Poetry on cue
It all started with two men exchanging dreams, schemes and literary fantasies over a quiet pint and a game of snooker. Mel McMahon, a recent addition to the English department at Abbey Grammar School for Boys in Newry, had met Belfast poet Adrian Rice at a reading and invited him to the school through the Arts Council's Writers in Schools programme.
The pair joined forces to set up an arts week at Abbey Grammar last February at which Adrian mobilised all his contacts to line up 14 guest writers, including Michael Longley, one of Northern Ireland's leading poets. The resulting readings, lectures and seminars were open to the wider Newry community as well as pupils, parents and visitors from neighbouring schools.
At the same time, the school funded the publication of Impediments, a collection of poems by Adrian, which was launched during the arts week. The book was such a success that - over more games of snooker - the next plan took shape. Adrian and Mel saw a gap in literary publishing in Northern Ireland for a small press producing high-quality poetry and prose editions. Abbey Press was set up with Adrian as editorial director, Mel as administrator and Abbey Grammar providing the financial backing.
The new writing generated by the arts week meant they already had their second book. Signals, an anthology of poetry and prose, appeared last autumn. It was a more substantial volume than Impediments and more expensive to produce, so Adrian and Mel arranged sponsorship from a local printer, Donal Cassidy, and backing from subscribers including the poets Seamus Heaney and Bernard O'Donoghue, along with Abbey staff, family and friends. All the writers who performed during the week were featured, including critic and biographer Patricia Craig, playwright Martin Lynch and poet Ian Duhig.
Abbey principal Dermot McGovern was quick to see the benefits of being the only school in Northern Ireland to run a publishing house - quite apart from being able to publish its own textbooks. Signals, already in use in the classroom at Abbey Grammar, is being considered by Northern Ireland examining boards for use as a GCSE set text, and Dermot McGovern hopes the single-author volumes which make up the rest of the list will also attract schools' interest.
The first 1,000 copies of the fourth book, Broken Dishes, a collection of elegies by Michael Longley, have almost vanished since the launch at the beginning of term. This volume represents a coup for a small press and is the most handsome yet, with a colour plate of the Amish quilt which inspired the title.
Each book means an investment of between Pounds 2,000 and Pounds 4,000 for the school, but Dermot McGovern is prepared to take the financial risk. Even without his faith in the business nous of Mel and Adrian and the reputation of Michael Longley (Whitbread poetry prize winner and former administrator for the Arts Council of Northern Ireland), the headteacher believes the enterprise is "an opportunity we can't afford not to take up".
Shouting over the din of a party in the school library to launch Broken Dishes, he says: "We're giving the boys access to a range of writers that they would not otherwise have had contact with. One result of Signals is that Patricia Craig has been in school working with the A-level students on The Rattle of the North, a set text. I'm prepared to lose some money, as the other benefits for the school are so enormous."
So far, though, the press has made a small profit, which will be used to fund future arts weeks. The third Abbey title, a prose memoir called The Rest is History by Belfast-born poet and critic Gerald Dawe, almost sold out in four months. Mr Dawe's tales of his friend Van Morrison may have helped - orders have poured in via the Morrison Web site - but Adrian's book has almost sold out too, unaided by rock star interest.
Since the Michael Longley launch there has been another one for The Home Fire, a collection of poems by Mark Roper. Both were the kind of big-name poetry events which are rare outside Belfast or Derry but which have happened regularly at the Abbey since the arts week. Dermot McGovern hopes that the results will soon show in the boys' own writing.
The 850 11- to 18-year-olds at the oversubscribed school are already famous in almost every other field except literature. They hold a clutch of Gaelic football and golf trophies, have won both the Aer Lingus and European Union awards for Young Scientists of the Year for three years, and represented Europe in a worldwide science exhibition in the United States. A team of 12-year-olds recently beat 5,000 other schools across Ireland to a general knowledge quiz trophy.
Mel McMahon reports that a creative writing group has started, and he expects to see manuscripts from past pupils arriving at the press. But unlike most school-linked publishing ventures, Abbey Press was not set up with the intention of publishing pupils' writing. Instead, the boys get involved through seeing what goes into publishing a book and helping to organise launches and signings.
"A pupils' anthology may be a plan for the future," says Adrian, "but first we are concentrating on establishing a mainstream list with well-known writers. We're a serious literary press that happens to be affiliated to a school. We have reliable selling methods, we get good reviews, and we are filling a gap in the market north and south of the border. Our reputation is growing outside Ireland."
Abbey Press's next goal is to expand to eight books a year. It has applied for substantial Arts Council lottery funding "to take the pressure off the school".
The success of the Press is happening at an historic time in Ireland. Abbey head of English Pat Mooney said, in introducing Michael Longley's reading:
"We are at a time when we pray that the seeds of peace are being sown at last." Mel McMahon believes that Newry, a border town, is already experiencing regeneration as a result of the shift in the political climate. Abbey Press will be central to this with its emphasis on inclusion - all the books on the list have links with Northern Ireland, but there is no sectarian divide.
It seems fitting that Mel's own poem in Signals, "The Musicians", opens with the following lines: "If peace does last No doubt brave pens Will charge to imprison it in tomes."
Abbey Press, Courtenay Hill, Newry, Co. Down, Northern Ireland BT34 2ED