'art, me & school days'


I guess I have always been a creative spirit. Ask my parents... All through my childhood I would paint and sketch pictures. I would make things like a replica of a football trophy, I would record myself doing impressions of famous people or I would spend countless hours designing what I felt should be the next Manchester United and Ireland football shirts. I have always had an obsession with football shirts and that continues today with a treasured collection that has accumulated over the years.

I had two teachers throughout my school years that always encouraged my artist side... Maggie Walshe in Claregalway Primary School and Judy Owens in Móinín na gCiseah Secondary School. Miss Walshe had always seen something in me before I even saw it myself. She actively encouraged me to paint & create and allow my paintbrush to express myself. I have always been a perfectionist (to a fault at times!). I would have an obsession with having things exact, lines perfectly straight, things 100% parallel with not a hint of abnormality but Miss Walshe instilled in me to not be afraid to make a mistake, for no two brushstrokes are the same. She had an incredible energy which transcended onto me and she spoke with such passion! I couldn't help but feel inspired and encouraged by her. I was only 8 when she taught me but those lessons will last a lifetime and it is my sincere hope she will read this and get some understanding of the huge impact she had on my life. She was also a beautiful soul. I could see how the other teachers all fed off of her upbeat spirit. She really was a breath of fresh air. A joy to be around and I will never forget her patience and kindness. I really hope we cross paths again one day.

I was enrolled at Móinín na gCiseach secondary school at the age of 12 and I was determined to keep art as a chosen subject. I was very fortunate to have Miss Owens for my full six years there. My brother and sister were also very good at art. All three of us had very different styles but my brother attended this school and always spoke highly of Miss Owens so I was thrilled to get into her class. Right from the off we got along brilliantly. I guess it really helps to have a student who loves the subject but like Miss Walshe, Miss Owens was an incredibly inspiring lady who spoke with such passion and energy. I loved it! She also had a toughness to her that I benefited greatly from. It's the easiest thing in the world as a teenager to feel too cool for school and sometimes I was guilty of slacking but Miss Owens always drove me on and kept me motivated. You could ask me about any teacher I ever had and I could instantly give you a quote that I associate with them. You see, I have always studied people closely and this has proved a very powerful tool for when I'm taking on a character in a movie. Miss Owens' quote for me, will always be, "Don't paint what you think you see. Don't paint what you want to see. Paint EXACTLY what you see in front of you!" 

I vividly remember one assignment she gave us where we were given the strict instruction of, "Go home this evening. Open your wardrobe. Sit down and sketch EXACTLY what you see in front of you. Don't tidy it first, don't sketch what you think or want to be there. Sketch EXACTLY what you see in front of you"... Well, the next day when she was checking our work and after seeing mine she almost laughed and said, "Oh come on! There is no way a teenage boy's wardrobe is this tidy! I just don't believe it for a second!" But the truth is, I have always had an obsessive collection of football shirts which I mind and store immaculately! Always have and still do to this day! It took some convincing but I think she realised how much of a perfectionist I can be that day.

There was another teacher in Móinín that I must give a mention to and that's a lady called Miss Lucy. I didn't have Miss Lucy as an art teacher but she did ask for me to design the front cover of the school magazine one time. One student popped, "You only want him to do it because you think he's gonna be an artist". To which Miss Lucy replied, "I don't think he's gonna be an artist. He IS an artist!" I was deeply saddened to learn that Miss Lucy has since passed away but I'll never forget her vote of confidence that day.

The way the art exams worked for my Leaving Cert was a huge percentage of my overall grade was based on art history. Now, I have nothing but respect for all the great artists throughout history but I just wanted to paint for that class, not read. I wanted to create my own style and not be influenced by anyone else. It bored me to tears to read about them and Miss Owens knew this so she called me to her desk one day for a chat. She explained her fear of my talent not being enough. She worried about me getting a low grade because I wasn't paying enough attention to the history side of things. I knew she was right but I found it so hard to study anything that didn't interest me. But when I went home that very day a commercial came on the T.V and I couldn't believe my luck... The History Channel was having a week long tribute to all the great artists. Monday to Friday, an hour long special on each of them. I recorded each programme and watched them back, taking notes along the way and the info just stuck and I nailed my exam as I knew I should!

At the end of my six years in that school, I made a point of speaking with the teachers who I truly owed a lot to and of course Miss Owens was very high on that list. I then revealed a secret that I had kept from her for the full six years. No, not my undying love but the fact that I was in actual fact colourblind! To this day, I'm pretty sure she still doesn't believe me. I'll never forget her literally taking a step back and bursting out with, "WHAT!? But you cannot be!? How could you be?! You're use of colour is fantastic!" After explaining how my good friend Deirdre Foley had been mixing my paints for the full six years, I then just smiled and added, "Don't forget, Miss, Beethoven was deaf".   

