Flemish patriot found home in Ireland


Albert Folens: Albert Folens, who has died aged 86, was a Flemish nationalist who found a home he cherished in post-war Ireland. He founded a schoolbook publishing business which became a household name. An accomplished linguist, he taught French through Irish.

He and his wife, Juliette, started the business in their garage with a hired Roneo machine. Today it has two Dublin premises and subsidiaries in Britain and Poland.

He came to Ireland in 1948 on a "doctored" passport, having escaped from Allied imprisonment, after finding himself on the wrong side in the second World War.

As war broke out Albert Folens was a very bright De La Salle seminarian who declined, however, to take his final vows. He left the seminary with a Flemish group who objected to teaching Flemish children through French (the language of Belgium's Walloons) but emerged from war-time confusion as a qualified primary teacher.

He joined the Flemish Legion, trained by Germany, for the specific task of fighting the Red Army. The legion, an anti-communist Flemish nationalist organisation, felt it had a moral duty to fight Stalin.

"At this point, the terrible atrocities of Stalin's regime were well publicised," says his widow. Like Breton nationalists, the Flemish felt they would fare better if Germany were to win, though no promises had been made.

Folens did not go to fight, however. After training, his military career was arrested by an ulcer. He went to Brussels where he found himself "snookered"; he could not get teaching work because the state schools would not employ anyone who was De La Salle trained and the order would not employ anyone who had left. He lived by private translating and newspaper book reviewing.

In 1944, after a military trial, he was imprisoned by the British. He was sentenced to 10 years but escaped after 31 months.

Throughout Belgium about 100,000 Flemish nationalists were held at the time as collaborators. After six months on the run with what he described as vegetarian hippies living a Franciscan lifestyle, Trappists smuggled him out of Belgium. Juliette, whom he had married in 1943, got two years but was paroled after six months.

In spite of arriving with a false passport he, and later Juliette, felt welcome in Ireland. "I was home. Ireland was made for me and I was made for it: freedom, fresh air, hills, lakes, soft weather, friendly talk, humour," he wrote.

Up to 25 Flemish refugees arrived at that time. He found a resonance with Irish nationalism. He even claimed Irish ancestry, saying his family had come to Flanders with the Wild Geese.

Folens was fascinated by languages and religion and was widely read. Passionate about Flemish, he loved French and spoke German, Italian, and Russian. He knew Latin. The Lives of the Saints and the Scriptures were another fascination (as Jehovah's Witnesses who called to the house once found to their cost).

He used missals in several languages to learn languages.

He worked first translating correspondence for a Clones bicycle factory, which failed. Later he translated for Kanturk Creamery and wrote short stories for Belgian magazines. After studying for his H.Dip.Ed. at UCD in 1951, he taught at Fairview CBS and then Clonliffe College.

At Coláiste Mhuire, Parnell Square, he started teaching through Irish. With Donchadh Ó Céileachair, who taught him enough Irish, he wrote Nuachúrsa Fraincise, a French primer using Irish and published by Sáirséal agus Dill. Among dozens of books he wrote was Aiséiri Flóndrais (The Resurrection of Flemish).

In 1957 the Folens began printing school notes at home. They wrote 60 letters offering them to schools and within a few days the postman delivered a bagful of replies. They had correctly perceived a wide gap in the market. The philosophy behind the rapidly successful business that followed was to get teachers to write the texts.

A wide range of textbooks in all subjects followed Folens French Course, which he wrote. He produced children's magazines in Irish and English and texts on current affairs.

Though known as "a born teacher", in 1960 he gave it up to devote himself to the business. A former pupil, Alan Dukes, recalls that in his lively performances a sense of French culture was a bonus unintended by the course.

The plainly produced Folens notes were designed to get pupils through exams but some educationalists complained that they encouraged "cramming" and were detrimental to the philosophy of broad education.

In 1963, after several house moves, the Folens purpose built a home cum factory at Scholarstown Road. By 1966 it had become too small and the business moved to the Naas Road, and later to Tallaght.

To those in the business he was a shrewd, upright, straightforward, witty and erudite businessman (who offered no discounts). The nuns loved him. But there was a prickly, litigious side.

He dreamed of publishing a 12-volume encyclopaedia in Irish with Government help. When the Department of Education "pulled the plug", he sued successfully. The Folens logo, The Bee, reflected his energy and strong work ethic - "we are always as busy as bees, but if you hurt us we sting". He was wary of trade unions.

In 1978 he began retiring. But in 2001 he suffered a severe stroke and moved to a nursing home in Enniskerry, where he died peacefully according to his wish for a "saol fada agus bás in Éireann".

His wife Juliette, daughters Hilda and Leentje, son Dirk, and 14 grandchildren survive him.

Albert Joseph Folens: born October 15th, 1916; died: September 9th, 2003.