Master Danny: A Lesson In Quiet Determination.

Margaret Farren

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"The college in Glasnevin - a big granite building - was run by the Christian brothers and they were very good to me. I enjoyed it there and had no bother really. I picked up the Irish in a week or two [an experience which has strongly influenced his theory of language teaching] and the only thing I had some difficulty with would have been mathematics or algebra. But I had a great friend who was a genius and if I was ever stuck he would help me out. He was a Co. Mayo fellow. He's there yet in Co. Meath and is the editor of a book for business people. He taught for a while and then went to Canada and got into the central heating business. It was probably new at the time! He was also a great motor mechanic. He had a little car - before anyone had a car - and he never had to go to a mechanic. He was naturally gifted, some people are just like that. I can't remember the make of his car. It was a wee square thing. Was there such a thing as a Baby Ford? Maybe that was it.

"Anyway going straight into Clonmany after the college was a rude awakening. The training did not prepare you for the reality of about three or four classes up on top of you. Placements from the college always involved teaching to one class in the presence of the regular teacher and a supervisor from the college. And that was very difficult, but you put up with it!

"In reality you had, as I said, three or four classes to teach at the one time. In Cluainte before the war we had about eighty children. During the war a lot of people came back from England and Scotland and the numbers swelled to over a hundred. We had the numbers for another teacher but they wouldn't appoint another teacher because of space. The rule was ten square feet per pupil but we had to wait about five years for our extra space. During that five years, Mrs Atcheson had both infants' classes and 1st and 2nd classes - about sixty pupils. I had 3rd, 4th 5th and 6th - again about sixty pupils. Four classes each! How could you be expected to teach in those conditions? It was nearly impossible. You had to keep one half of the room busy while you endeavoured to teach something to the other half. Very often I'd get them to imagine they were in someplace like Paris for the day and ask them to write a composition. I remember one girl wrote a great composition. I meant to keep it but I lost it. She was one of the Lackins and a brilliant child at writing compositions. She mentioned the Folies Bergere and the Eiffel Tower. She must have been reading magazines."

Master Danny himself had a certain fondness for things European and well remembers a publication which started to appear through his letter box in the early days of his career which outlined the methods of teaching favoured in France and Germany.

"They started being sent to me before and during the war, first from America and then from the Common Market and they were particularly interesting on the subject of language teaching. I think the reason teaching Irish was never very successful was there was far too much emphasis on grammar. You'll never teach a language from a grammar book. If you landed in Tokyo by some miracle and had to get by without any English, you'd be fluent in Japanese by the end of a fortnight. That was how I learned Irish at the college. You have to be in the company of people who speak it and who will encourage you to speak it. I remember doing Mac Ri na hEireann one day in school when the inspector came in. He was a West Donegal man and a man I had an awful lot of run-ins with. There was one big long sentence and one child read it out and the inspector stopped and asked the child 'Cad e an aimsir fhaistineach den briathar sin?/ What's the future tense of that verb?' That was no help to the child to speak the language! You have to learn it naturally, like I did. But that wasn't the official system. The Department knew it all and we teachers on the ground knew nothing [laughs]"

Danny's tolerance for his pupils' many and varied abilities and his genuine affection for them frequently set him at loggerheads with the inspector. Not only did he have to teach in very adverse conditions and achieve acceptable standards without any allowance being made for the routine difficulties of over-crowding, but he was determined to do it in a way which preserved the dignity of the pupils. In other words he wished to teach and keep order without violence or intimidation. The last thing he was prepared to countenance on top of all the other daily challenges was unwanted interference, even if he ran the risk of being labelled inefficient by the inspector.

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