lived on the Heygate estate in the Elephant and Castle. I went to school at the English Martyrs until I was six (having started at three).
We moved back to Ireland in 1978 and I joined Askeaton National primary school, where my mother was a teacher. The first thing I had to get used to was corporal punishment. I had never seen anyone physically punished at the English Martyrs, but in Askeaton a sharp slap on an outstretched palm was part of the system. The pain was negligible, but I don’t think it was a fair way to govern children.
My efforts to learn Gaelic, which was compulsory, gave rise to much amusement. The teacher I remember most there was Mrs McDaid. She was from Donegal and was fluent in Gaelic. She sat, head cocked like a bird, chuckling as I mangled the language with my Cockney accent, which I have never lost. She also fostered my writing and I grew in confidence under her. I became so confident that in one story I compared her with the old sea hag in the Popeye cartoons! Fortunately, she appreciated the joke.
My secondary school was called Copsewood, in Pallaskenry, Limerick. It had been founded by the Salesian Brothers, but by the time I went there it had gone co-ed and there were lots of lay teachers. We had to go to Mass once a month, but the religious character of the school wasn’t oppressive.
In first year English lessons, brother Seamus Meehan spurred me on to write short stories featuring friends and teachers. Although he let me have fun with my writing, he placed a lot of emphasis on starting each story with a detailed plot outline, which helped me grow as a writer.
But without doubt the teacher who had the biggest impact on me was Father Donnellan. He taught me English for four consecutive years. He was – and still is – a legendary figure in Copsewood, a real Mr Chips. He’d already been there for 20 years or so when I arrived and was adored by all the students. He ran the school sweet shop and played football almost every lunchtime. There were two “quads” – one for 1st and 2nd years, the other for older children. Father Donnellan used to play on the 1st and 2nd year quad and even though he was a man of the cloth, he wasn’t someone you tackled lightly – he played dirty!
He was as dominant in the class as on the pitch. He knew the syllabus inside out and could cut to the core of a poem, play or novel in the time it took us to open our books. He loved English and that love couldn’t help but rub off. He didn’t enthuse about my writing in the same way that Mrs McDaid and Brother Meehan had. He was of a different generation and not especially impressed by horror, fantasy and sci-fi, which was almost all I wanted to write then. But he still encouraged me greatly — “I don’t really understand this, Darren,” he would sometimes say after reading one of my stories, “but I’m sure it’s excellent!”
One day he described how he wrote a letter. He’d write a first draft, then go through it once or twice, re-writing to get it right. “Stupid old goat,” I smirked. “Why doesn’t he do it right the first time?” That often comes back to haunt me when I’m working on the sixth or seventh draft of a book!!!
Darren Shan was talking to Michael Thorn.

5 Comments

  1. Stephanie said,

    Thats so sweet and im terrebly sorry about your loss Mr.Shan 😦 um that was a very touching coulum you wrote i am very sure by the looks of it that he truly inspired you to be the great author you are now to all of us!

  2. Tyler Biswell said,

    I’m also deeply sorry for you Darren. I’m sure he was a great guy and he will be missed by a lot of people, I also hope that you are ok. Good luck Darren

  3. Bella Baltierra said,

    I am so sorry for your loss Master Shan. I can tell by this blog that he meant a lot to you. May he rest in peace and I hope you are okay.
    -Bella

  4. Miley said,

    I’m terribly sorry about your teacher… In life most of us don’t do half the things we want to-but it sounds like he had a rich fulfilling life. May he rest in peace, and I’m sure he will be missed by you and his other students.

  5. kasie said,

    Deeply sorry for your loss. I am sure he was a great teacher and he must have been very proud to teach you since you grew up to be the author of many wonderful series. The column you wrote was very touching and it shows everyone that you cared deeply for your teacher and it takes a wonderful person to care so much about someone. I hope you have a wonderful spring.

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