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Hilary Fannin

M e n t o r

My Story

I grew up on a road of semi-detached houses in a Dublin suburb. Each identical house sported a Mammy and a Daddy and a little plastic virgin on a shelf, filled to the brim with holy water.

Like everyone else on the road, we had our Cuban Missile Crisis provisions stored in the garage: cans of baked beans, and pineapples in syrup, most of which had been eaten before the submarines returned to base.

I was the youngest in the family. I had a budgerigar and coloured chalk, and in spring and summer my pals and I played long games of hopscotch on the suburban road, under a big pink sky.

Things weren’t exactly hunky-dory – there were financial problems, and my father had problems with monogamy, and the washing machine, like my glamorous mother, was temperamental.

One by one, my teenage siblings got expelled from schools whose fees hadn’t been paid. By the time they were in their early teens, all three of them had been excluded from education. My sisters were working in hairdressers and department stores, my brother was gutting fish on trawlers.

It was around this period that the bank repossessed the house and the bailiffs carried off the furniture, and then I too was expelled from school, for reasons of unpaid bills and absenteeism.  I was twelve.

I didn’t really mind. I missed my friends, but the days of dragging myself into my woolly tights to go in, often late, to the convent classroom, peering through a blizzard of dashes and crosses at a blackboard full of multiplication and division, were over. I was optimistic, too, that sliding down a glacier of despair and confusion into the Irish language and trying to guess what Pól agus Idé and their panting madra were getting up to on their endless, endless summer holidays was a thing of the past.

My siblings had moved out and away. My parents and I found a cottage to rent and, because I was too young to quit education altogether, I was sent to a different school instead of out to work.

At the new school I ignored the mathematics textbook and its white pages filled with inky, indecipherable symbols that looked to me like a murder of black crows alighting on a bedsheet.

I skipped Irish classes and instead hennaed my hair and learned to smoke cigarettes and to ring my eyes with kohl pencil. I was not at all unhappy. I wrote a few poems and got a boyfriend and hopped on various passing bandwagons. I was well capable, in the early 1970s, of arguing for reproductive rights even if I couldn’t spell, let alone locate, a fallopian tube.

In primary school I had been told, often and with gusto, that I was weak and stupid. In secondary school I was told, benignly enough, to cool my jets.

Then school was over and, without any real academic qualifications, I had some lousy jobs in sluice rooms and some entertaining ones in restaurants, and finally, years later, I found my way into theatre as an actor and writer.

My brother, meanwhile, who had been beaten in primary school, branded an idiot and a dolt in secondary school and then expelled at the age of 15 for writing a poem about a prostitute on the back of an exam paper, was now making his living delivering sailing boats around the world.

His work was not unlike mine in theatre, insofar as gigs came and went, and, as the song goes, you could be riding high in April, then shot down in May. When things were tight he found work painting and decorating. I went back to waitressing.

Secure and pensionable employment was never high on the list of priorities. What continued to rankle though – long after the leather strap had been slipped back under a soutane or the sting of a nun’s rebuke had been soothed by a mate waiting behind the bike shed with half a saved cigarette – was a feeling, imbibed from school, that you weren’t ever going to be good enough, that you were never, ever going to succeed.

It is an occasionally subtle, often violent and maybe even irresistible impulse, for some, to punish difference, to single out a child who is late or absent, or missing homework or the right sports equipment or fountain pen, or who comes in to school tired and without daffodils for the May altar.

I want to believe that doesn’t happen anymore. But I don’t.

I do know that, as children caught in the crossfire of a dysfunctional home and unforgiving schools, my siblings and I were branded as stupid and weak.

The change that happened in my brother’s life and in my own occurred not simultaneously but within a few years of each other. That change was the chance to revisit education, in entirely more generous and supportive environments.

In middle age, my brother completed an access course for a university in Bristol. There he was diagnosed with dyslexia and, having been given the learning supports he’d needed decades before, went on to do an undergraduate degree, followed by a Masters. He also had two novels published and, within months of graduating, was offered a teaching post at the university.

In my mid-fifties, having never been to college, I too graduated with a Masters degree, in creative writing, from Trinity College Dublin. In 2022 I was appointed Writer Fellow there for an academic year, and I am currently teaching creative writing to undergraduate and Masters students.

Being an educator is a uniquely privileged position.

I tell my students that life is long, that experience counts, no matter how random or seemingly unquantifiable. I tell them that every word they offer matters, that there is no wrong way to write, that their work, the product of their unique imaginations, has the potential to be brilliant.

I tell them that they are in possession of strong and precious voices.

It is not an onerous task to encourage and cherish young minds.

For me, change came through learning that who I am and what I do is now, and always was, good enough. I’ve finally learned how to silence the voices of negativity imbibed in childhood and to live in and enjoy the present.

And it really doesn’t get much better than that.

Hilary Fannin, TCD, 2022

Fighting Words & Trinity College.

Hilary spent ten years as a volunteer with Fighting Words and is currently teaching Undergraduate and Masters students in Trinity College.