‘We started Fighting Words just as the country was falling apart’

Roddy Doyle reflects on 10 years of the group, and the importance of encouraging young writers

A decade after it was initially set up, Fighting Words is providing young people from across Ireland with an opportunity to express themselves through poetry and writing. Video: Enda O'Dowd

 

There is something great, almost magical, about watching a writer take ownership of a story. It’s not something we often get to witness. Writing is a solitary occupation. Writers famously work alone – it’s part of the gig, and the image – in unheated garrets, in damp basements, in cafés and on park benches. I remember watching a film based on Jack Kerouac’s life, where Kerouac is shown writing On the Road while sitting back against the wall of a public toilet. It left me wondering why he hadn’t called his masterpiece On the Jacks.

At Fighting Words we provide desks and seats, paper, pens, heat, toilets – and company. The writing usually starts as a group activity. The young writers sit in front of a big screen and watch as the story emerges in front of them. Their suggestions – words, sentences, character names, place names, snatches of dialogue – are typed on to the screen. It’s a simple idea but they often react as if it’s the first time they’ve seen words typed on to a screen. They make suggestions, delete words and sentences, change character names and locations. It isn’t an exam and they’re not in a race against time. They see how they can write up and down the page and how changing your mind is often a very good idea.

But, eventually, they move away from the group and become their own writers. Some of them are there immediately; they’re reaching out for fresh paper as they fill the page in front of them. Others take longer. They need a big idea to get them going, or a few good words, or a bit of encouragement. Some fill page after page; others slowly and carefully assemble their sentences and paragraphs. All of them are writers; they all become the owners – the authors – of their stories and poems, novels, plays, songs and screenplays. It is a joy to watch.

Fighting Words opened in Dublin 10 years ago, in January 2009. We started just as the country was falling apart, as the Celtic Tiger was being hauled off to the abattoir, and we wondered – myself and Seán Love, the co-founders – how long we could stay open, if there’d be enough interest from schools and teachers, if we’d be able to attract enough support. We’re still here and, as the powerful writing in this supplement demonstrates, we’re all over the country. We have centres in Dublin, Belfast, Cork, Mayo, Wicklow, Galway, Donegal, Kerry, Wexford and Kildare. There are more centres on the way. Most recently, two of our volunteers, Catherine McComish and John Grogan, were training teachers in a Syrian refugee camp, in Jordan, in collaboration with World Vision Ireland. For those of you who didn’t do geography in school, Jordan isn’t one of the 32 counties.

Our thanks to this supplement’s editorial team, Joanne Hayden, Laura Cassidy, Helen Seymour, Morgan O’Reilly and Gerard Smyth, and to Rosa Devine, Fighting Words’programme coordinator. Thanks, too, to all our volunteers, throughout Ireland – and in County Jordan. Our work wouldn’t be possible without you. Finally, thanks to all the teachers who have brought their students to Fighting Words. Your support and your company have been wonderful.