Patricia O’Higgins and Brendan Brogan – A Thank You

This is something that I’ve been meaning to do for the longest time so please bear with me on it.

Teachers sometimes get a bad press.  They get great holidays and they finish quite early in the afternoon and it’s often steady reliable work and they drink tea in the staff room…


But teachers get to do remarkable things, when they do it right.  They leave little ‘Time Bombs’ in our heads.  They can plant things in there, thoughts, ideas, aspirations, that can sit dormant for years – decades even – and then, boom, suddenly those little bombs are a part of what we are.

Two teachers, in particular, have left a lasting impression on me and, even at the age of 47 now, I still think of them often and what they did for me.

Brendan Brogan taught me for all of my years in Primary School (thank God) and Patricia O’Higgins taught me French and then English in Secondary School.

Let me tell you a bit about them.  These are my memories, they may not be entirely correct.

My older brothers had both been in Brendan Brogan’s class before me and, when it came time for me to go to the school, they told me that I’d be lucky if I got him.  That September morning we lined up in the playground, one by one, and two teachers stood, each to one side, at the head of the line. One was Mr Brogan, the other was a Christian Brother who’s name I don’t remember.  The children stepped forward and, in a rudimentary selection process, were moved one to Mr Brogan’s side and one to the other.

In a quick calculation, I saw that I was destined for the Brother’s class so I quickly turned to the kid behind me and said ‘Swap?’.  He did.  This was probably one of the best moves of my life.

Brendan Brogan was no ‘walk in the park’.  He was a serious, committed teacher who brooked little foolishness from his pupils.  But he was always fair and enthusiastic and accessible.  The school has since been recognised as a place where malice and genuine pain lurked in certain of the classrooms.  Brendan Brogan’s classroom was an Oasis of safety and learning in the midst of the place.  I don’t say this without firm knowledge of the facts for, on the rare days when our teacher was off sick or on a break, we were exposed to the physical brutality and pervading fear which walked the corridors outside our room.

But this post is not the time to dwell on that.  This post is to celebrate Mr Brogan and how very well he taught us.

He always encouraged drama in the class and, often, a group would stay in at the breaks and prepare a little play to show to the rest of us.  Whenever I meet a follow pupil of my class, we always seem to recall the same play.  In it, a character encountered something scary and, in an astonishing special effect, this person’s hat shot right up off of his head.  Afterwards, we were shown how it was done, which perhaps spoiled it a bit, but it was still a bit of pure magic there in our Oasis classroom and many of us remember it still.  I think that this willingness to ‘do’ drama influenced me and made me fearless of making my own.  This was one of those brilliant ‘Time Bombs’ which, years later, went off for me.

The thing I loved most about Brendan Brogan’s class, though, was how he brought his own life into the room.  He gave us his love of Irish Songs and he instilled a modicum of National Pride in the most subtle of ways.  While we were with him, five years, I think it was, he found the love of his life, Eileen, he married her, they went to Rome on their Honeymoon and we chipped in and bought him a weighing-scales as a present.  She was a Nurse and we learned that the Irish for Nurse was ‘Banaltra’ and, forever afterwards, when ever she came into the classroom, Eileen was ‘Banaltra’ to me.  Once, she left the sewing things on the chair at home and Brendan came in and sat on them, damaging his arse…

These are things that pupils don’t always get to know about their teachers.  But Brendan generously showed us his life and it was a fine example of how to live ours.

I’ve always wanted to say it to you - and, indeed, I am resolved to post you this when I’m done - that you were a Brilliant Brilliant Teacher and thank you so much for that.


In secondary school, Patricia O’Higgins started out teaching me French but, from minute one, she started influencing me in English and Writing and she never stopped quietly doing just that.

Day one, we did a poem (in English) called ‘Blackberry Picking’ by Seamus Heaney.  We looked at each other, “English… in French” we muttered.  I can see that poem still.  She asked us what we were reading, ‘Enid Blyton’, they answered, ‘Whizzer and Chips’ and there was me, in the middle, having just finished ‘Papillon’ by Henri Charriere, was halfway through ‘Banco’ and secretly had ‘The Dice Man’ under my belt.

Later, that first class, when she was giving out books for the class to read – books of that Enid Blyton ilk, she gave me ‘The Dark’ by John McGahern, quietly saying, ‘I think you might like this…’

This quiet relationship of encouragement came to the fore when I moved from John Benson’s class (with an excellent grounding from him) to Mrs O’Higgins class for the ‘Leaving Cert’ years.

I can’t put my finger on this as well as I could for Brendan Brogan – I think that’s because I was a teen now and the time bombs had to be planted more subtly, lest I reject them out of adolescent defiance – but Patricia made me feel as if I could be a writer.  Somehow she seemed to look at me as a writer.

She told me once I had a ‘nice, chatty, style’ and that simple phrase has consciously coloured every word I have written ever since.  That’s may sound crazy but it is quite true – such is the influence of the Brilliant Teacher.

On the day I left the Technical College in Ballinode, Sligo, I knew I was bound for Dublin and Third Level Education.  On that day, she said to me, “I think Dublin will be good for you and for your writing.”

