Words are my passion and my hobby, and I wish they were my métier. Many years ago as a young boy I fell under their spell and was seduced by their magic and lure. I remember as a small boy doing my homework on the flat surface of a wooden kitchen chair – such was my first desk top. I remember well mouthing the words of English and Irish which I had learned that day at school. I loved their sounds and got lost in my own world of make-believe. Later in secondary school when my desk-top was transformed into the parlour table and eventually into a proper study desk made by my carpenter uncle Ted, French words would entrance my forming mind.
Even today not a day goes by in which I don’t read or write something. Not a day passes during which I am not captivated by the magic and lure of new words, and new combinations of them, new formations of them parading for inspection before my eyes in this, that or the other book. At school two English teachers were formative of my love of words and they were Mssrs. Bartholemew Doyle, M.A., and Michael McLoughlin, B.A. (Hons.), both teachers in the O’Connell Schools Dublin. Bart, or Dracula as we students used call him, had an obsession with words and spelling – so much so that in his later years he became a little confused – once spelling the word concoction as “concoxion” on the blackboard. However, in one fell swoop he taught me care – I had once done what I considered a fairly good essay after much sweat and care to find the mark of 75% scratched out and a mere 60% given to the disappointed student. Why? The reason he gave for the deduction in marks was my repetition of the same word three times in the opening paragraph. I had need of expanding my vocabulary and learning what comprised a good writing style he commented.
Michael McLoughlin was a true gentleman and scholar. He taught me both honours English and honours Latin. He was gracious and erudite in the most self-effacing manner possible. He taught us a love of literature and a marvellously open way of engaging with texts. His love for his subjects imbued his every word. Then his sense of humour was infectious. If someone was absent on this or that day he would allude to the “lacuna”or gap in our seried ranks. It was his ease and very personal approach to a text that won my heart. The text seemed to talk intimately to him. He did not appear to be struggling with it as poor old Bart, the ill-fated Dracula, alluded to above, did. This same Bart had died at Christmas, December 1975 to be precise, and Michael, or Mac as we called him, took us on for honours English. We already had him for Latin for the previous year and a half. That a text could talk to one was for me a marvellously rich discovery.
Then, at college I studied English literature, theology and philosophy for four years. These were indeed formative years in my love affair with books and with literature. We had writing classes, which for me were to prove inspiring. We had a rather dry old scholar for these classes, a man with a double doctorate, one Rev Bernard Kelly, D.D., D.Litt. – a traditionalist in dogma and a writer of many books on theology and a reviewer for various academic journals. He got us to review books – books which he had been given to review himself, and then with little modifications to our style here and there, he published these reviews under our names. Thus, I began to learn the rudiments of style – what style was appropriate to a learned book review or the more personal style in reviewing a more popular devotional or spiritual book. We also wrote short stories, essays and poems under Barney’s tutelage. One comment which he wrote at the end of an essay I had written for him remains with me to this day as a singularly perspicacious piece of advice for any budding writer and it is this: “Your style is stilted, but ease will come with practice.” What a brilliant piece of advice. He might have said almost the following words: “Don’t give up, Tim. Practice will make perfect!” However, Barney was never one to be demonstrative with his feelings. He confined himself totally to words and their possible combinations. Once I remember him cutting a rather famous theologian’s book to ribbons for its crass style, examples of which Barney had given rather fulsomely in his text with that dreaded word “sic” in parenthesis after them. Thanks, Barney, for the practical writing classes all those years ago. They have stood the test of time and have made me not alone a passionate, but such a better writer. Here’s a toast to your memory.
The photograph above is of my greatuncle Tim and his wife Annmarie, taken in Jersey City, New Jersey some time in the late 1890's. They had a certain style, I suppose.