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Myra Zepf went from working with Honey Monster to carrying out Seamus Heaney’s wish to inspire kids to pick up books

 

Ivan Little

Co Down mum-of-three and Irish language author Myra Zepf has been appointed Northern Ireland's first Children's Writing Fellow. She tells Ivan Little how she intends to pass on her love of books to all schoolchildren here and why she is very aware the Irish language was once the preserve of Protestants as well as Catholics.

A Holywood author who helped oversee the famous Honey Monster advertising campaign for Sugar Puffs cereal in London has just been handed another very different but equally huge challenge back home - to inspire children in Northern Ireland to become serial readers and, hopefully, writers.

Myra Zepf, who has published three children's books in Irish, has been appointed as the province's first Children's Writing Fellow, a role created by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen's University, Belfast, where the late Bellaghy bard was a lecturer in the Sixties and early Seventies.

Heaney's daughter Catherine was present yesterday as officials announced Myra as the incumbent of the new post and said it was part of a drive to ensure that the legacy of Heaney, who died nearly four years ago, lives on and emboldens new and future generations of children to pursue their creative dreams.

The new part-time job ticks all the right boxes for Myra, a lifelong Gaeilgeoir who has already developed workshops in schools in association with her own publications. But she is pained at the way the Irish language has been politicised at Stormont in recent years.

As we chatted over coffee in a book-filled room in the Heaney centre, where the walls are dominated by Neil Shawcross portraits of the poet laureate and other literary giants, it was clear that Myra wasn't keen to fuel the Irish language debate but plain speaker that she is, she didn't demur from offering an opinion on it.

"I don't know how relevant it is to my new role but I would stand very strongly in favour of legislation for Irish," says Myra, who was brought up in a family where Irish was the main language, a trend that she has followed by encouraging her three young children to speak Irish - and her German ex-husband's mother tongue - in their home, though they are educated in English in Holywood.

Myra has a very personal knowledge of how the Irish language was once the preserve of Protestants as well as Catholics in calmer, less contentious times in Ireland.

Her father Roger Blaney, a medic, is the author of one of the most definitive books on the subject, Presbyterians and the Irish Language, which was first published in 1996 to great acclaim.

Myra, who is a passionate humanist, says: "My mum and dad instilled a great love of Irish - and indeed all books and stories - in me and the language has always been a very enriching and beautiful part of my life.

"I find some of the arguments about Irish very upsetting and difficult. And the thing about the politicisation of the language is that it is on every side. It's being used by everybody for their own agenda."

Myra, who studied history at Oxford after leaving Holywood, is certain that her fervour for Irish will be a help rather than a hindrance in spreading the word to primary and secondary schoolchildren about the importance of books.

"It means that I can go into every school here, not just some of them," says Myra who has had one of her books, Na Gabh ar Scoil (Don't Go to School) translated into English - and Korean of all things.

She adds: "I don't recognise my own name on the cover. The rights for the book were bought up by the Koreans at a fair. And a number of my future projects will be in English as well as Irish."

Myra's entrance into the literary world came after a few twists and turns in her career. After working in advertising in London for four years - when the Honey Monster literally loomed large in her life - she returned to Northern Ireland where she was involved in the development of the Irish language in Downpatrick.

But after the arrival of her children Anya, who's now 13, Kilian (11) and Lorcan (8) and staying at home to look after them, Myra started writing her own books after reading other people's stories to her youngsters.

Her first publication was a picture book called Tubaiste ar an Titanic, about the sinking of the Belfast-built liner and her second was a sequel of sorts, taking young survivors of the disaster time-travelling back to Viking Dublin.

The nominations for awards have come thick and fast but Myra is particularly excited at her new job as a writing fellow.

She firmly believes that modern technology, which is often blamed for distracting children's interest away from reading, can actually be a positive influence.

And Myra is also optimistic about the soaring numbers of emerging young writers across Ireland.

But she is deeply concerned about the reduction of services in libraries here. "Libraries are crucial resources. Often parents and teachers tell children which books they should be reading but if the youngsters have access to a huge diversity of reading material they will find their own way," says Myra, who first encountered the work of Seamus Heaney at school.

"He was the first poet I ever read. We were given Death of a Naturalist and it opened my eyes. Like a lot of people I felt that poetry was going to be very complicated and hard to understand and a bit fancy.

"But Heaney was the opposite of all that. There was the sense that he was talking about things that we could recognise in a way that we could understand. He was very grounded and down to earth and not someone who would shut things away in ivory towers.

"So it's nice to have a project like this as part of his legacy where we'll be going out to be among children in their own real normal lives".

The director of the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry, author and screenwriter Glenn Patterson says Myra Zepf's appointment is "tremendously important" adding: "I can think of no better way to honour Seamus Heaney's contribution to literature than to inspire new generations of readers and writers."

Catherine Heaney told officials yesterday that she was delighted to see the establishment of Myra's new role, which she said was a fitting tribute to her late father who's also been honoured by the opening of the Seamus Heaney HomePlace in Bellaghy, which is fast becoming a major tourist attraction in Co Derry.

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