Adam Shaw speaks to Kerry poet Gabriel Fitzmaurice on why his latest collection is probably his last for young people, since retirement has taken away the former schoolteacher’s day-to-day interaction with children
Sometimes it’s better to do things the old-fashioned way. For at least when it comes to creativity, there’s something delightfully endearing about such a concept.
Irish author Gabriel Fitzmaurice certainly seems to think so, as he celebrates the launch of his latest book Will you be my Friend? A collection of children’s poems, it is his 14th book for young people. It is also likely to be his last. Gabriel admits that the thing he takes inspiration from, namely childhood, is no longer accessible to him. He has arguably exhausted the depths of his own experiences as a child, his son and daughter are now grown up and, since he retired as a primary school teacher, his day-to-day contact with children has ceased.
“The well has run dry – I finished teaching eight years ago, so I no longer have any direct access to children,” he said. “You can never say never but it looks as if this will be my last book for kids.” He has two grandchildren, Katie, who is six and a bit – the ‘bit’ is extremely important, Gabriel explained – and Paddy who has just turned two. He believes they have the potential to fill the void when it comes to inspiration for children’s poems but added that “it’s different writing about your grandchildren as it is about your children”.
“But I have written poems about them in the past, including in this book. And they live quite close by so it could be an avenue to explore,” he said. What is clear is that Gabriel has no fixed formula with regards to where his ideas come from, it is in this manner that he is a traditionalist.
“I have a very old-fashioned mindset when it comes to inspiration; I can’t just sit down and say ‘okay I’m going to write a poem now’. “The lines just come to me, and I make sure I always carry round a piece of paper and a biro,” he explained. He added that it is important to get the first few lines down, and then he can come back to it and write “in peace and tranquillity” at a later date.
And in the same way that Franz Kafka spoke of his need to write things down regardless of time, Gabriel has been known to get up at five in the morning to make a note of something to make sure he didn’t lose the idea. A large part of his repertoire when it comes to children’s work stems from his role as a former primary school teacher where, by his own admission, he “stole stories right from the playground”.
He taught for 35 years, assuming the position on the advice of his mother and the fact that he had no idea what he wanted to do in the run-up to his Leaving Cert. Because I was a great fan of Frank O’Connor’s writing, and because he had been a librarian, I thought I might have like to have done that,” he explained. “But my mother told me that I’d make a terrible librarian because I’d never be able to keep my mouth shut. “She said I should be a teacher because it’s a good job, with good pay, good holiday and the chance to express yourself creatively”.
He thoroughly enjoyed himself as a teacher, where it was everything he wanted it to be. But when asked whether he misses teaching, he replied with what he described as a “Kerryman’s answer”.
“I do and I don’t – teaching in Ireland, and in the UK, has been taken over by time and motion people,” he explained. All they want you to do now is fill in forms and tick boxes; they are destroying the profession. I don’t miss that, but I do miss the challenge and the inspiration of the children.”
His Kerryman’s answer is typical, given his thick southwestern drawl and unwavering passion for the county of his birth.
He was the fifth generation of Fitzmaurice to be born in Moyvane, and with his cousins growing up in England and America, his daughter having married, and his son having moved to Dublin, he is the only one that remains. He is proud of Kerry’s culture and proud of Kerry’s people, affirming that, in the Listowel area at least, they are the only thing worth paying attention to.
“I come from a very rich area, culturally. Over the last 150 years it has produced several significant writers in the English language” he said. “Bryan MacMahon, John B. Keane, Brendan Kennelly and Thomas Mac- Greevy are all from around there, while there are also a lot of women who will prove themselves in time. And the people here are hugely inspiring.
We don’t have particularly big mountains, well, Ireland doesn’t in general, but the biggest mountains are in Kerry. But we’re up near the Shannonestuary, which is flat land. Even the name Moyvanemeans ‘the level plain’ in Irish. The only interesting thing about North Kerry is the people to be honest. They’re full of great stories, great music and great songs and they’re just fantastic characters.”
His pride in his heritage extends to the Irish language, a dialect he both speaks and writes poetry in. He explained its importance to Ireland’s culture since, when it didn’t have any real great classical art, it compensated through its Irish songs and stories. “It’s a huge part of the Irish psyche, it would be such a shame to lose it,” he said.
In the same way that it can be a struggle to convince people to embrace the Irish language, there is a tendency for some people to avoid poetry. Gabriel has acknowledged this, particularly given the inaccessibility and poor quality of a lot of seemingly “high-end” poetry. “Sometimes it is taught very badly in school, and sometimes it’s just damn bad. Look around, a lot of the big name poets winning prizes, they’re unreadable,” he said. This type of writing is something he tries to avoid at all costs as he tries to make his poetry enjoyable and appealing to all who come across it.
Taking inspiration from Seamus Heaney, he said: “Poetry should be strong enough to help. A person going to the electric chair should have a poem in his or her head, that’s what poetry should do. But some of the stuff that I see winning all these prizes – that’s the last thing you’d think of on death row.”
A morbid thought, perhaps, but a moving one nonetheless, in the sense that something you have produced can guide someone through a dark moment. And this is exactly what Will you be my Friend? encapsulates. Some of the poems are sorrowful, while others are uplifting, but they can be enjoyed by everyone.
Gabriel explained: “It’s a book for the young and the young at heart, written not only for but about children and it will appeal to anyone with a sense of humour. As somebody once said, ‘if you can’t laugh and cry at these poems, you’re old’.”