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Frank Ormsby: Life at Inst was very different from my upbringing

Leading Belfast poet and former Inst head of English Frank Ormsby on his tough Fermanagh upbringing, losing his father when he was 12 and how humour has helped him cope with a Parkinson's diagnosis

As Frank Ormsby sits in the study of his beautifully-appointed 1930s home in north Belfast there is no hint of his much more austere upbringing. As befits the workspace of a poet and long-time English teacher at one of Belfast's leading schools, the bookcases that line the walls are crammed with a wide range of literature.

It could not be a more different environment from the rural home where he grew up just after the Second World War.

When Frank was born in 1947, his father Patrick was already in his 60s. "I remember him as an old, grey-haired man".

It was Patrick's second marriage. His first had produced 10-12 children. "I was never totally sure of the exact number", Frank recalls.

"I never met them as they had dispersed to Scotland and other places by the time my father, by then a widower, had married my mother. As far as I know the last one of them died last year."

Frank's home was about a mile and half outside Irvinestown. His mother Anne had worked on a relative's farm - "she could build hay or cut turf as well as any man" - and his father as a farm labourer who occasionally sought work in the factories in Scotland.

"The conditions in which we lived were lacking in luxury. We had no running water. We had to carry it in buckets from a well half a mile away. There was no electricity and it was a long time before we even had a radio, or wireless as it was called then," Frank says.

His father qualified for a "welfare wireless" after he suffered a stroke.

"It was always tuned to Radio Eireann during the day when he was awake and I grew up listening to the music of Bridie Gallagher and Eileen Donaghy," he says.

"At night when my father went to sleep my brother, two sisters and myself listened to Radio Luxembourg and the music of Elvis and The Big Bopper. My father's verdict on Elvis was 'that boy can sing none'."

Frank also recalls how he would cycle into Irvinestown on a Saturday to place a modest bet on the horses for his father and then ride back again in the afternoon if there were winnings to collect.

Another, sadder, recollection is feeding his ill father porridge.

His father's illness and death when Frank was 12 had a huge impact on the boy who would one day become one of Northern Ireland's most respected poets.

"He features constantly in my poetry. Perhaps he affected me on a deeper level than even I realised," he says.

Yet his father - who, like his mother, had left school at 11 years of age - had been against Frank sitting the 11-plus examination and going to St Michael's College in Enniskillen. His mother was much more supportive and would often buy books for him at the local auction.

"As you can imagine, those books were very varied," he says.

"They were really job lots which could be picked up very cheaply, but I read everything I could get my hands on. I remember one book was called the Physiology and Psychology of Sex, which somehow had got past my mother. I quickly put a brown cover on it."

Even at primary school, Frank was showing a talent for poetry, gaining second prize on one occasion at the Enniskillen Festival. He was also influenced by the poetry - much of it in a patriotic vein - printed in each issue of the Ireland's Own magazine. Indeed his first published poem - The Death of Brian Boru - in the letters page of the Sunday Press was modelled on those verses.

A teacher who recognised his flair for poetry recommended that after A-Levels he should go to university in Dublin as it was the literary capital of Ireland, but Frank chose Queen's University, Belfast.

"I thank my lucky stars that I did, as 1966 was a very good year for a budding poet to come to Queen's. It was the year Seamus Heaney published his first book, Death of a Naturalist. Here was a model I could base poems about my rural background on."

Three years later Frank had another poem published and was congratulated by Heaney, who invited him to join his writers' group and also introduced him to Derry poet Michael Foley who was looking for someone to edit the Honest Ulsterman magazine, a task which Frank did for 20 years.

This indeed was a golden time for an aspiring poet. Whereas previous poets such as John Hewitt, John Montague and Patrick Kavanagh had spent much of their time writing in isolated rural environments, now there was the beginning of dynasty including Heaney, Michael Longley, Ciaran Carson, Paul Muldoon and James Simmons to inspire, stimulate and encourage each other.

But it was not just an academic hothouse as they often met up in three local hostelries, the Eglantine Inn, the Botanic Inn and the Wellington Park Hotel, for pints as well as poetry.

Longley described it as the Bermuda Triangle and Frank recalls: "The wonder was that we ever wrote anything at all."

Even when he began his teaching career at the prestigious Royal Belfast Academical Institution - a bit of a culture shock for a Catholic from rural Fermanagh - he would often drop into one of the pubs to meet his old friends.

"Very often someone would pull a new poem out of their pocket and I would then have the start of material for the next issue of the Honest Ulsterman," he says.

Frank taught at Inst from 1976 until his retirement in 2010 and looks back fondly and wryly on his career. His only regret as an English teacher, and later head of the English department, is that none of his pupils felt moved to follow in his footsteps.

