Friday, June 26, 2009

A Great Teacher: John Devitt (1941-2007)


Sometimes I wonder whether adding more words to the veritable oceans of words out there in cyberspace is really all that important.  On second thoughts, it’s probably wholly unimportant in the scheme of things.  Likewise, one can ask the question as to why, say, write a poem or worse still write a book of them and publish it, and find that not too many people are interested in reading them.  Be that as it may, I remember some rather astute or insightful person remarking that writing poems was probably more important than having them read.  In other words, the therapy is in the writing – the very act of creation.  Reading is a creative act too, but a secondary one where the reader allows his imagination to get hooked by that of the original creator of the ideas in words.

And so this is my apologia, then, for writing these words in this blog over the last four to five years: there is something in me that is driving me, as the great novelist and literary critic Anthony Burgess used say, “to make words behave” on this virtual page.  That effort of marshalling words, of choosing the most appropriate and apt one is very worthwhile because often the result is something clearly expressed and often beautiful.

Anyway, I have spent the morning cleaning out my garden shed and now I am engaged in cleaning out my mind.  Then, I surfed the net and searched for several interesting topics and was quite taken with searching for references to a late great lecturer of mine John Devitt who taught me in the late seventies of the last century at Mater Dei Institute of Education.  I found many wonderful references to the great man and a few of my own as I have referred to him at least twice in these posts before now.  I learned that he came to Mater Dei in my last year there, 1979 –1980.  I had quite forgotten how long the man had taught me – I would have assumed that it was two years, but no, it was only one.  Of all my teachers and lecturers in English literature he is the one that stands out.  Prior to that he had taught in the school in which I am now teaching – St Joseph’s C.B.S., Fairview.   One reference I found was simply wonderful – the Teaching English magazine for Spring 2008 – this is a magazine issued by the Support Services for English at the Department of Education and Science. A copy of this is downloadable at the following link: Teaching English.

Some Personal Memories:

My year at college was the first crowd at Mater Dei to be offered the new degree called the Bachelor of Religious Science – an incredible formulation indeed – a religious science, whatever that was or is. (I presume there was some political or academic reason for so calling it!)  I note that this degree is now more wholesomely called the Bachelor of Religious Education and is awarded under the auspices of DCU.  Anyway, be that as it may, all our predecessors had left the Institute with a Diploma whereas we would be the proud recipients of the first degree offered at Mater Dei and conferred under the authority of Maynooth College. Anyway, it was onto that scene that John Devitt arrived in September 1979.  Up till then, English had been a mere optional extra as it were to bolster up the old diploma and allowed one only to teach it to Intermediate Certificate level.  Also there were no full time English lecturers at all.  The people we had were occasional lecturers from UCD and Maynooth and other universities.  And, indeed, they were wonderful:  I remember the unique and eccentric Dr Mary Fitzgerald, a daughter of our former Taoiseach Dr Garret Fitzgerald, who, I recall, dressed like a character out of a Jane Austen novel.  Then there was a lecturer from UCD called James O’Malley who was a brilliantly insightful lecturer.  I got my love of the writings of Oscar Wilde from Jim.  I remember in third year that I had elected to do my thesis for religious education/theology on the question of evil and Jim advised me to read “De Profundis” by Oscar Wilde to complement my more theological and philosophical readings.  Also we would have had the wonderful Fr Michael Paul Gallagher, S.J. for literary criticism and other courses.  I remember with fondness a course he gave us on the novels of Saul Bellow whom I read a lot later.  Then I remember we had an academic nun called Sr. Bríd Carr who taught us The Metaphysical Poets.  There would also have been other occasional lecturers, but at this distance in time I do not recall either their topics or their names.

However, it was John Devitt who really put the English Department on a sound footing.  Yes, indeed, we had covered a lot of ground in our English classes but not having a Head of Department or even a permanent English lecturer meant that English as a subject had no clout in the college.  John put an end to that.  As the saying goes these days – he literally hit the ground running.  Forgive me the cliché, John, if you are up there somewhere looking down on this.  What struck me about John when I first met him was his sheer enthusiasm.  I remember later reading in Lord Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy that the origins of the word enthusiasm was literally to be “possessed by the gods.”  And indeed, John was a man possessed.  He was possessed of a great passion for his subject – for all things literary and dramatic and also, of course, for films.  To that extent, he was a man before his time.  Film now has a section on the English curriculum at secondary school and John delighted in such intertextuality.

It is amazing now that I have grown older that John was only thirty eight when he came to Mater Dei.  This amazes me because I don’t think I had either the same energy or enthusiasm at 38 as John had then.  He was full of life, literally bounding into class, dancing out the rhythms of the poems often across the floor of the lecture hall or theatre.  The words flowed from John.  He brought the English class – some 12 or so of us – into the National Library for an outing.  Typical of the man – he wanted to inspire us to research and reading.  I recall some few years into my teaching career that I visited that same library on some errand or other and I espied John seated at one of the tables in the great round reading room.  I smiled to myself, because there he was lost in research and his scarf hanging from the back of his chair.  Strangely enough, I never ended up teaching English at all – not that I did not want to, far from it.  Rather, I ended up teaching Irish and Mathematics, both of which I went on to study at UCD, as well as Religion, of course.

