Whenever I return to Dublin from my home in New York, I take the chance to walk by Clonkeen College, just for the air of it, the feel of it, and the shock that thirty-two years have gone by since I last officially passed through those gates.
All those old immemorial feelings send a cold bolt along my spine. There are no days more full than those we go back to. The shoe-slap in the corridor, the high trill of the lunchtime bell, the schoolyard jitters, the nights studying for the Leaving, the whole complicated ballast of memory. And yet if I have one confession about my days at Joey’s (as we called it then) it’s that I actually liked it. Unfashionable, I know, but I enjoyed my years at Clonkeen, where I got the chance to make mistakes, to tread new territory, to experiment, to fail, and to expand my wings as a writer. I still return to those days often, no matter where I happen to be. They are not so much days of angst or turmoil or even too much difficulty: it was, I must admit, a rare school, with rare teachers, in a rare atmosphere of expectation and learning.
I still find myself, for indefinable reasons, tracing that old trenchant childhood route that makes possible the leap back to the radical innocence of the moment when I first walked through the gate, eleven years old, nervous, edgy, unsure. Suddenly it was there. So large, imposing, white-bricked. So many windows. So many nooks and crannies. I paced along the faded lines of the tennis court, then looped around under the shadows of the trees. Some of the older lads stood smoking behind the sheds. I huddled in a small group of students who knew each other from Saint Brigid’s. We affected bravado. In truth we were terrified. And when the bell rang we had little idea that the bell was really ringing for our adolescence.
We get out literary voice from the voices of others. I have a lot of thanks to give to a lot of people, not least the teachers with whom I spent time when I was at Clonkeen. It seems disingenuous now to name them specifically because a school is a culture and is never driven by a single individual. We are the sum extent of all who choose to teach us, and sometimes even those who choose not to teach us, by their silence, by their exile, by their cunning.
I suppose what I have come to adore is the idea of good teaching, which is in effect the idea of giving. And what the teachers at Clonkeen gave to me was the love of books. It sounds awfully reductive now, to say that my love of literature came from the simplest source, but it is no less true. That I had the same encouragement at home from my father (a journalist in the Irish Press) helped enormously too, of course. I was surrounded by books. Dylan Thomas. Gerard Manley Hopkins. A stray copy of Jack Kerouac. An essay by Richard Brautigan. A book by Toni Morrison. A poem by Seamus Heaney.
Every word matters. That’s what I learned. Every conceivable pattern ran through this young writer’s mind. A writer should read, and a writer should copy, and a writer should develop, and finally try to break into a voice of his or her own.
I should admit that my own work, while at Clonkeen, was not very good. A bit dreamy, self-conscious. I wouldn’t like to see it these days. Bad poems and bad stories, but so what? We learn from our mistakes.
And I did develop the most important thing – a passion for language and an ability to believe that my voice might eventually matter. What it took was a lot of time and stamina and perseverance – and indeed a lot of failure. Nobody mocked me. Nobody stunted me. Nobody took away my voice.
What I love about the idea of a literary magazine for Clonkeen is that it gives an opportunity for the students to find that elusive and necessary voice. It is the first of many incarnations of voice, believe me, but the world is listening and waiting for you.
And so a few short words of advice: Do the things that do not compute. Be earnest. Be devoted to things. Do not be afraid of sentiment even when others call it sentimentality. Never become an emigrant from the country of empathy. Be sensitive to the inner laws of the forgotten. Be subversive of ease. Permit yourself the luxury of failure. Grab this moment. Take it. Inspire it. Even against the judgment of others, push yourself further. Be sensitive to others. Have trust in the staying power of what is good. Have faith. Believe in the rightness despite all the wrongness around you. Do not allow your heart to harden. Take pause. Have wonder. Have gratitude. Practice resuscitation. Endure the rough weather: in fact embrace it. Get ripped to pieces and learn to put yourself back together. Forget ease. Push the edge. Become the edge. Imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages. And be there, yes, be there, when the bread comes fresh from the oven.
All of you there, in my old school, my only school, I am proud of your efforts, even from this vast distance.
And your own efforts will bring us together. Good luck – and thanks.