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Remembering Brian Baird . . .

Once upon a time, before news traveled at break-neck speed to our smart phones and our Cable TV networks, we waited for it. We had no choice, and when “the news” came on at teatime, it was a serious affair that demanded our attention. It was rarely, if ever, about  a new animal born at the zoo or a celebrity’s wardrobe malfunction. When UTV broadcaster, Brian Baird, entered our living rooms, in black and white, and with poker-faced authority as he told us something new, we took it as gospel.

As my brother says, “You could read nothing in that face. It was all in the voice. The face, if it told you anything, told you this: listen to what I’ve found out since I was talking to you last. This is very important, and will take only three minutes.” There was no shuffling of papers, no footerin’ with a pen – there was just the news.


I remember wondering, amid the flurry of texts and Tweets about the death of our Seamus Heaney, how the late Brian Baird would have broken the news. Would he have maintained his composure or would he have lost what veteran American anchorman, Walter Kronkite, described as the “running battle” between his emotions and his news sense when he announced on-air, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. I suspect the latter.

I first met Mr. Baird on a September morning in the early 1980s. I was a student at Queen’s University of Belfast’s Stranmillis College, and I was late for my first Modern Irish Fiction Since Joyce seminar. When I opened the door, it was to the sound of a familiar voice coming from the front of a classroom. There he was, sitting behind a desk that was too small for him, reciting Yeats, delivering the message with the same gentle gravitas with which he read the news. Away from the TV in the corner of our living room on the Dublin Road, Mr. Baird was larger than life. As such, over the course of that year, he changed my life – as only the best teacher can.

In Mr. Baird’s seminar, I discovered the novels of Edna O’Brien, the short stories of Frank O’Connor and Liam O’Flaherty, and Brian Friel’s plays. Even as I write, I can hear his recitation of Patrick Kavanagh’s “On Raglan Road,” which made me weep a little. Indeed, it is preferable to think of Mr. Baird waxing poetic than reporting news that was mostly bad in those days.

It was Mr. Baird who introduced me to Seamus Heaney. “Professionally unfussed” like Heaney’s Diviner, he led his students in and out of those poems, wondering always and wandering through rural places and practices I knew well, but had until then taken for granted. I felt a new pride, almost boastful  that I belonged to Heaney’s places – Castledawson, The Hillhead, The Lough shore, Broagh. I found a new respect for the craft of certain men who peopled those parts and Heaney’s poems – The Thatcher, Barney Devlin, the blacksmith at The Forge, The Diviner, men like my father who I once observed “witch” water, the pull of it so strong where he stood, that the stick in the shape of a wishbone, bent and almost tied itself in a knot, “suddenly broadcasting through a green hazel its secret stations.”

My newfound appreciation for the ways of life in the townlands of rural Derry did little to make me more punctual to class or timely with submission of homework. Mr. Baird referred to me as “the late Miss Watterson,” announcing my arrival in a way that only encouraged my tardiness. I enjoyed his attention, and I saved every hand-written essay, because I loved his red-ink comments. Often, I imagined him sharing his assessments of work on the six o’clock news: “A very sound survey, which I was pleased, at last, to receive. I had had oral evidence of its existence.” Or, “This was received very late, so I can’t guarantee this mark.” I got the mark anyway.

He started out as a young English teacher in 1956, far away from Belfast, in Kuala Kangsa, a small town in Malaysia. He had accepted a post that had recently been vacated by a John Wilson, who later under the pen name of Anthony Burgess, wrote the 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange. After a successful five years, he moved to the island of Penang, where his son, Patric, was born. And in 1963, the year I was born, the Bairds returned to Northern Ireland, bringing with them a cargo of words and phrases, recipes and photographs, from exotic Eastern places that could not have been further away from Belfast.

I remember spotting Mr. Baird one night in the foyer of The Lyric Theater on Ridgeway Street, just a few doors down from where I lived when I was a student.  He was enjoying a cigar and a laugh with local celebrities, his thick gold bracelet chinking against a brandy glass as he raised it in my direction. I wish I had been bold enough to say hello and ask if he thought the play was going to be all it was cracked up to be. I know now he would have welcomed me into the conversation, but I was hesitant, awkwardly aware of being the first person in my family to attend university or to go to a play at The Lyric Theater – I may as well have been in Penang.