I recall meeting John a few times in the early years after I had graduated from Mater Dei and he inquired as to how I was getting on and as to what I was teaching.  When he heard I was not teaching English, he nearly exploded, because I had always loved the subject and had done really well under his watchful eye.  I still have the essays I wrote for him and his comments – always sharp and insightful.  I remember his saying: “Tell Paul O’Leary (a past pupil of John’s from St Joseph’s who was teaching with me in O’Connell’s) to give you a class or two of English.”  Then when I told him I was doing a B.A. in Maths and Irish he nearly had a seizure, saying something like, “What good is going sideways?  You should be doing further studies in English!”  I would not have expected less from John with his sheer passion for English.  I was always a dilettante by nature and followed where my interests at any particular time took me.

I remember with gratitude the tutorial we had with John as they were simply wonderful.  They were always insightful and dynamic and made you think.  What I also liked about his tutorials was the fact that he used bring in recordings of Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot and Randall Jarrell  when we were discussing their poems.  I read widely in these three and still do.  John literally bowled me over with his enthusiasm and with his love for his subject.  I actually worked up enough courage one day and asked John for a loan of his recording of Dylan Thomas.  He gave it to me with a strict warning not to lose it.  I copied it and returned it the following day.  If you have not heard these three poets reading their work then you are in for a real treat.  Dylan Thomas has a wonderful declamatory voice – full of Welch charm and a diction that Richard Burton comes only second to in my estimation.  T.S.Eliot reads his poems like an Oxford Don – an American totally anglicized. And then, there is the wonderful and tragic Randall Jarrell.  I remember, as if it was yesterday, the recording of his reading of Ball Turret Gunner and several other famous poems.  The pathos, the depth and the emotional quiver of Jarrell’s voice haunts me still.   The rhythms of these three poets, introduced to me by John Devitt, have never left my mind.  They rattle around in it constantly.  John gave us lectures on all these poets and many others.  His lectures were always well prepared and well delivered.  The man literally burst into the class and set to task and kept going until the time was up.  We were enthralled and spellbound. 

I now wish to return to one reference I found when googling John’s name – the Teaching English magazine for Spring 2008.  This is a magazine issued by the Support Services for English at the Department of Education and Science. A copy of this is downloadable at the following link: Teaching English.  Here are a few quotes from John, available in that magazine and also in the book The Irish Reader (Otior Press, 2007) issued in his honour at his retirement:

On the physical demands of teaching:

There’s more to teaching than the work of preparation there’s the actual delivery itself. Teaching is a performative art and anyone who performs before an audience knows how draining that is. Young teachers take a while to realise what teaching is doing to them but at my age you certainly know that teaching is seriously tiring if you are at all conscientious and if you give it your best … In spite of all the years I’m teaching, I’m very nervous about it, very nervous going into class…I have this tension … I want to stay focused, I want to be concentrated on what I’m doing …

On Present Day Students:

Now, students are much more impatient; they want to know the what and they want to know it immediately. They don’t realise that the pleasure of reading a literary text is not the pleasure of having read it, but the pleasure of engaging with its multiple possibilities.  Reading for its own sake is becoming now very much an acquired taste. On the other hand, these students are very much more confident, very much more vocal and much more at ease with authority such authority as I wield, anyway and that’s a good thing.

On On the Waterfront:
On the Waterfront was the film that opened my eyes to the possibility of the medium.

On Justifying The Humanities:

In third level there’s no obvious way in which research in the humanities can improve the economy and I hate to see the Symphony Orchestra, the Abbey Theatre, the National Library justifying themselves in terms of the number of visitors from abroad who come and how much they spend … In the 1950s a lot of things were free … you had the Radio Éireann Repertory Players … you had free concerts in the Phoenix Hall, off Dame Street, given by the Symphony Orchestra; the museums were expanding. When we hadn’t any money we were still investing in culture without apology. Now that we’re rolling in money, everything is required to justify itself. It seems to me insane to ask that the study of poetry, the study of music, the study of history justify itself. Aren’t we human? Aren’t we curious? Aren’t we imaginative? Don’t we want to speculate? Don’t we want to know? (These are a transcript of a dialogue he had with Andy O’Mahony on Radio 1 shortly before he died in June, 2007.  See the above link.)


John Devitt was a "bloody marvellous" teacher, according to the poet and publisher Peter Fallon, who was also a former pupil of his in Glenstal.  I wholeheartedly agree with Peter.  We were blessed as students to have him as a teacher.  Perhaps I should recall the fitting words of William Wordsworth in his poem French Revolution, which first appeared in Coleridge’s great self-published paper The Friend:   “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive// But to be young was very heaven!”

John, you are not dead while your memory lives on in your legions of former pupils and students.

1 comment:

x said...

John Devitt taught me in St. Joseph's (Fairview) from 1971-75.

I am still feeling the effects of his divine English teaching.

Gos bless the man.