Bryan Michael MacMahon – Portrait of an extraordinary teacher and human being

— By Phyllis Mitchell

This profile of the great writer and teacher Bryan MacMahon is taken from an early edition of Education Matters, the specialist medium for educators established by Phyllis Mitchell in 1987. Although the piece is 30 years old, it is in essence timeless. It is published here to mark and celebrate thirty years of Education Matters.

Thirty years ago, in 1987, Phyllis Mitchell established 'Education Matters', a specialist newsprint publication for educators across all sectors.

Thirty years ago, in 1987, Phyllis Mitchell established ‘Education Matters’, a specialist newsprint publication for educators across all sectors.

[dropcap]B[/dropcap]ryan MacMahon’s feet are deeply and firmly rooted in Kerry soil. Born in Listowel, seventy-eight years ago, he has lived and worked there all his life, as did his father and grandfather before him. This rootedness in a rural town has had a considerable influence on his personality, accounting perhaps for a certain down-to-earth solidity, and even pragmatism, in his character.

However, if Bryan MacMahon’s feet are firmly on the ground, his head is surely in the stars. For his practicality is combined with a rare creative genius. He shows little trace of those characteristics associated with your proverbial mad artist, but nevertheless the irrepressible flame of his creative imagination lights up his personality and conversation, giving colour and vitality to his practical wisdom.

A husband and father of five, a teacher, bookshop owner, writer of poems, short stories, plays and novels and a lecturer – he has done the things he put his mind to superlatively well. Poet and sage, at 78 he continues to live a full rich life as writer, lecturer, guest speaker and adviser on literary subjects.


In his time, Mr. MacMahon has taught all classes at primary level, from kindergarten to sixth. He has a keen appreciation of the potential influence of teachers, and maintains that properly selected and trained, given proper working conditions and with the backing of people who matter, teachers could change the history of a nation in one decade.

To be an effective teacher, however, it is necessary to have certain qualities. A good teacher must first of all have a gift of communication. If a man or a woman can rivet the attention of students, so that his or her words are penetrating them like lances, that person can teach.

“Children can teach each other for a while.”

Alongside this ability to communicate there has to be the quality of infectious enthusiasm. It is out of his own experience that Mr. MacMahon’s conviction regarding this quality of enthusiasm is born. A highly disciplined man himself, in his early days as a teacher he “ran a tight ship”. But as time went on, he softened. He quickly came to realise both with regard to his own five sons and with regard to his pupils that over-pushing them academically was not a good idea. Communicating one’s own infectious enthusiasm is a much more vital way of motivating pupils and getting them interested. For learning really is “caught, not taught”.

Nobody can give what he hasn’t got, or in the pithy words of King Lear: “Nothing can come from nothing”.

Mr. MacMahon maintains that to feed this all-important quality of infectious enthusiasm, a teacher must have an intellectual life after school which is vital and stimulating. He maintains that it is absolutely necessary that educators take up a second activity in the evening so that their intellect may be nourished and the process of their own development may continue. Not to have such interests outside school is to vegetate, for the teacher who confines his intellectual life to the four walls of his classroom is inevitably doomed to become as puerile in mentality as the children themselves, despite the onset of grey hair and the odd wrinkle. He will certainly fail to keep himself, in Mr. MacMahon’s words, “bright and shining for the children”.


Mr. MacMahon has an innate understanding of the psychology of the child. During his teaching career he conceived thousands of clever ploys to whet the interest of the children and spur them on to the heights of enthusiasm.

One day, for instance, during the course of a lesson, he ostentatiously withdrew a small red notebook from his pocket. Then he paused, looked very mysterious and retreated behind the blackboard. After a moment he reappeared and continued with the lesson.

Not for long, however, for his face was again suddenly shrouded in mystery, and once more he disappeared behind the blackboard.

