Una Mullally: Eddie Holt – one of those passionate teachers who change lives

‘He took the painful Leaving Cert English essay style we had all arrived with and destroyed it’

‘Most journalism students I have met over the years aren’t particularly interested in the listicles or churnalism that typifies the low-paid long-hours culture of what the work has become for young journalists.’ Above, Eddie Holt. Photograph: Alan Betson

‘Most journalism students I have met over the years aren’t particularly interested in the listicles or churnalism that typifies the low-paid long-hours culture of what the work has become for young journalists.’ Above, Eddie Holt. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

When the first-year journalism BA class at DCU bounded into the Henry Grattan building on the grim-looking campus in the autumn of 2001, journalism was entering a strange new phase.

9/11, and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, meant the warnings of George Orwell would turn into alarm bells every time the English language was garbled to excuse some heinous act in the name of freedom, and journalists everywhere lined up to make sense of what this new era actually was, where truth and morals and ethics battled with “unknown unknowns”.

Here, the Celtic Tiger was in full swing, and journalists who spoke truth to power sometimes seemed like party-poopers or even renegades.

Eddie Holt was one of the first lecturers that class, my class, met. We loved him from the start.

Most journalism students I have met over the years aren’t particularly interested in the listicles or churnalism that typifies the low-paid long-hours culture of what the work has become for young journalists.

Largely useless

They are idealists who get into it because they want to change things. They are smarter than the crappy celebrity articles that make up so much “content”. They have ideas. They, like we were, are also naive. As young journalist wannabes we were largely useless. Eddie, therefore, spent most of the lectures in his favourite position: holding his head in his hands.

“It’s all relative,” he would say, again with his head in his hands. That became a catchphrase. Eddie was a follower of Orwell’s rules on writing. Never use a long word when a short one will do. He had an almost violent hatred of cliches. Talk of villages being “nestled” in hills drove him to despair.

One of his first instructions was for us to read the 1947 Primo Levi novel If This Is A Man. The point of that exercise was that if Levi could write so clearly and economically about something so horrific (his imprisonment at Auschwitz), then we could learn to write less flowery articles about much more insignificant things.

He took the painful Leaving Cert English essay style we had all arrived with and destroyed it. Our sentences were gutted. Our flourishes demolished. We were left with empty shells.

How frustrating

Carefully, very carefully, we would take a word and put it in front of another word. Bit by bit he taught us how to write. I can’t imagine how frustrating that was for him.

None of us was any good, but he persisted until we could write a paragraph that he wouldn’t read with his head in his hands.

Economy of language was Eddie’s strength. The effect of this on his own writing in The Irish Times made for tightly packed articles, dense with information, where every word mattered. He wrote about how grammar was becoming unfashionable in a 2003 column.

“Certainly there are chronic cases of constipated grammarians – neurotics who feign apoplexy over a split infinitive or at a sentence ending with a preposition – but such undeniable pedants are few now. The problem is that the rules of even basic punctuation are regularly considered a concern of only sad, stuffy, hair-splitting fogeys. They shouldn’t be. Language changes, of course, and cannot be mummified. But (yes, I know that’s starting a sentence with a conjunction) it needn’t be – even in an age of moronic management-speak – so thoroughly abused.”

He hated how language could be used to erase the identity of place, or as he saw, Ireland becoming an “ersatz Britain”.

Our main streets being called high streets, for example, or the naming of boomtown housing developments: “The ruling logic appears to be to choose an English shire town: Shrewsbury, say. Then add words like ‘Downs’, ‘Copse’ or ‘Gallops’ to the name of the shire town: ‘Shrewsbury Downs’, ‘Shrewsbury Copse’ or ‘Shrewsbury Gallops’. That should add thousands of euro to the sale price.”

Cared about writing

He cared about writing. “I think the reason we all respected him,” a friend said to me last week, “was because his respect for the English language was so clear.”

He was also hilarious. He wasn’t a curmudgeonly figure. Anyone who showed promise was rewarded. Good writing was praised. I can certainly count myself among a bunch of students who treated lecture timetables as loose guidelines rather than instructions, but I never missed Eddie’s lectures. You wanted to be there.

The last time I saw Eddie was at John McGahern’s funeral in 2006. I was reporting on the funeral for the Sunday Tribune and pushed myself to make it the best article I could, knowing that if Eddie was there, he would probably read it.

Eddie always looked older than he was. He died last week aged 60, meaning he was only in his mid-40s when he was lecturing us. He would probably hate this article because it is a cliche. It is a cliche to talk of the teachers who have a profound impact on you, because we all know them.

We all know the teachers who changed our lives just by being who they were, who taught with passion, who spoke the truth, who cared. Sometimes the smallest things they do make the biggest difference. It’s all relative.

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