After meeting Maurice Richmond and starting to put together a few words on the well-known local drama teacher, I hit a first as a reporter. Typing - I think of how lucky I am to be able to write.
Maurice, as he mentions quite early during our interview in an upstairs room of the community arts centre in Galliagh, can’t write. It’s the result of a major break in his education and growing up in an era where dyslexia was never allowed out from under the carpet.
When he was 11, Maurice developed a blood clot in his brain. It was the unfortunate outcome of an everyday scenario of boys being boys. He collided with a pal in the schoolyard and the incident left him in a coma for three weeks. After four years of being, as he describes, “quite ill” Maurice progressed with very little attention paid to the time he’d missed at school.
“I was profoundly dyslexic,” he says. “And that was a real bugbear throughout my whole life, but I never told anybody.”
Maurice grew up in Pine Street in the Waterside. His father Sammy was in charge of street lighting for the Londonderry Corporation at the time. His mother Pearl, like so many others, was a factory girl and from the stories he tells, a true Derry mammy.
Although both his parents have since died, Maurice speaks about them with a fondness that can only come from having been part of a loving and solid family. He credits his mother with having given him the confidence he needed to go out and take part in the world despite his inability to write.
“I had a great childhood, I was very lucky,” he says.
“My mother obviously knew about my struggles with writing. One day, she asked me to go round to the newsagents and buy a daily paper. She said to read through it and just try and get the jist of some of the stories. It might seem like something unimportant but from that day on I bought that daily paper every day and it made me feel like I could be a part of the discussions people were having. I felt like I was in the mix and not being able to write can leave you feeling like that’s not the case.”
Married at 19, Maurice had to grow up fast, but at 28, back on his own, he made a move which really influenced the direction the rest of his life was to take.
“I got involved with Holiday Projects West and ended up going to Jordanstown to do a course in community drama,” he explains.
“When I finished the course, everybody seemed to be going to Jersey to work. I had nothing lined up so I decided to go over for 12 weeks, and ended up staying for 12 years!”
During an eventful 12 years which saw Maurice among other things, run a bar and have his youngest son, Sam, he returned to Derry in 1994. Amazingly, he’d managed to gain employment and hold onto work during the 12 years, despite not being able to write. He still hadn’t told anyone about his problem.
“I was ashamed of it,” he says.
“I flitted from job to job and at one of the jobs, the boss caught on to the fact. His brother had dyslexia so he understood and he got a girl in the office to help me with the paperwork side of things.”
After returning home, it was a chance meeting with his former drama teacher from Jordanstown, which sent Maurice on a different path.
“I met James King, a well known local drama teacher, on the Northland Road quite soon after I got home. He was doing classes at Magee at the time and said I should come along. I went there and from there started to do some teaching in schools myself. The first school I worked in was St Mura’s Primary School in Fahan. I loved the school but the programme I had developed was more grown up.
“A lot of the work I did after that was with primary sevens, and I loved it.”
Maurice’s desire to teach was clearly born out of the inadequacies he had experienced in the education system of the 1960s. He wanted to work with a young people in a way that didn’t restrict their thoughts and creative processes to the inside of a book.
With that in mind, the father of three went on to embrace educational drama and the teaching of lifeskills and has stayed in that field, one way or another, ever since.
It was educational drama which led him to his current home with Greater Shantallow Community Arts. Now ‘part of the furniture’ at the hive of activity which is the group’s Galliagh office, the 60-year-old hasn’t looked back.
He was instrumental in setting up the popular Redshirts programme which has put hundreds of young people at the heart of community life every summer. Now volunteering two days a week, his next project is the innovative ‘Choices’ programme which will work with teenagers using the arts on a number of issue specific topics like drugs, alcohol, suicide awareness and self harm.
He has, he says, loved every minute of working in the arts. These days, due to health issues, Maurice is volunteering two days a week.
Looking back he says working as he has in the field of community drama, has been a pleasure and a privilege and something he was more than able for, even if in the past he’d been made to feel he wasn’t capable of much at all.
“If you had problems writing, you were just stupid, and that was it.” he says.
“I knew in my heart I wasn’t stupid, and I always caught up.”
In the coming years, Maurice is hoping to soak up everything Derry’s arts community has to offer. He’d like to take a ride in a helicopter too at some point, and listen to his three favourite bands, those bands being, as he says, “The Beatles, The Beatles and The Beatles.”
As for anything he’d change or do differently, the answer comes without hesitation.
“I’ve had great ups and terrible downs, but at least I can say I’ve led an interesting life.
“I wouldn’t change anything, even when I got things wrong, I’ve learned from them and I really do feel blessed.”