As these surprising withdrawals continued the children grew increasingly agog with curiosity.
“What are you doing, sir?”
“Now, that’s a secret.”
“Tell us.”
“No, no.”
“Please, sir, please.”
“Well,” said Mr MacMahon, dangling the proverbial carrot, “if you’re very good I’ll tell you next Friday.”

At last Friday arrived. Eager faces awaited the revelation of the secret. “Hands up those of you who collect anything.”
“I collect stamps.”
“I collect old coins.”
“I collect shells.”
“Well,” said Mr MacMahon, “I collect words.”
“Can we do that, sir?”
“Oh, no! You’re too small.”
“No we’re not, sir.”

In the manner of Tom Sawyer manoeuvring his mates so that he could enjoy the apple while they painted the fence, Mr MacMahon gave in a little to the cajoling of his pupils.
“Well, if you’re very good, next Friday I’ll let the six best of you collect some.”

The following Friday the six best were duly chosen.
“Don’t collect too many. It’s hard work.”

The following week the next six got their chance, and eventually everyone had a go.

The children got words from sauce-bottles, from advertisements, from radio, newspapers and from all manner of unusual places. They set up contests with each other.
“I have 4,365 words.”
“I have 3,000, but mine are better ones than yours.”

They started swapping them and fighting over them. They compiled the most astonishing lists of words. Those children ended up with a vocabulary that even Mr. MacMahon himself found truly amazing.

The ‘Cúntas Míosúil’ was the bane of his life.

Nor was Mr. MacMahon’s ploy of mysteriously retreating behind the blackboard lost upon the children. They appreciated it for what it was – a cunning ruse to arouse interest.
Part of Mr. MacMahon’s gift as a teacher was the ability not only to arouse interest but to sustain it. In the word-collecting incident, for example, he drove home his advantage by leaving boxes of coloured chalk at the disposal of the children in the early mornings before class formally began.

When he would arrive into his classroom he would find his blackboards transformed into seas of surrealistic colour, covered with words both in English and Irish.
Mr MacMahon concentrated on the humanities in his teaching, and used the story technique extensively. No Archimedes himself, his interest in the Maths programme was slight. He foresaw that the time was coming when machines would be used for calculations. And those hours spent teaching pounds, shillings and pence – were they a waste of time now that we have the punt?

In this rich environment of riotous colour the children came on in leaps and bounds.

The power of the story, however, he saw as universal and timeless. It appeals to the imagination, and the power of the imagination is incalculable, for all of our creative impulses have their origin there.

Mr MacMahon made everything a story. He also placed great emphasis on discussing the story.

In teaching reading, for example, it is the discussion of the story which brings the text alive for the children. The teacher’s own intellectual knowledge and experience of life renders the subject matter vitally interesting for the pupils. The discussion, however, must be original and questions should not be asked in a predictable form. Stories such as King Midas and Christ among the Doctors are among Brian MacMahon’s favourites for children.

‘What do you think of Midas?’ he might say to them. ‘I’ll tell you something, if I had his money I wouldn’t be here teaching you lot.’

With the passage of years, Mr MacMahon learned to look with a detached eye on a class and on himself in relation to it, and to ask himself certain questions:
Exactly what am I doing here? Am I living their intellectual lives for them or am I stimulating them?

And finally he learned to ask himself the all-important question: How can I educate these children without killing myself?

He found the mould which was there, and which was necessary, had sometimes to be broken for effective teaching. The craft arose from breaking the mould. It was necessary to develop an elasticity and learn to forget the timetable when this was appropriate. For Mr MacMahon the idea of ‘lay-bys’ within the school day was important, for a teacher must have a rest. Children can teach each other for a while. Or if a teacher is, say, very tired indeed, he should get a box of library books and let the children teach themselves.

At another time, a teacher might turn around and say: ‘Ah, I’m tired teaching you lads; let’s have a chat about something interesting’ – and that might be the most important part of the day.