Of course, there have been many teachers who have had a lasting impression on me and if they ever find themselves reading this, I want them to know how much I appreciate them still to this day. Being a teacher is a very difficult job. They need to strike the right balance of knowledge, patience, understanding, toughness and the ability to transfer that knowledge in a passionate way that holds the interest of a bunch of kids or teenagers. No easy task!

Thinking back on every teacher I ever had and in order, here are ones that really stood out for me. In Claregalway Primary school, my Senior Infants teacher Patricia Walsh. I always remember enjoying my time in her class! She was a great teacher and very funny too, I recall. Again, she had a toughness to her at times and you just wanted to do well for her! I was only 6 when I was in her class but I remember we were doing a reading exercise where she was telling us the importance of 'taking a beat' in between each sentence. Recognise the full stop and take a brief pause before starting the next. To emphasise her point, she said, "count to three in your head before starting the next sentence. I am going to read the first few lines of the story as an example and then each of you in turn will read a sentence each". I was there thinking, "Nobody is counting to three! Huh, I'll show them and she'll praise me!" Along came my turn and there I was, calm and confident in my head, "ONE....TWO...." When the teacher interrupted my trail of thought, "Eugene! You have no idea where we are in the story, do you?! Pay attention!" Ah man!, I blew it! She never mentioned it should be a fast count to three! All these years later, I'm thrilled to say that we have reconnected and remain in touch.

I then moved on to the lovely Mrs. Murphy. Mrs Murphy was a very sweet, kind and nurturing lady who treated you like you were one of her own kids. You just knew she genuinely cared for you and we all loved her in return. She was the first person to ever sit me in front of a computer. I felt like I had just landed in space! Wow, she had a lot of faith in me at 7 years old! Good thing I did really like her and her family because there has been no escaping them! Her daughter was in my class, her husband ended up being my boss years later and I worked with her son! A beautiful family, really great people!

When I was 11 years old I entered my final year in Primary School and our year was split in to two classrooms. I was assigned to Mr. Kirk's class. Now, let me explain... Mr. Kirk came with a fierce reputation! We all heard the stories. We all knew of these phantom kids who didn't survive a year with him! He was as much feared as he was respected but Mr. Kirk turned out to be one of my favourites! He won me over immediately when he brought in his collection of Manchester United autographs! I'm talking about the iconic Busby Babes! George Best, Duncan Edwards, Nobby Styles, Bobby Charlton, the lot! I was in total awe running my finger over these legends handwriting embedded into the page. I pleaded with him to give me one or two or at very least the George Best one! I didn't care that they were all dedicated 'To Bernard'. Heck, I would've changed my name to get my hands on those! I eventually accepted and respected the fact he wouldn't part with them but then things got even worse when he told me he was a Sunderland supporter! To be fair, he did later give me a photocopy of all of the autographs! I vividly remember one day where I accidentally (I promise) broke a window while our teacher was out. Mr. Kirk wasn't my teacher at the time but so began my lonely walk from my classroom to the teachers lounge to admit to what I had done. The whole walk I was thinking, "Please let Miss Walshe or Miss Murphy be in there". Nope, it just had to be Mr. Kirk! I think I found out that day, exactly what it would be like to walk from the halfway line to take a sudden death penalty kick in a World Cup final against Peter Schmeichel!

We actually turned out to be Mr. Kirk's final class. He went on to become Director of the Galway Education Centre. I remember seeing a much softer side to him the day he left. It really strikes a chord with you when you see a notoriously tough individual reduced to tears as he says a final farewell. We did a collection, I think one pound each, and bought him a pair of cuff links because man, could that guy dress! He was deeply touched by the gesture.

I must also take the opportunity to mention our Principal Mr. Coen. I remember Mr. Coen's first day and it's hard to believe he is now retired! I took to him immediately. He had a very calming influence. I believe he had the right balance. He didn't strike fear into you but you knew not to cross him. At the same time, you knew his door was always open! I just really liked him! Occasionally, he would fill in for a teacher if they were absent and although my experiences of him as an actual teacher were few and far between, I always remember enjoying his lessons. On our very last day in Claregalway, our parents were invited. Mr. Coen shook my mothers hand and told her, "He'll make you millions one day". I think he was referring to my goalkeeping skills at the time but I'm still determined to prove him right!

