Remembering Robert Dunbar


Nov 1997 cover







Robert Dunbar (1940-2016)

DUNBAR N_201608091803_Page_1You can’t travel far in the close-knit world of Irish children’s literature without bumping into the distinctive, white-bearded figure of Robert Dunbar. During the twentyseven years since he moved to Dublin from his native Antrim, he has figured prominently in the renaissance of children’s book publishing in this country, not as a publisher, nor as a writer, but as an educator with a passionate belief in the value of good books for children.

As a founder member of the Children’s Literature Association of Ireland (recently merged with the Irish Children’s Book Trust to form Children’s Books Ireland), as an editor of the twice-yearly magazine Children’s Books in Ireland, and in the course of his day job as lecturer in English at the Church of Ireland College of Education in Rathmines, Dunbar has devoted most of his life to increasing awareness and improving the standard of children’s books in this country.

Robert Dunbar can remember almost to the minute when he decided to become a teacher.  “I was a very sickly child,” he recalls, “and missed a lot of school, to the point where my parents were threatened with the school attendance officer. When the elevenplus results came out, I happened to be at home in bed, so the school principal called around to deliver my results. I remember my mother shouting up the stairs that I had passed the exam and I thought ‘Aha, now I can be a teacher!’ At that time the elevenplus was crucial in determining whether or not you would get any further education. If you didn’t get it, you went back to primary school until you were fourteen and then left without any qualifications. “I don’t know why I was drawn to teaching particularly, and my original intention was to study French rather than English, but I always had an instinctive love of books and I ended up doing my degree in English at Queen’s.”

From there, without any formal training as a teacher, he took a job at the technical college in Coleraine“There was no formal training of the sort that I now inflict on my students at Rathmines,” he says. “It was a question of developing a strong survival technique, and quickly, as the school where I began my teaching career can best be described as challenging. It was also a very odd and interesting place, in terms of the people I worked with. Coleraine was a baptism of fire, though I only realised this when I moved to Rainey Endowed School in Magherafelt four years later, where the students were extremely motivated and wanted to get onI could almost recite some of the essays and poems they wrote for me, they were so good.

It was at Rainey that Dunbar’s interest in what young people were reading took off“It was 1966 and the head of English there was very forwardlooking and progressive, favouring contemporary writing for young people, like Rosemary Sutcliffe, over the more traditional readers. After about five years he moved on to become principal of another school and I took his job as head of the department. This development coincided with the arrival of a new school library and a huge grant from the Department of Education with which to fill it. One of my first jobs as head of English was to stock that library, something in which I took great pleasureThis was what is known as the second golden age of English children’s literature, with people like Phillippa Pearce, John Rowe Townsend and Alan Garner coming into their own. So there was plenty to choose from and also plenty of scope for using the material in class within the British educational system, students spent five years in secondary school before taking an external exam, so there were no prescribed texts as such.

“At that time, of course, the new wave of Irish children’s literature was a long way down the road-I can recall only two Irish names in our library, Eilís Dillon and an Ulster writer, Meta Mayne Reid, whom it is one of my missions in life to resurrect. If I had to name my favourite piece of writing it would be the prologue to her Two Rebels, set in 1798, which was recently reissued by Poolbeg.”

In 1976, Dunbar decided to fill a gap in his own education by returning to university, this time to the newly opened University of Ulster at Coleraine, to pursue a master’s degree in education. Looking around for a subject for his thesis, he opted to turn his interest in children’s literature to advantage with a study of the portrayal of adolescence in the fiction of Alan Gamer, John Rowe Townsend and William Maine. At a time when children’s literature had not yet penetrated the walls of academia, this was a radical choice and met with the disapproval of at least one professor. “But I was awarded my MA with distinction,” he says, “so I felt totally vindicated.

By now he was ready for a fresh challenge and, with two young children, both he and his wife were also uneasy about the family’s future in war-torn Ulster. A holiday in county Wicklow in 1979 proved serendipitous.

“We were taking our ease in Tinakilly; leafing through the Irish Times, when I noticed an advert for a lecturer in English at the College of Education in Rathmines. I sent in an application, got the job, moved the family to Dublin and we’ve never had any regrets.”

