ABOUT FIVE years ago I received an e-mail from a Dutch customer who wanted to know if we could supply 42 copies of a single Mills and Boon title. Having sourced and supplied the 42 copies, I asked him out of sheer curiosity why he wanted them.
He told me he was a teacher of English. In Holland secondary school pupils in certain schools have the option of being taught through German, French, or English as well as Dutch. He was teaching the English stream. As an exercise in the experience of reading, the pupils were to read a Mills and Boon title and then compare it with a recognised work of literature.
“Wow!” I remember saying, “I wonder do your pupils realise how lucky they are to have a teacher like you.”
The pivotal role a teacher can play in the life of a community has often been celebrated in art and literature, perhaps most famously in Oliver Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village where the teacher is described as: “kind, or if severe in aught,/The love he bore to learning was in fault” and where the local villagers “still they gazed and still the wonder grew/That one small head could carry all he knew”.
For the past 30 years or so, Clifden has had such a teacher. Sometime during the seventies, Brendan Flynn was teaching English at Clifden Community School. Flynn does not just love literature, he exudes it. Acutely aware that there was more to the experience of poetry than just learning it from a school book, he began to invite poets to come to the school and read to his classes.
At one point, he persuaded Seamus Heaney to come to the school. This reading was extremely successful and proved to be a watershed. Out of it grew what is probably the most extraordinary school event in Ireland, or indeed in any calendar - the Clifden Arts Festival.
Held towards the end of September, the festival was initially confined to the school but Flynn’s enthusiasm, energy, and commitment – not to mention his persuasive powers – in bringing such a wide variety of literary and cultural talent to the festival was infectious and shortly after its first year, the festival spread into the town and even further. Now it is one of the more significant events in the Irish cultural calendar.
To celebrate its 35th year, the festival committee has published Clifden 35, an anthology representing the work of those who have read at the festival over the last number of years. The list of contributors reads like a Who’s Who of contemporary Irish literature with a smattering of foreign writers such as Robert Bly and George Szirtes. There is also a wonderful mix of well known and not so well known writers.
One of the curiously interesting aspects of the anthology is the slightly – ever so slightly – school text feel is has. At the back there are six blank pages for notes, while the biographical notes at the end of each contribution have a class room feel about them.
This school text book feeling, however, is at its strongest when the reader realises that s/he is sitting in Flynn’s classroom and the teacher is in full flight. From the first poem, the class/the reader, is embarking on a wonderful and exciting journey of discovery. The book is imbued with his love of and passion for the text and the reader is immediately caught up in his enthusiasm which brings alive the magic, rhythm, and music of the literary world present in the book.
Clifden 35 is a testament to an exceptional teacher and to the rich heritage he has given to his pupils and to the people of Clifden.