My best teacher

11th February 2000 at 00:00
Father Donnellan taught English, ran the school sweetshop and played football almost every lunchtime.

Father Donnellan, a priestly Pele who also ran the school tuckshop, was the teacher who had the biggest impact on me. More about him in a moment.

My original teacher was my mother, Bridget. A primary teacher, she was the first to encourage my love of books. My parents had come over to London from Limerick in the 1960s and we lived on the Heygate estate in the Elephant and Castle. I went to school at the English Martyrs until I was six (having started at three).

We moved back to Ireland in 1978 and I joined Askeaton National primary school, where my mother was a teacher. The first thing I had to get used to was corporal punishment. I had never seen anyone physically punished at the English Martyrs, but in Askeaton a sharp slap on an outstretched palm was part of the system. The pain was negligible, but I don't think it was a fair way to govern children.

My efforts to learn Gaelic, which was compulsory, gave rise to much amusement. The teacher I remember most there was Mrs McDaid. She was from Donegal and was fluent in Gaelic. She sat, head cocked like a bird, chuckling as I mangled the language with my Cockney accent, which I have never lost. She also fostered my writing and I grew in confidence under her. I became so confident that in one story I compared her with the old sea hag in the Popeye cartoons! Fortunately, she appreciated the joke.

My secondary school was called Copsewood, in Pallaskenry, Limerick. It had been founded by the Salesian Brothers, but by the time I went there it had gone co-ed and there were lots of lay teachers. We had to go to Mass once a month, but the religious character of the school wasn't oppressive.

In first year English lessons, brother Seamus Meehan spurred me on to write short stories featuring friends and teachers. Although he let me have fun with my writing, he placed a lot of emphasis on starting each story with a detailed plot outline, which helped me grow as a writer

But without doubt the teacher who had the biggest impact on me was Father Donnellan. He taught me English for four consecutive years. He was - and still is - a legendary figure in Copsewood, a real Mr Chips. He'd already been there for 20 years or so when I arrived and was adored by all the students. He ran the school sweet shop and played football almost every lunchtime. There were two "quads" - one for 1st and 2nd years, the other for older children. Father Donnellan used to play on the 1st and 2nd year quad and even though he was a man of the cloth, he wasn't someone you tackled lightly - he played dirty!

He was as dominant in the class as on the pitch. He knew the syllabus inside out and could cut to the core of a poem, play or novel in the time it took us to open our books. He loved English and that love couldn't help but rub off. He didn't enthuse about my writing in the same way that Mrs McDaid and Brother Meehan had. He was of a different generation and not especially impressed by horror, fantasy and sci-fi, which was almost all I wanted to write then.

One day he described how he wrote a letter. He'd write a first draft, then go through it once or twice, re-writing to get it right. "Stupid old goat," I smirked. "Why doesn't he do it right the first time?" That often comes back to me when I'm working on the sixth or seventh draft of a book.

Darren Shan was talking to Michael Thorn


1972 born Darren O'Shaughnessy in London 1978 His parents move back to Limerick and Darren enrols at Askeaton National Primary school 1984 transfers to Copsewood, in Pallaskenry 1989 Gap year then Roehampton Institute of Further Education studying English and sociology 198990 completes first full-length manuscript 1996 signs with Chris Little, literary agent 1999 first adult novel published by HarperCollins, Ayuamarca 2000 first children's book, Cirque du Freak, published by Collins as the first of three sagas under the name Darren Shan 2000 Signs seven-figure film deal with Warner Brothers.

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