Mr MacMahon avoided using a pedantically correct School Language in talking to his pupils. He spoke to them in the natural colourful idiom that was a product both of his native Listowel and his own rich imagination. He also used his own wide experience of life to enrich the children. He got them into the habit of asking him about trips he made from time to time with the permission of the Department of Education to American and European universities in connection with his work as a writer.

These journeys were a source of great interest to the children, especially since Mr MacMahon whetted their curiosity with his vivid descriptions and racy anecdotes. Informally they absorbed details of geography, history, literature and the irresistibly attractive area of human relationships.

Mr MacMahon talked to his pupils and listened to them in a personal way, and occasionally had to tell one of them that he was crossing the line. But in forty-four years of teaching he never had any trouble that couldn’t be speedily resolved, and he never sent a child home feeling under a cloud.


Mr MacMahon’s teaching career was not all a bed of roses, however. He had to contend with the rigid inspectorate system which all national teachers were subjected to up to recent times. Many readers who have worked in primary schools will recall with Mr MacMahon the way in which a teacher’s work was rated in one of three categories: Highly Efficient, Efficient, Inefficient.

Moreover, retaining your mark, Mr MacMahon reminisces, was ‘a terror’. For an inspector could at any moment consider himself justified in giving a teacher six months’ notice of a complete examination. It was a penal, medieval system, copied from the British.

A good teacher must first of all have a gift of communication.

Mr MacMahon, who was marked ‘Highly Efficient’ at his first examination, had a proud and independent attitude towards the inspectorate system. He declares now that had he been given six months notice of retention of his mark, he would have walked out and put all his effort into his bookshop and his writing. He ‘didn’t give a hoot’, for ‘they would have been doing him a favour’.

He dared to be himself, and clearly this was a recipe for successful teaching, for he retained his mark of ‘Highly Efficient’ right through his teaching career.

Mr. MacMahon remembers the ‘Cuntas Míosiúl’, or monthly progress record as ‘the bane of his life’, it was like an examination of conscience – what did I do last month? And the real advances he had made he couldn’t record at all. As for yearly schemes and weekly schemes, they are all right for young teachers, but after a while they become unnecessary, ‘I could write it all in three words’, he declares.

Mr. MacMahon had other hardships too. For over twenty years he taught in conditions of appalling squalor. Children and teachers ‘were in mud up to their knees’. They had no heat and no fire. The school building was totally unfit for human habitation, let alone to serve as a centre for the development of young minds.

At last Mr. MacMahon took up the cudgels himself. ‘We told them all off, including the parish priest, and after a terrible fight, backed by the I.N.T.O., we got a brand new school in Listowel’. He found the change of atmosphere in the new school astonishing.

The brightly painted walls and the big picture windows of the new building were in total contrast to the squalor to which they had been accustomed. Goethe, Steiner and Luscher have all elucidated the importance of colour and those giants in their field would have recognised a kindred spirit in this Kerryman, who, after consulting with his staff, addressed the pupils of the new school on the loud-speaker: ‘I don’t like school uniforms’, he told them. ‘Your Mammies will be knitting you jumpers for the winter. Please tell them I don’t want any blacks or browns. I’d like violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, red, orange’.

Mr. MacMahon, who knew every person and every move in the town, was able to reinforce this message to the parents themselves in the course of casual chats in shop or post office. The following September, as 300 children filed into their shining classrooms the new school was a sea of brilliant colour. Inspectors seemed to blink on entering the rooms. In this rich environment of riotous colour, the children came on in leaps and bounds. Mr. MacMahon is on occasion more than modest about his own role in all this. ‘There are times’, he says ‘when I think I was only a front man for a wonderful teaching staff’.

For the rest of his teaching career Mr. MacMahon felt as if he could breathe the clear fresh air.


Mr. MacMahon’s life has been an incredibly full one. For fifteen years he followed a routine that was truly astonishing. From nine o’clock to three he was a teacher. From four until nine he ran a bookshop. He walked for an hour and from ten until one o’clock in the morning he wrote. And he lived to tell the tale.

