With a career steeped in the academic world of the sciences, it seemed unlikely that Derry woman Oonagh Lynch would end up writing a children’s book, but that’s exactly what the former Thornhill pupil has done.
Now on the shelves of select bookshops, Joseph the Hairy Shark tells the story of a shark with a talent for inventing.
No stranger to the world of innovation herself, Oonagh is the University of Ulster’s Intellectual Property Manager. There she promotes innovation and helps to protect and commercialise the innovations and technologies created by the University’s academics and students.
“I’ve had the privilege of seeing at first hand some incredible inventions and creations coming to fruition but I think we can always do more to encourage innovation among young children,” she says.
Taking time out of a busy marketing campaign around her debut book this week, Oonagh spoke to the Sunday Journal and took a look back at her own childhood where she grew up on the outskirts of Park - which in itself sounds as if it could be the setting for a children’s novel!
The youngest in a family of six, Oonagh spent her childhood days in the picturesque Learmount Forest near her family home.
“It was definitely idyllic,” she says.
“Everyday we’d go off into the forest and we were in and out of the castle situated in the middle of the forest. At the time it was run by the Lowther family who had it as a hostel. I remember they had so many cats and a dog called Laddy and we’d be in and out of there all the time.
“I’ve never met so many interesting people in all my life. I remember we’d wander into the dining room and ask ‘who’s in today?’ and there could be people from all corners of the world. It really was lovely growing up there and we did a lot of swimming in the Faughan as well, which is not something kids would ever do today.”
Oonagh’s mother Josephine, who died in 2009, was a well-known teacher at St Patrick’s Primary School in Claudy. Her father, Vincent, spent his working years in Du Pont.
Oonagh attended primary school in Claudy, although she was never taught by her mother. “I think that was probably a good thing because parents tend to be stricter on their own children,” she laughs.
After primary school she moved onto Thornhill, where she spent many happy years with her pick of inspirational teachers.
“I loved chemistry and had a wonderful teacher called Mrs Gillen. My biology teacher Mrs McLucas was also a great influence. I really did enjoy going to school there and because we were coming in from the country we had to be up at the crack of dawn and there was great camaraderie among us.”
“I studied Biochemistry as an undergraduate before completing my PhD at Imperial College in London, where my doctorate research was in the area of lung disease and asthma.”
For the next few years, Oonagh travelled and worked as a research scientist, including a spell at the University of Sydney in Australia. She admits to always being a bit of a closet scribbler but living in Australia really gave her the writing bug.
“Australia was wonderful and very idyllic,” says Oonagh. “I lived in a house on the beach in Bronte and it was sunny every day.
“My commute to work was quite long and I had to take the bus so I suppose that was when I really got interested in writing. I’d always liked it but I decided at that stage that maybe I’d try my hand at writing a book.
“It was more a bit of fun than anything else and it was a comedy. In the end I didn’t finish it but I still wanted to get into writing so when I came home after Australia I joined the Writers’ Bureau.
“The course trained me to be an observer of life, the people around me and the matters that interest me,” says Oonagh.
“I swapped my lab coat for a suit and my pipette for the pen but after a while I really missed the University setting, so I was delighted to be appointed to my present position as Intellectual Property Manager.”
It was during her early days as a patent attorney working for a firm in Belfast that Oonagh had a chance meeting with a mother who was talking about her child who had asthma and wouldn’t take an inhaler.
“Because I’d previously worked for the National Heart and Lung Institute and I thought a book with a character who comes up with clever ideas to help children with their breathing would be fun.”
The result of Oonagh’s pondering was Joseph the Hairy Shark. Beautifully illustrated by Ballymena artist Danielle Kennedy, the story is one which Oonagh hopes will eventually resonate with children the world over.
“Joseph is a clever inventor with an unusual mane of silvery hair,” says Oonagh.
“He lives in a big shark pod at the bottom of the sea near North Sydney. The little minnows that live close by tease and laugh at him because he looks different from the other sharks in the sea. But Joseph doesn’t notice because he is too busy inventing things and thinking of ways to help others.”
Oonagh says the book – which is aimed at children aged five years and up - is another way of driving home the message about the importance of creative thinking in business.
“The book describes Joseph’s encounters with a number of wonderful little characters including the naughty minnows; a wheezy lungfish named Laurel; Stephen Sting Rays, who keeps hurting his friends with his barred tail; Clarke, the blind Batfish; and fearless Scooter Skatefish who loves surfing in dangerous places!
“The book also has an important underlying message,” she continues. “Some children might get bullied at school for not being ‘cool’ or part of the ‘in’ crowd, so the moral message of the book is to encourage children to be kind and helpful - and not to judge a ‘book’ by its cover.”
Oonagh says she can’t even imagine the scenario of being a successful full-time writer in the ultra competitive world of childrens writing. But she is determined, and is currently working towards bringing ‘Joseph’ to as wide an audience as possible and hopes Derry parents will pick up a copy of the book.
In the meantime she continues in her role as Intellectual Property Manager at the University of Ulster.
‘Joseph the Hairy Shark’ is available at Shipquay Books and News and online at www.josephthehairyshark.com