Spell of Celtic magic;Ireland in schools

2nd July 1999 at 01:00
An IRA bomb that killed two Warrington boys prompted local schools to take a closer look at Irish writing. Geraldine Brennan reports

The plaque in memory of three-year-old Johnathan Ball and 12-year-old Tim Parry, killed by an IRA bomb in April 1993, is outside Boots in the centre of Warrington.

Winding along the rebuilt high street under shoppers' feet is another commemorative sculpture, "The River of Life". Here a panel for every month of the year has been set into the pavement, each one devised by local sculptor Stephen Broadbent in collaboration with a different Warrington primary school. The emphasis is on celebrating the local environment and on looking forward; each school's design features a type of tree and names a quality necessary to build peace.

Woolston county primary school, responsible for "April", "hazel" and "self-control", is currently immersed in another long-term plan to build bridges between Britain and Ireland and whittle away at the ignorance, fear and suspicion that surrounds events such as the 1993 bombing - and all within the limits of the literacy hour.

Woolston is one of six primaries taking part in the latest pilot study devised by the Warrington Project, a charity set up within six months of the boys' deaths to organise a constructive response from the community.

Johnathan Ball's uncle, John Donlan, is its full-time co-ordinator. It was clear to him from the start that the project's main thrust needed to be educational.

A retired manager with a local glass manufacturer, Mr Donlan took on the job of answering the thousands of letters of condolence the family received after Johnathan's death, many of them from schoolchildren in Ireland.

"It took me 18 months to reply to everyone. I went into schools to ask some Warrington children to write back to the children in Ireland, and it struck me how little was known about Ireland - about the history that had led to this terrible event and about the everyday lives of the Irish people, who were as shocked as we were. Teachers had children asking 'What's the lRA?' and 'Why did they bomb us?', and didn't know what to say to them." The project aims to build understanding focusing on under-25s in Britain and Ireland.

Like many of the children taking part in the project's latest Ireland in Schools scheme, Mr Donlan has Irish roots, although he grew up in Warrington. "I went on my first trip to Ireland to visit my grandfather when I was Tim Parry's age, and I worked in Dublin for a while. We are really very close to Ireland here. We could have an enriching relationship. Education is the way to achieve that."

In Britain the project concentrates on introducing Irish studies to the national curriculum. It also has a Northern Ireland office, which is linked to existing Education for Mutual Understanding work between Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland and the Republic.

The Ireland in Schools education sub-committee is chaired by Patrick Buckland, a historian and former director of the Institute of Irish studies at the University of Liverpool. He favours a low-key "back-burner" approach, producing course outlines and in-service training materials that slot seamlessly into the curriculum. "The idea is not that studying Ireland is a chore, but that it is interesting and stimulating and will help you get good results," he says.

For the first five years, the focus has been mainly on history, but citizenship and drama are included. Now the pilot primary schools are having a crash course in Irish literature, from retellings of the ancient Ulster cycle legends of the giant Fin McCoul to the latest contemporary fiction (Siobhan Parkinson, Ireland's answer to Jacqueline Wilson, has hit Warrington big time).

The project's first annual lecture, held last month, was on children's books. The guest speaker, the Dublin-based children's literature expert Robert Dunbar (who ran training seminars for the participating teachers) was mobbed by excited children as he toured schools, reading from Martin Waddell's picture book Owl Babies in a broad Ulster accent.

Frank Judge's Year 5 classroom at Woolston primary is covered in artwork based on "The Sea Woman", an Irish variation on the mermaidselkie theme. Now the class has moved on to poetry and Mr Judge, the school's literacy co-ordinator, chooses Yeats's "He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven" for shared reading on the day of Robert Dunbar's visit.

"The Sea Woman" is ideal for the literacy strategy requirement to compare myths and legends from more than one culture, he says. "There is a rich legacy of story which the children can explore while still meeting literacy hour requirements."

The excited buzz in Mr Judge's classroom has spread all around town. The six schools are now on their second term of Irish work, which has spread into art and design, history and geography.

Schools can borrow class sets of books from the Warrington Project. Eileen Fitzgerald, head of another participating school, St Oswald's RC primary, says the influx of the best in Irish publishing has generated "a burst of creative energy" among teachers and pupils. "We now have access to wonderful books and the literacy hour means that we have to think of imaginative ways of using them. The idea is not to do a token Irish book because we have to or because we're being 'multicultural', but to use them as a matter of course. Some wonderful work has been produced as a result."

St Oswald's has always been a book-laden school. Open-plan infant and junior reading areas were set-up to coincide with the launch of the literacy hour.

Literacy co-ordinator Helen Lennon's Year 5 pupils have added their hand-made copies of "The Children of Lir" to the Irish publications, and covered their classroom walls in Celtic designs and illustrations for Oscar Wilde's fairy tale "The Happy Prince".

Indeed, sometimes Irish literature work means simply identifying as Irish an already well-loved writer, such as Wilde or Martin Waddell, whose ballad "Poor Tom and the Mountains of Mourne" was a literacy hour shared reading text at St Oswald's. The tale of poor Tom Murphy whose father was hung, brave Nancy Bell, the villain Ranehan and the Excise Man led to dynamic playwriting exercises.

The class followed its first Irish book, Fin McCoul: the Giant of Knockmany Hill by Tomi de Paola, back to its roots on the Giant's Causeway. Through the Warrington Project's Northern Ireland office, St Oswald's now has partner schools in Derry and Strathfoyle and the Year 5 class spent three days in Derry last term.

Yvette Blake, literacy co-ordinator and deputy head at Park Road primary, has also explored partnership. Her school has set up e-mail contact with St Patrick's school in Blackrock, Co Wicklow. Park Road's Year 3 then called on St Patrick's for help to find the real island where the Sleeping Giant slept for 100 years in Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick's retelling of the story. "That generated real excitement," said Mrs Blake.

Years 5 and 6 at Park Road and St Patrick's are now comparing the work of authors with local connections. Both schools have read Alan Garner's The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and Battle Below Giltspur in the Giltspur trilogy by Cormac MacRaois, and exchanged reports on visits to Garner country (Alderley Edge, Cheshire) and MacRaois country (the Wicklow mountains).

Mrs Blake believes that the influx of new material has worked well with the literacy hour structure. "The literacy hour has given a focus to my teaching and children are being given a taste of the wide range of books, which they can then return to on their own."

She has also found that the gutsy stories in the Celtic Magic Tales collection by Liam MacUistin have provided an antidote to the Disney-fied view of fairy tales that many pupils had at the beginning of the year. Year 5 loved the "rather bloodthirsty, but very moving" story of Mir and Aideen. "It has very powerful language, and its treatment of prophecy tied in with work we had done on Greek myths. It's strong stuff."

Her notes in a progress report written last term list the range of emotions the children discussed after reading the story in three literacy hours. Honour, betrayal, pride, sorrow and revenge are all there. And, she adds, "one boy admitted to having a tear in his eye". Strong stuff indeed.

An update on all the Warrington Project's Ireland in Schools work is available on its website, www.warrington.gov.ukwphome.htm or from PO Box 282, Warrington WA1 1NH

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