"There were one or two who I thought had the potential but for one reason or another they did not pursue it. But since my retirement I have met many former pupils and every one of them have shook me warmly by the hand, so I must have done something right," he says.

"Life at Inst was very different from my Catholic rural background. I had played Gaelic football - even turning out for the Fermanagh county minor team - and then suddenly I found myself umpiring hockey matches, having never even seen a game before."

Indeed he loved the school life so much that he didn't want to retire, but health issues forced his hand. He is reticent to talk about them, but eventually concedes that he suffers from diabetes and the early stages of Parkinson's. The tremors in his hands are noticeable.

But he accepts the diagnosis with humour rather than resignation. "The first thing I did when I was diagnosed was Google jokes about the condition," he laughs.

"There was one which really appealed to me. Which would you rather have, Parkinson's or Alzheimer's. The answer is Parkinson's. I would rather spill half my pint than forget where I left it."

His wife Helen - who incidentally is also head of English at a north Belfast school - jokes to him that it is medication which has spurred his recent output of verse.

Frank will publish his latest anthology, Goat's Milk: New and Selected Poems, this Wednesday, but for the first time in his life has material for another book already waiting.

"My output was very intermittent during my working life, with long periods between publications," he says.

"I felt that my career sapped much of my energies and even when I retired I initially wrote little. But recently I am writing every day.

"My next collection will feature some poems on Parkinson's, a humorous, tongue-in-cheek look at the condition. It is not something which interferes with my daily life but, like diabetes, it does damage very silently."

He is also writing a series of poems on the Irish Impressionist painters and continues to edit The Yellow Nib poetry journal with Leontia Flynn.

Mention of Leontia prompts him to recall the days when there were no acclaimed female poets.

One of his first publications, Poets from the North of Ireland, didn't feature a single woman but since then several have made their mark in this form of literature including Medbh McGuckian, Sinead Morrissey and Colette Bryce.

"It is a source of great pride to me that such large numbers of poets, both male and female, continue to emerge here," he says.

He is no fan of what he calls academic poetry, preferring verse which is both accessible and moving.

"Unless a poem moves me in some way I give up on it very quickly. I want poetry to be about people's experiences and written in a manner which enables the reader to share those experiences," he says.

The first judge of his own poetry is his wife, and then lifelong friend Michael Longley, who has written the introduction to his latest book and who will help launch it.

In anticipation of being asked why it is called Goat's Milk, he has prepared a written answer. "Obliquely, rather than directly, many of the poems involve a sensuous recovery of the past and few sensuous experiences were as powerful as drinking goat's milk. I have never forgotten it," he says.

"The past explored is often Spartan, plain, unprocessed and lacking in luxury. Goat's milk has a bittersweet quality, so for that reason also I thought of it as an appropriate title.

"I also think there is an undercurrent of sadness in the poem which relates to the elegies in the book, especially the poems about my father's illness and death."

It's back to that recurring theme in his poetry and having come full circle it is perhaps an appropriate juncture at which to end our conversation.

Goat's Milk: New and Selected Poems is published by Bloodaxe Books, price £12. It will be launched at No Alibis Bookshop, Botanic Avenue, Belfast on Wednesday, at 6.30pm

A man of many words...

  • Frank Arthur Ormsby was born in 1947 and brought up outside Irvinestown in Fermanagh
  • Educated at the local primary school, St Michael's College in Enniskillen, and Queen's University he spent his entire teaching career at RBAI in Belfast
  • He was editor of the Honest Ulsterman poetry journal from 1969-89 and also Poetry Ireland Review
  • In 1992 he received the Cultural Traditions Award given in memory of John Hewitt and in 2002 received the Lawrence O'Shaughnessy Award for Poetry from the University of St Thomas at St Paul, Minnesota
  • He has previously published four collections of his poems:
  • A Store of Candles (1977), with themes ranging from his rural upbringing to Belfast and the Troubles
  • A Northern Spring (1986) featured a section on the American GIs who were stationed in Fermanagh ahead of the Normandy landings in 1944
  • The Ghost Train (1995) explores the joy of having a child as the Troubles near their end
  • Fireflies (2009) reflects on four decades of violence and the hope of a regenerated Northern Ireland

New reflections on his past

Bog Cotton

They have the look

of being born old.

Thinning elders among the heather,

trembling in every wind.

My father turns eighty/

the spring before my thirteenth

birthday./

When I feed him porridge he takes

 his cap off. His hair,/

as it has been all my life, is white,

pure white.

My Father's Funeral

The flypaper hung

from the ceiling corkscrews

with the weight of

dead bluebottles.

Not a smidgeon of dust anywhere,

the house burdened

with an unbearable tidiness

that means he will not return.

Taken from Frank Ormsby's new book, Goat's Milk: New and Selected Poems

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