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Maurice Harmon, ‘The master storyteller’, review of George Fitzmaurice, ed., The World of Bryan MacMahon, in The Irish Times, 30 July 2005), Weekend.

[The World of Bryan MacMahon is based on a teacher’s summer course held at the Tarbert Education Centre in north Kerry. It focuses on MacMahon the master, the storyteller, the balladeer, the Gaeilgeoir, the inheritor of the hedge-school and a pioneer of education in the national schools.]

He was a dedicated teacher who wanted, as he said, to “open the windows of wonder” and to have an impact on his pupils that would last for three generations. Every child, he believed, has a gift and it is up to the teacher to open the young imagination to the beauty of poetry, of affection, flowers, and the landscape. He read to them every day and told them stories.

He had no illusions about the difficulties of teaching - the drudgery, the monotony, the need to push hard. “I had to lead, drive, coax them along the harsh road to knowledge”. He put so much of himself into his teaching that he had to rest when he got home.

Then he went forth to meet the people. He was outgoing, gregarious, enthusiastic, and loved people and conversation. He valued where they came from - the rich cultural heritage, the Irish language tradition, the ballad-makers and storytellers. He was himself, above all, a storyteller who enjoyed the company of Eamon Kelly and respected the work of Peig Sayers, whose Peig he translated with great care.

It was only at night when the house was quiet that he could write. In The Storyman MacMahon declares “in one form or another my whole life has been devoted to the telling of stories”. Bernard O’Donoghue’s superb essay interprets several stories, such as the brilliantly intricate The Lion-Tamer”, the seanchai tale “The Glittering Man”, and the wonderful “Ballinteerna in the Morning”. He illuminates the work and demonstrates how good MacMahon is, disguising sophistication as simplicity. He wisely points out that the stories retain a sense of the secrecy of the parish which the outsider cannot fathom.

The essays also discuss novels about teachers, education in North Kerry, and the ballad tradition in the area. Gabriel Fitzmaurice’s essay authenticates MacMahon’s version of The Valley of Knockanure. The collection ends with John Coolahan’s authoritative account of ‘The Schoolmaster in the New State’. This places MacMahon in a historical context that includes the dominating enthusiasm for Irish that emerged after 1922, the clerical managers, the appalling condition of many schools, the poor pay and the narrow-mindedness of inspectors who were hell-bent on discipline and control.

Coolahan refers to MacMahon’s account in The Master of what it was like to be a teacher in those years. His school was “a squalid mess”, damp, insanitary, and poorly heated. It was no place, he informed a visiting government minister, to educate a grandnephew of Michael Collins, the grandson of a man who sat with the visitor in the first Dáil, and a nephew of Thomas Ashe. The minister got the point and a new school was built.

 

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