Going from the oldest class in Primary to the youngest in a brand new school was always gonna be an eye opener and although I cannot say I ever loved school, I must say I do have good memories of it. How many times would you hear adults say, "I'm telling you, these are the best days of your life!" And as a teenager I just kept thinking, "It has to get better than this!" I was a middle of the class type student. I had my favourite subjects which I excelled in and the others, I just did enough. I didn't like my time or energy to be spent on things I didn't like. Art was my number one, along with English. I loved English! I loved creative writing, as you may have gathered if you're still reading this! I was good at Geography because my knowledge of football would make me aware of the most unusual places in the world. I would know their football team and the national flag. I had a huge fascination with flags and the meaning behind them! In Claregalway, we did most subjects in Irish so I was really strong at the Irish language going into secondary but it really took me by suprise how nobody else was. The Claregalway students were so far ahead that I know my own Irish language suffered a little as we appeared to stand still while the rest tried to catch up.

I did have some very memorable teachers in Móinín. I've already spoke about Miss Owens but another would be 'Big Joe'. Mr. McLoughlin, was the last of a dying bread of teacher. He ruled with an iron fist. He struck fear into everyone and reduced the biggest guys to tears. He's the reason I started to shave my head and I'll explain that in a moment.. but what a man and what a teacher!  I really loved this guy! Big Joe, as he was affectionately known, was a friend of my fathers so I thought, "Nice, he'll go easy on me". Boy was I wrong. If anything, he was tougher on me, more determined to see me succeed and it stood to me. If you didn't know a particular answer he used to grab you by your sideburns and begin to lift you by them but he'd tell you to stay sitting. Let me tell you, that hurt! So, I thought the best solution was to shave my head. Not to be outdone, the next time I failed to produce an answer I simply got a friendly kick in the shin instead! Believe it or not, it was all done in good fun and everybody knew that. Yes, I'd be subject to some very embarrassing stories about times he'd call to our house when I was a kid but I always felt driven to do my best for him. Touching on something I mentioned earlier about relating a quote to each teacher, Big Joe's was very simple and he'd say it at the start of each year. "Let this be our motto for the year. Anything we do, we do it well". 

He was a very proud native speaker and he had a wonderful way of teaching it. I still have my old copy book from his class because it is filled with beautiful Irish phrases and poems. He told us what the name of our school really meant. 'Móinín na gCiseash' -'A path through marshy ground'. I wonder how many students there today know that. He told us to always write the school name in Irish and to ignore the often used English version. He taught us to be patriotic and proud of our Irish heritage and I truly am.

I recall one day, Big Joe asked us to take on a rather unusual assignment. He wanted everyone in the class to write a story, no particular length, of what God & religion meant to them. There were no right or wrong answers and I'm not quiet sure why we were asked to do it. Perhaps he was just curious but I really enjoyed that story. I just spoke openly and honestly and from the heart. I do remember bits of what I wrote but not all of it. After he read them, he called me aside and asked if I would mind if he kept the paper and showed it to some teachers in the staff room during break. I was a little surprised but had no problem with it. Later he told me that he left the paper on a table for all the teachers to read. There was no name attached and he asked them all to guess what age student wrote that paper. He told me they all said, a very mature final year student with their head well screwed on. I was only in first year and just turned 13. He told me he was truly fascinated at my views. I never did get that paper back but I often thought how I'd love to read it even now, to see exactly how I did think back then and how it compares to now. 

Another couple of teachers that left a huge impression on me are Philip Cribbin Jr and Sean O'Loughlin. I purposely mention them both together because they felt like a package deal! These two guys, from what I understood, were best buds and they were the two youngest teachers who I felt could best relate to the students. Mr. Cribbin was the son of another former teacher of mine and later Principal, Philip Cribbin Snr and I knew the entire Cribbin family from my home village of Claregalway. Really good, well respected and decent people. Philip Cribbin Jr taught me english and although I always loved the subject, it was through him that I really developed a deeper level of thought in general. I really looked forward to his class everyday and I know I bombarded him with questions. We would read a book and go through it with a fine tooth comb. He would ask students, "So, tell me in your own words, what was that all about?" And although he would always encourage your own interpretation of it, he would then add, "Or... and maybe I'm wrong but could this possibly be a metaphor for something else?" Before you knew it, the entire story became something completely different. He would have made a fantastic lawyer! I'm not saying he brainwashed us into thinking something else, not at all! But he did make us dig deeper, look at a bigger picture and realise that things aren't always as they seem. It was an invaluable life lesson that extended a long way from the classroom and my school years. I sometimes think of these guys and the guidance they offered to me and wonder if they have any idea the impact they have had on people's lives, or do enough people even tell them!? I sure hope so!