My writing?  I had ‘writing’?  In that final touch, she had validated my sub conscious dreams to be a writer and thus she sent me out into the world.

And, as must often be the case with Time Bombs, I went out into the world and wrote not a word for many long years after.  But the Bomb was there and when it finally went off, it went off hard such that I now must write every day or I am not at peace.

People who read this blog know that I don’t brag about writing achievements but, for you, my teachers, I have to say:  Seven produced radio plays, five produced theatre plays, a film, Shortlisted for P.J. O’Connor Award, winner of Dickens Museum short story prize, winner of London Radio Playwright’s Festival, shortlisted Society of Irish Playwrights One Act Play competition… and still trying, still always trying.

So thanks, Patricia.  I feel bad calling you Patricia but I think you might let me off.  I found a picture of you on the Internet (at Trinity, with Family) and you look great.  You did a great thing for me, and  for many others too, I have no doubt.

I just wanted to say thanks for it.



Jim Murdoch said...

Dick Jones has just posted a similar blog talking about how he was encouraged as a kid at school. I wasn’t discouraged – all my English teachers were nice – but I simply wasn’t ready to be encouraged. Yes, I was writing what one could loosely call poetry but it was crap and no one would have thought it was anything other than a phase I was going through and that it would all come to nothing. I wish I’d shown more promise then so that they could have encouraged me but it really wasn’t until I’d left school and started investigating literature on my own (because I got no encouragement at home either) that I started to find a voice and produce stuff that was actually publishable. So I’m jealous. Dead jealous of the two of you. But pleased as well. I’m sure some other me in some other universe got all the encouragement he ever needed and is Poet Laureate right now.

seoirse mac enri said...

Hi ken
I also share your fond memories of Mr Brogan 40 years on we still maintain a good friendship though I still call him Mr Brogan I suppose it's the esteem I hold him in I can't bring myself to call him Brendan.He was a teacher ahead of his time we were young individual adults to him not just screaming kids to be force fed a proscribed
curriculum remember under him we formed a class library learned austrian dance latin requiem mass
and swimming classes.I shan't dwell
but we really were the lucky ones considering what also occured at that school.Last year I recommended your blog to Mr Brogan
to read the 'pupple knickers '
story guess what he remembered it straight off he has great recall
of so many students considering the amount he would have taught over the years so hopefully he has seen and read this post .Keep writing and jogging my failing memories

Ken Armstrong said...

Hi Jim, your comments raises the question, "would I have ended up writing by myself or did I need the encouragment?" It's a tough one to answer.

I do know when I was in a non-writing place in the early 90's and I entered and won a radio play competition, that was encouragment enough to keep me at it until today (and hopefully beyond). :)

So the encouragement helps, I reckon.

Hey George, I was thinking of you, writing this. Thanks for coming by and reading it. I'm going to post this to Mr. Brogan (you're right, Mr Brogan) anyway. My Dad and he have met up a few times in the last few years - they have some sad facts in common, alas.

You're also kind in not correcting the myriad of mistakes I must have made but that's memory, mate, isn't it?

Stay well, keep in touch. k

Karen Redman said...

Hi Ken, I managed to get in touch with my English & French teachers to say thank you to them a few years ago. I was SO glad I did as I maintained a correspondence with them thereafter. Always pays to say thanks so if anyone ever has any doubts about doing so, they shouldn't have. Sadly my French teacher died a couple of years ago but I heard from her husband and apparently she'd been absolutely thrilled that I'd made contact and was always telling him that a thank you made her job worthwhile. x

Dave King said...

It's a while since I came to your blog - my loss, not yours - and I see that your blogging has changed a tad since I did. This one inevitably plunged me back into my early years to compare how I fared with your experiences. I, too, would say that two teachers left your time bombs in me. The rest were largely forgettable or worse. I was not so fortunate, though, when it came to literature. Seamus Heaney? The Pied Piper of Hamelin!

Anonymous said...

In 1991, I was a foreign exchange student from France in Sligo. I was staying with Patricia O'Higgins' family in Strandhill. Her son Cian was my penpal. I'd like to reconnect with them some time. But I couldn't track them down (other than in the phone book, but that's kind of awkward calling up on the phone after 21 years).

Ken Armstrong said...

I'd say if you wrote to him at Strandhill, Co. Sligo, that would almost certainly get there.

Ireland is like that. :)

Unknown said...

Hey Ken. I stumbled upon your Blog after 'Googling' Patricia O'Higgins. A moment of gratitude for my interest in reading drew my reflections to Sr. Rita who taught me 1st yr English in the Ursuline Convent and 'Polly' O'Higgins who took up the baton in 5th yr. Both were wonderful inspirational mentors and each book-ended a barren literary oasis in my life. Patricia's pivotal offering to me from her press at the back of the room was 'Catcher in the Rye' which immediately assumed the status of contraband as I smuggled the offensive text passed the parental censorship board. It ended badly but that's another story. Delighted to echo your homage to Patricia O'Higgins and congratulations on your body of literary work, it is a credit to yourself and those who nurtured your craft.