By Mary O’Brien
While looking through a copy of the Irish Independent newspaper a few years ago I came across an obituary for a man in his nineties whom I had known when I was in my teens. A mixture of nostalgia and regret came over me as I mistakenly believed that the man in question had died years earlier.
Mr. McCann was my English teacher in local Technical School I attended in the early Sixties. Of average height, stocky build and pleasant, his few remaining stands of prematurely grey-hair were drawn across the top of his head to hide his near baldness. He was always neatly dressed in a grey suit with a shirt and tie.
Mr. McCann was passionate about literature and art and if we wanted to distract his attention for any reason we would ask him to recite one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. He always rose to the bait.
‘Macker’ as we called him was very well liked by all his students. He was an inspirational teacher, who believed that every child had a talent for something. He was aware that no matter how academically gifted any of us were, lack of money would restrict our progress.
Free secondary education was still a few years away and University education was the preserve of the rich.
After attending the local Convent National School since the age of three, the transition to the ‘Tech’ – with its male and female teachers – was a pleasant surprise.
I had always been one of the top students in my class but I never felt inspired until I met Mr. McCann. His interpretation of English literature was second to none, as for the first time in my life Shakespeare became real.
It was as though the Bard himself had stepped out of the pages of his Collected Works, transcended the centuries and entered the classroom, giving me a bird’s eye view of what life was like in his time.
Every word began to resonate with me and I realised that Shakespeare’s message was as relevant to the Sixties as it was to his own time four centuries earlier.
Under Mr. McCann’s direction, not only did I develop a passion for the works of Shakespeare, I also began to read other classical writers in my free time. Names like Jane Austin, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Gaskell, Thomas Hardy, Mark Twain, the Bronte sisters, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett and Jonathan Swift became as familiar to me as my own.
My bedtime reading also included poetry; in particular the works of the War Poets – Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Mr. McCann lit a fire in me that never went out.
As well as encouraging me to read the classics, Mr. McCann also encouraged my love of art. He used to lend me his own art books about the lives and works of the great Masters, as art appreciation was not on our course syllabus. I became familiar with names like Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, van Gogh, Titian and Raphael.
When I left the Tech to start work as a junior secretary in a local office, I took with me Mr. McCann’s message that real education begins after one leaves school and that books are the source of all knowledge. He also taught me that museums, art galleries and theatres were temples of learning.
By some strange twist of fate, I found myself living in London a few years later where, for the first time, I saw an opportunity to study for a University degree. After I had graduated with honours, I tried to contact Mr. Cann to tell him of my success and to thank him for inspiring me when I was one of his students in the tech. I knew that he would be delighted hear that one of his class had benefitted from all his hard work.
What I discovered, however, was that Mr McCann had retired overseas with his wife.
I learned through reading his obituary that Mr. McCann had moved to the UK on a two-year teaching contract and that he had returned home after it had expired. I also discovered that at the time of my graduation, Mr. McCann had been living in England in a city less than 60 miles away from where I was based!
Had I known, I would have invited him to my graduation ceremony, as I feel certain he would have liked that very much.
My one regret in life is that I never got the opportunity to thank this inspiring teacher for all the hard work he put in on behalf of his students so that we could make the best of our lives. I have no doubt that other students also have reason to be grateful to Mr. McCann, who I still remember with gratitude 50 year later. ÷