In Stepping Stones, Seamus Heaney explains to Dennis O’Driscoll:

Even Belfast was far away to me. In those days,I was outside the loop, my family had no familiarity with universities, no sense of the choices that there were, no will to go beyond the known procedures, no confidence, for example, about phoning up the local education authority and seeking clarification about what was possible – no phone, for God’s sake.

A university education in Belfast was a world away from the Broagh and necessitated a kind of verbal dance with his mother, when he returned from it to the family home, full of new knowledge, new words, and new sensitivities. I can almost picture him – in that tight space between elevated and plain Derry speech, watching every word he says, weighing its impact before he utters it. My mother and I have danced that very dance, her telling me to this day, ” you know all them things.”

From Clearances IV

Fear of affectation made her affect
Inadequacy whenever it came to
Pronouncing words ‘beyond her’. Bertold Brek.
She’d manage something hampered and askew
Every time, as if she might betray
The hampered and inadequate by too
Well-adjusted a vocabulary.

With more challenge than pride, she’d tell me, ‘You
Know all them things.’ So I governed my tongue
In front of her, a genuinely well-
Adjusted adequate betrayal
Of what I knew better. I’d naw and aye
And decently relapse into the wrong
Grammar which kept us allied and at bay.

In 1991, Mr. Baird would receive a letter from me. By then, I was living in Phoenix and teaching part-time. In anticipation of teaching an Irish literature class, I wondered if he would maybe share with me the syllabus from the Irish Fiction course that changed me. He obliged, and I love knowing that his elegant hand-written letter remains folded between the pages of the Collected Poems of Patrick Kavanagh.

Letter from Brian Baird

I wish there had been more letters between us, because he probably had much more to teach me. He died in 1998, by which time I was consumed with learning how to be a new mother – my daughter’s first teacher. I never made the time to thank him for the life-long gift of Seamus Heaney’s poetry – there has not been one day of my adult life that I have not been grateful for it.

When Mr. Baird died, then manager of Ulster Television(UTV), Desmond Smyth, described him just as many of us remember him:

To a TV generation Brain Baird was the voice and the face of UTV news. He was a totally professional broadcaster and a charming work colleague with not an ounce of ego about him.

Like Seamus Heaney’s men – not an ounce of ego.

Out of the blue, one morning in April 2013, I received an email from his son, Patric. In his travels, he had found my writing and was pleased to read there about the impact of his father on yet another former student. It turns out I am part of a large and global fan-club. Patric told me that on a trip to Malay to celebrate his fiftieth birthday, he met some of his father’s former pupils, now men in their seventies who recall with gratitude and fondness how their teacher had helped shape their appreciation of literature and the English language.

It was a long struggle with a rare form of leukemia that killed my favorite teacher, and Patric says he remained positive throughout the illness. Of course he did.

Sadly, Mr. Baird did not live to see his son become a journalist, nor would he ever know the full extent of his influence as a teacher and a lover of Seamus Heaney’s poetry. Even though I know he is the man who kept on reading the news in spite of a fly landing on his lip, I have to believe that his inscrutable poker face would break into a smile at the thought of his son and a former student, each of us in our fifties and like Seamus Heaney, “crediting marvels.”

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After my husband died and the weekend before my first Christmas as a widow, a large envelope arrived, bearing a Belfast post-mark. Inside, was a typed letter from Patric, who had heard the news, and a familiar paperback. For some time, he had been meaning to send me one of his father’s books of Heaney’s poetry, and while searching for my address, he learned of my husband’s death.  In his letter, he disclosed some details of his father’s death. It happened a few days before Christmas in 1998, and Patric flew back to Belfast to be with his family. Whether from London to Belfast or Phoenix to Arizona, the flight is too long, fraught with a desperate desire to just be where you belong.

So it was that Mr. Baird’s personal copy of “Death of a Naturalist” became part of my collection. Patric tells me it was

 It is certainly the most dog-eared of the collection and probably the one he read the most. I’m sure he could think of no better person to whom he would like it passed on.

All over America this week, teachers and their craft will be honored with public fanfare and the more personal gestures as well. It’s the time of year when some teachers are counting down the days until school’s out for summer, and others are figuring out how to make every minute matter until the final bell rings on the last day of school. Cards and hand-written letters of gratitude will be saved in shoeboxes or between the pages of books and rediscovered over the years, reminders of what Henry Adams said about a teacher’s effect on eternity. “He can never tell where his influence stops.”

Thank you, Mr. Baird.

I am forever in your debt.