By the time the Dunbars had settled in Dublin, Irish children’s book publishing was beginning to find its feet again, and a new perspective on children’s literature was also creeping into the educational system.

DUNBAR N_201608091803_Page_2“In the colleges of education,” Dunbar says, “there was a growing belief that student teachers should have some knowledge of writing for children and be able to apply this knowledge in the classroom. Until then, and indeed even now to some degree, the school reader was the only literature used and the idea of reading full-length fiction with eight to ten years olds had yet to catch on. Even now, it’s very rare to find children reading contemporary fiction at school, but the new curriculum, which has just been circulated to primary schools, while it doesn’t throw out the class reader completely; does imply that its day has gone.”

This development, as well as the introduction of a course leading to a diploma in children’s literature at Trinity, is due in no small part to the efforts of Dunbar and other like-minded individuals, who came together in 1987 to form CLAI and, subsequently, to publish Children’s Books in Ireland, which has proved an important medium for spreading the new testament of children’s literature and has also provided a forum for the frank expression of opinion on the subject.

“We have, predictably, been accused of being too kind to Irish children’s books,” Dunbar says, ”but this may be partly due to my reviewing practice. If I receive six books for review and I feel that three of them are rubbish, then I’ll use the limited wordage available to me to enthuse about the good books rather than to slate the bad ones. But there are aspects of the world of children’s books in this country of which I am openly critical. I do detect a little parochialism, for instance, which I find a wee bit numbing. The idea that ‘If it’s Irish, it’s bound to be good’ is clearly leading down a blind alley. Of course, at the other end of the spectrum there remains a body of opinion which holds that ‘If it’s Irish, it’s bound to be rubbish’, and in the early days you encountered this quite frequently; in the Department of Education and elsewhere.

far too many childrenbooks coming from Irish publishers

“Another criticism I have is that we now have far too many children’s books coming from Irish publishers and in this respect I think it’s time for publishers to think about retrenching.” Recently, Dunbar himself, after many years of restraint, has been making his own contribution to the rapidly growing library of Irish-published books for young people. In September, Poolbeg published First Times, a collection of stories for teenagers edited and compiled by Dunbar, and this month O’Brien publish his splendid anthology Enchanted Journeys, a treasury of Irish children’s writing from Walter Macken, Eilís Dillon and Patricia Lynch to Siobhan Parkinson, Martin Waddell, Marita Conlon-McKenna and Tom McCaughren.

“My original plan was to cover the entire history of Irish writing for children, which would take us back three hundred years. But I was soon talked out of that, on practical grounds, and O’Brien and I came to the amicable decision to focus on the past fifty years only. From a very large pile, we came up with seventeen excerpts from novels aimed primarily at ten to twelve year oIds. An important criterion was that the excerpts would stand alone, that there would be no need to fill in the background of the story; which narrowed things down a lot. One of the genres greatly affected by this requirement was fantasy, of which we have a rich store but which is very difficult to anthologise because the plotting tends to be complicated and there’s often a very large cast of characters. The unifiying theme of the anthology, that of the journey, came in fact after the selection process, and seems to me to be particularly true of Irish children’s literature, given the geographical, historical and colonialist considerations by which it is influenced.”

Interestingly, however, having read more widely in this field than most, Dunbar has never been tempted to write for children himself. “I think that if people who study English at university have any gift, it will manifest itself in either a creative or a critical faculty. I don’t have that creative faculty; I couldn’t plot a children’s novel, but I do have a critical understanding of how plot and other elements work, and whatever level I’m working at, whether it be selecting the ten best children’s books for the Late Late Show or writing for a serious academic journal, I hope I can bring that insight to bear.”

Author bio: Robert Dunbar is guest editor of the September issue of The Lion and the Unicorn (John Hopkins University Press, 2715 North Charles Street, Baltimore, MD 21218-4319, tel.410-516-6987), an American journal for teachers of English, which focuses on Irish children’s literature.

FROM THE ARCHIVES November 1997 

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Robert Dunbar passed away on July 20th 2016.

Rest in Peace.

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