“Nobody should be told they don’t need an education.”
These are words from Noel Phelan of Callan, who features in a new RTÉ documentary that pairs six Irish authors with six adults who have struggled with writing throughout their lives.
Titled A Story with Me in It, the documentary series started on Monday with the 53-year-old Callan man. Each programme focuses on one person’s story and the challenges they face to write that story down.
Raised in a large working-class family, Noel experienced problems from an early age in his education. “They used to tell us we didn’t need an education, ‘You come from a working background, you’ll wind up working in a mine like your father’,” he says.
Noel left school at 13 and went on to work and rear a family. However, as a father, his literacy problems and lack of education began to have an impact on family life. “It annoyed me when the kids were growing up; you couldn’t read them a story at bedtime or you couldn’t help them with their homework. Missing out on all that is a big thing,” he says.
The series saw Noel meet Kate Thompson, well known for her roles in Glenroe and Fair City, and now one of Ireland’s leading and most successful romantic fiction novelists. Together, they worked to overcome Noel’s literacy problems and create his own piece of writing, a powerful letter to his daughters who are away in New Zealand – something he had never done before.
“We really liked each other. It’s brilliant when you’re doing something like this and you haven’t a clue what’s in store for you. You haven’t met somebody before and you just sit down and talk as if you’ve known each other for a fair old while,” says Kate.
Noel said the writing process with Kate was a great experience. “It is something I never thought I’d be doing, to be honest with you. It’s hard to put it down on paper what you feel. You know it’s easy to talk and say what you mean but when it comes to writing it down and stuff, that’s when it gets hard. I didn’t think I had it in me to do what I’ve done to be honest,” says Noel.
“Reading isn’t a privilege, it’s a right,” Kate says. “Everyone should have the chance to be able to read so that they can function in real life, the way Noel for a long time couldn’t. But the other thing that has opened up for Noel, apart from making his life easier, is the sheer pleasure he’s going to get and enjoyment he’s going to get of losing himself in a book.”
A Story with Me in It is a personal transformation series that focuses on the journey of each person. “One in four adults in Ireland have difficulties with basic reading and writing skills, enough to affect their everyday lives,” said Inez Bailey, director of the National Adult Literacy Agency. “Many people invest a lot of time and energy into hiding this, due to the stigma associated with having literacy difficulties in today’s society. This series aims to dispel this stigma and deepen our understanding of the importance of good literacy skills in 21st-century Ireland.”
The series continues on Mondays at 7.30pm on RTÉ One.
Word Aid in Kilkenny City can be contacted on 056 776 3149. For more information on National Adult Literacy Agency’s distance education courses, Freephone 1800 20 20 65 or Freetext LEARN to 50050 for an information pack.