Sean O'Loughlin was another really brilliant teacher. I had him for history class. Now, I always had a fascination and genuine interest in history but I did struggle a little. To quote an unnamed kid from my class at the time who had no interest whatsoever in school... When Mr. O'Loughlin once asked him, "Have you any interest at all in history? Do you even want to be here?" The kid replied, "I do Sir, don't me wrong! It's just, history goes so far back!" That made me laugh so much but he had a point! I think it was the political side of things that I struggled with because I simply had no interest whatsoever. Even now, I cannot stand politics but I'll get back to that in a moment. Mr. O'Loughlin was one of the teachers that accompanied our school trip to Bradford in 1999. On that trip, the first thing he and Mrs. Darcy said to us was, "For the next few days, we are 'Sean & Nora'. We're here to help but relax and enjoy yourselves. Both teachers really provided a great atmosphere on that trip and it was really lovely to get to know them on a more personal level. Sean was one of the lads and we would have lengthy conversations about football. He too was a big Manchester United fan.

In Irish history, you were either a Michael Collins fan or an Eamon De Velera fan. There was no middle ground. From 1st year to 3rd year we had Mr. Hannify. A teacher who simply idolised Collins. But for our Leaving Cert years we had Mr. O'Loughlin who was a De Velera supporter. I'm certainly not gonna preach that either teacher was right or wrong. In fact, they both fought a good debate with their views but we were being taught in a contradicting style and people didn't know who to listen to! I did heard some complain about it..."Who do we listen to? I don't wanna fail my exams because one one these guys are wrong and they can't both be right?!" I could understand their concern but I thought the different views were fascinating. It was interesting how both men had completely opposite beliefs but they were equally as confident and passionate in delivering their argument. I remember making the point to my classmates that it didn't matter who was right or wrong. It was about stating the facts, making up your own mind and fighting your own corner. Delivering your own argument. Nobody could fail you for speaking your own beliefs. It was another life lesson. Two sides to a story, two sides to an argument. Nothing is ever straight forward. Years later I bumped into Mr. O' Loughlin and we had a really good catch up. I told him how he and Mr.Cribbin could always relate to the students because they were the youngest teachers. He then laughed and said, "We're now probably the oldest!" I asked about all my former teachers but I was shocked at how many had passed away since! Had it really been that long? Life really does fly by. Take nothing for granted!

Mr. Hannify was another really likeable man. I found him very approachable and he kept you interested. He knew how to hold the attention of a bunch of wild teenagers! A big sports fan, he was hugely successful as a basketball coach, although I never played. He was guilty of some wicked bad jokes, however... like, "What is the difference between 'illegal' and 'against the law'?" Wow, that one had the whole class stumped for the full 40 minutes until he revealed the answer. "Ill-eagle is a sick bird". We had to restrain ourselves from throwing something at him! We all really liked him though, I must say. A gentleman. I think that sums him up best for me.

I realise this is an extremely long blog entry and if you stayed with me to the end, I applaud you! I'm also very grateful! This has been a nice trip down memory lane for me. As I said previously, being a teacher is not an easy job. And not all teachers during my school years were suited to the job either. I've always been a straight talker. I tell it as I see it and yes, that has landed me in hot water at times but I believe in speaking my truth, standing my ground and having manners and respect along the way. I have experienced some woefully bad teachers down the years too. So many have lacked the people skills, or certainly the skills to deal with kids. Others lacked patience. Or manners and respect (because that is a two way street). Others belonged nowhere near a five mile radius of underage teenagers and many simply did not know how to apply their knowledge in a way that interested a student or was even understood by one. I'm just briefly touching on this to emphasise the really good ones I highlighted all along. The teachers I have named are all held in high esteem by me. I have the utmost respect and admiration for them. I also owe them a great dept of gratitude. If any of them should find themselves reading this, just know I often think of you guys. Your lessons continue to teach me and inspire me.

Nowadays, I speak more Polish than I do Irish and I might find myself thinking, "Oh, if Big Joe only heard me now, forgetting the most basic Irish word now, he'd kill me!"

I must be honest, I'm writing this blog right now and I'm thinking, Mr. Cribbin could be cringing at a collection of spelling mistakes or bad grammar!

But I must say, earlier this year I was commissioned to do a portrait painting of the legendary Arnold Schwarzenegger. I was then invited to a private meeting at his hotel to have my painting signed by the great man. It was auctioned later that night and sold for a substantial amount. At that moment I thought of Miss Walshe and Miss Owens. My two most inspiring art teachers. That very moment is worth its weight in gold when it comes to summarising those two ladies and their belief in me. Thank you both and just know that you continue to inspire me every single time my brush hits the canvas...