Entrepreneur supported by Ulster Bank helps west Belfast school pupils become published authors

A group of Primary five pupils from St. Paul’s Primary & Nursery School in West Belfast officially became published authors today (Friday 9 December) with the release of a book they have worked on with independent publishing company, Emu Ink.

‘Covid 19 – Through a Child’s Eyes’ was a collaborative endeavor between Emu Ink and the school and was funded by the West Belfast Partnership Board and the Department of Education. It gave young writers the opportunity to put pen to paper and document their experiences of home, school, and family life during the lockdown periods.

To mark the book’s publication, a special launch was held at Starbucks, Castle Lane, Belfast, where a number of children read extracts of their stories to an invited audience made up of the school community, families and friends, and those organisations behind the project. Starbucks provided refreshments for all of those who came along and gifted €500 worth of books to the school library.  After the readings, the children were also surprised with a visit from Santa who handed out Christmas presents.

In total, 42 children contributed to the project, penning personal tales of their time during the Covid pandemic. Stories touch on how lockdowns impacted their young lives and how they felt about being separated from their friends and school community. Not only did the young authors write each story, they also learned to edit and proof-read as part of the online course they completed with Emu Ink.

In his account, Matthew Rafferty recalls how he first heard the news. “While I sat on my sofa with my mum and dad I overheard the breaking news. It said Covid-19 hits Italy and thousands are already sick. I remember thinking to myself what sort of virus could make people so sick? … I couldn’t visit my granny as she had just gone into a nursing home. It was sad only seeing her on zoom and talking to her on the phone.”

Others recounted how difficult it was being separated from family members overseas, including Noha Al Massri who wrote, “When I think back to lockdown one of my first thoughts is of being trapped at home and the shops closing. I couldn’t see my friends in person and felt really upset, anxious and bored. I missed my mum who lives in London and my granny.”

One common theme from each of the accounts is how relieved the children were when school reopened, something which came as no surprise to principal, Sean McNamee, who described the project as “a silver lining to what has been a dark cloud for the last two years.”

He also said, “the children loved the idea of using their own lived experiences of a really challenging time and turning this into a creative piece of writing. As such they were so enthused about capturing and sharing their experiences, not only with each other, but perhaps also with future generations who may wish to learn about this pandemic in years to come.

“This project helped to shape our literacy provision in school and taught the children about writing for an audience and with purpose. Above this, it has opened up the world of books and literature even further to them and shown them that their voices are just as important and powerful as anyone else’s.

“We are grateful to Emer at Emu Ink for guiding our pupils through this process and showing them their stories deserve to be told; and to the West Belfast Partnership and the Department of Education for funding it.”

Entrepreneur Emer Cleary founded Emu Ink 10 years ago with the aim of bringing people closer together through stories and writing. Over the last number of years, she has been focusing on the company’s schools’ publishing programme that turns pupils into published authors and, most recently, helping sports clubs of all kinds to celebrate milestone anniversaries through special commemorative books.

Based in Dublin, she has been supported by Ulster Bank’s Entrepreneur Accelerator Programme to expand into the NI market.

Speaking ahead of the book launch, she said, “At Emu Ink we have published work from thousands of children to date but the launch of this book with St. Paul’s Primary School is our first venture in Northern Ireland which makes it extra special.

This collection of stories, which documents a time in history that will never be forgotten, is a beautiful mix of honesty, humour, sadness, and resilience. Through writing about their life during lockdown, these young authors have been able to process their complex experiences which they may previously have had difficulties expressing. Their writing will serve as a historical document that will aid in the teaching of and about the pandemic for years to come.

“Huge thanks to everyone at St. Paul’s, to The West Belfast Partnership and the Department of Education, to our long-standing partners Starbucks for hosting the launch, and for providing the school with €500 worth of books for the library; and finally, thanks to our newly published authors for being shining examples of hope and determination. The future is bright for each and every one of them.”

Also in attendance was Angie Mervyn, Education Manager at the West Belfast Partnership and Dougie Cusins from the Department of Education. Angie explained that the West Belfast Partnership has a strategic education vision for the area and an uncompromising belief that every pupil can and will do well and that disadvantage should not be a barrier to this.

“West Belfast has a community infrastructure like no other and our goal at the partnership is to develop and foster relationships which can improve literacy and numeracy for school children.

“When I met Emer from EMU Publishing I knew that we could do something wonderful, which focused on literacy, but also captured the history of the Covid-19 pandemic through the eyes of our children.

“It was very important that local children had the opportunity to take part and we are really delighted that, through the support of the Department of Education, the fantastic pupils of St Paul’s Primary School became involved and that their stories have been captured. What the children wrote has culminated in the publication of a history book that can be used to teach children in the future about the pandemic and the effects it had on our children and community.

“Well done to every pupil who took part and we are very proud of you!”