A Balbriggan school principal has just published his first novel, a tale of deep suspense and drama detailing two lives drawn inexplicably together from the past, and the ultimate conclusion of a deep-seated conflict.
‘That One Child’ is the first novel of John Fintan McCutcheon, better known as Fintan, Principal of Balbriggan Educate Together, and tells the tale of a school principal and former student whose uneasy relationship escalates into hostility, leading to an unexpected and chilling denouement.
Based in a town ‘with similar characteristics of any town in Fingal’, the story has as a backdrop a growing community changing through multiculturalism, with one character resistant to social change.
In the novel, principal Brian Kerrigan has resurrected his career and his life following a road accident in which his six-year-old son was killed. In his darkest hour, an incident with a boy he was teaching, Liam Moran, prompts him to lose all that was dear to him.
Fifteen years later, Liam returns to his home town, and when he understands that Brian is about to spoil his one chance at love and happiness with his son, he sets in motion a chain of event that takes them both to the point of no return.
Fintan explains: ‘The plot of the book, without trying to give away the ending, the central character, the principal character Brian Kerrigan, he has had a tragedy in his life and he is trying to make good from that tragedy. The opportunity he gets to do that is to open a new school in the town in which he taught in all his life. His hope is that in making this school the best possible school it can be, it will be cathartic for him recovering from his tragedy.
‘The other character in the book is a person who he would have taught in a previous school, and he would remember that boy clearly because at the time that he was teaching him, the boy was having certain difficulties and issues in his life, and indeed that was at a time when the tragedy occurred for the principal in his personal life. So he can recall vividly teaching this child because it was very reminding of him of his own tragedy.’
He says: ‘Years have passed, and that boy went on to have a professional career in soccer in the UK, but that was cut short by serious injury. He returns to the town to try to make good his own life in particular by establishing touch with a child who he has fathered over the years. That child is now five years of age and going to a new school in which Brian Kerrigan has become the new principal.
‘First of all there’s a teacher and past-pupil relationship, but there’s also a current relationship in that the child’s mother has decided to send this man’s child to this school, and so there’s a principal/parent relationship then in the new setting. It’s a very reluctant one because the principal does not want to be reminded of that time in his past when he did teach this boy, and also Liam does not want to be reminded of it as well and also has misgivings about how the town has changed, and he sees the school as very much a symbol of the negative change that he would see to his town.’
Liam finds that his home town has changed almost beyond recognition in its cultural diversity and in its size, and has also lost the characteristics of the small town he once knew and loved. One of the central themes, Fintan explains, is one of both characters, Brian and Liam trying to adapt to the new setting they find themselves in, one in a very positive way, and one with rejection. While Brian has approached change with optimism and acceptance, Liam has great misgivings and concerns about it being a place where he would like to raise his child.
Fintan believes the story reflects people’s approach to multiculturism, cultural diversity and change in society, which he says plays out clearly in the classroom.
Although a tale of society’s willingness to adapt to change, Fintan says, ‘That One Child’ is also a story of how people can overcome tragedy in their lives and come to terms with ‘life-changing disappointments’ and relationships with people who have different views and perspectives. It is also a tale of the struggle between Liam and his child’s mother over how their child is going to be raised in this new society.
Fintan says: ‘I wanted to craft a story about characters who I felt would be interesting to a reader and would engage in a story that would have good suspense and tension and be an interesting read. Then also alongside that, get the reader to think about what they themselves feel about issues of change in society and schools and schooling and contemporary issues in Irish society, such as it diversifying and that. So with a backdrop, that especially people living in Fingal would know very very well, and to set a story that would get them to think about it even more deeply.
‘The characters are entirely fictional, they’re not persons who are living or who are dead, but I do hope they’re credible. I do hope people reading them could imagine that is a life that somebody has led, or an incident that somebody has been involved in. Brian Kerrigan is the school principal (in the novel), and I would know a lot about school principals. I am one, but I have also moved in those circles for a very long time, so I know what the things that concern principals, the stories behind a lot of their lives, the stories about a lot of their concerns and issues.’
Fintan continues: ‘I’ve been teaching almost 40 years now, and children who I’ve taught, I met them again as teenagers, I met them again in their twenties, I’ve met them in their thirties and forties, I’ve even met them in their fifties. I’m teaching children whose grandchildren I’ve taught. It always interests me to see how these children have gone on in their lives, and to recall myself my memories of them as children and to delight in their flourishing and in their successes, and to think sympathetically of them in their various tragedies and things like that too. So I suppose the two characters are born out of that engagement in teaching that I’ve had, but I hasten to add they’re fictional characters, they’re not parodies of anybody or anything like that.
‘I’ve been writing for some time, and in particular I’ve been published academically, so I have had articles and I do conferences and things like that, so this is my first venture into fiction. I just thought with fiction you need to write about the world you know about, and I do find in my background, which would be schools and education and teachers and teacher training and parents and families, I do find that a very interesting backdrop and microcosm for story and for highlighting various issues and thinking them through and that kind of thing.’
The Balbriggan Educate Together principal concludes: ‘There’s a lot in it too about schools and education and what schools can try to achieve, and what schools can do in terms of developing children’s sense of citizenship, about being good citizens in this new society, and there’s a lot in it about teaching in those environments and about being a school principal in such an environment and about inclusion and things like that.
‘Schools are places where all of these tensions develop and can often be sources of resolution or sources of conflict, sometimes in the same day. John Dewey, the American education philosopher, he says that schools are perhaps the ultimate microcosm of society, and I would hope that this would be the kind of book that portrays that.’
Fintan is now working on a second novel, also with an educational theme, this time with a female principal. This character comes to the understanding, Fintan explains, that she will never have children of her own, and the novel focuses on the struggle she has with caring for other people’s children while knowing she will never be a parent herself.
Fintan writes from a place of knowledge and compassion, with a deep understanding of the struggles we face as a society, and how it all has roots in the classroom. He has managed in his writing to convey the unwillingness of some to adapt to change, and to embrace others into our community In this, there are great lessons to be learned.