His wife once gave him what he now considers an excellent piece of advice. ‘When you come in from school’, she said, ‘for God’s sake go to bed and sleep for a while’.

He took her advice.

When he got up he would find the sediment had settled and the well was clear. He was able to begin his next activity with a tubula rasa.

The incentive of money played a role in Mr. MacMahon’s long hours of labour, for he had five sons to raise and educate. On a teacher’s salary alone he could never have finished their third level education.

His efforts to increase his income did not go unnoticed by the taxman, who harassed him in an arrogant fashion. Crippled by the super tax, Mr. MacMahon threatened to close his bookshop. He felt the penal income tax system was killing initiative in him.

But Mr. MacMahon’s need to write was much stronger than his need to make money. The hunger of the imagination had to be appeased in him. If he hadn’t had this creative outlet he would have been like a tiger in chains.

His first short stories were published by Seán Ó Faoláin in THE BELL. He wrote extensively for that magazine. He was welcomed by Frank O’Connor as a poet of merit, and he won THE BELL award for the best short story.

In 1948 his first book of short stories The Lion Tamer and other stories appeared in England and later in America.

His Play The Bugle in the Blood was produced in the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, in March 1949, and is still being produced.

In 1950 he published Jackamoora and the King of Ireland’s Son in the United States.

In 1952 his novel Children of the Rainbow appeared in Britain, the United States and Canada. It was hailed as ‘the richest and raciest book that had come out of Ireland for many years’ in which ‘the joy of living ran like a shout in the blood’. The book was published in German under the title KINDER DER MORGENROTE, and a dramatized version of it was serialised on Canadian and Irish radio.

It is absolutely necessary that educators take up a second activity in the evening.

His second collection of short stories, The Red Petticoat was published in 1955.

Song of the Anvil the choice of the Abbey Theatre for the international Theatre Festival in 1960.

His Play The Honey Spike, whose characters are Travellers, was produced by the Abbey Theatre in 1961. It has won major national and international awards and is still being produced at Irish Drama Festivals. Bryan MacMahon is very familiar with the tinker way of life, and is one of the few outsiders who can speak Shelta, the secret language of the travelling people. (He prefers the pure name ‘tinker’, which means one who works with tin).

In 1970 he published Patsy O and his Wonderful Pets.

In 1971 his impressions book on Ireland HERE’S IRELAND was published in London and New York.

Another selection of short stories The End of the World appeared in 1976.

His latest publication The sound of Hooves and other stories has been greeting as ‘exhilarating reading and a crowning achievement’.

Bryan MacMahon has appeared on radio and television on innumerable occasions, and has lectured at home and abroad on literary subjects. At present he is very much involved in the Arts Council’s project ‘Writers in Schools’, and has responded to invitations to speak to students in many parts of Ireland. Many readers will no doubt recall their captivation at his gripping style of lecturing.

On the day of his retirement RTE brought their cameras to Listowel and filmed the programme My Own Place. A teetotaller all his life, Mr. MacMahon celebrated the event by tasting his first glass of beer.


Mr. MacMahon was a great educator of the young. But his approach to teaching was delightfully sane.

Mr. MacMahon sees teaching as one component of the larger whole which constitutes a teacher’s life. Alongside of taking a healthy pride in his work, the teacher has to protect and respect his own energies, maintain his space and ensure his own growth. Otherwise the child is impoverished as well as the teacher, and ultimately it becomes a case of the blind leading the blind.


As an artist, Mr. MacMahon ranks among the greatest. Unlike the sculptor of classical Greece who wished to freeze only the idealised and perfect in stone, MacMahon is more akin to Rembrandt, who looked at life unflinchingly as it is, and recorded it all uncritically and with compassion. The beggar, the young girl, the celibate, the ascetic, the debauched and the innocent child all provide the “substance of his tale”.

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