Monday 17 December 2018

Meet the dad and daughter teaching kids about Ireland

Their beautiful new book on all things Irish is set to be a bestseller. But how did retired primary school teacher John Burke and his daughter Fatti, a heavily-tattooed illustrator, end up working together? Our reporter finds out

Family ties: Dad and daughter duo John and Fatti Burke worked together on 'Irelandopedia'.
Family ties: Dad and daughter duo John and Fatti Burke worked together on 'Irelandopedia'.
Fatti's illustrations of all things Dublin

Maggie Armstrong

John Burke was a young bachelor teaching at his local primary school. Summers were long, as he would not marry until he was 39, and his four children came later.

When June arrived, John would get on his bike, fill his panniers with camping gear and cycle through Ireland, under slanting rain or a beating sun. "Doing Connaught" meant taking the train from Waterford to Limerick and cycling Clare, Galway and Mayo, and back down to Limerick.

His main quest was for a holiday, but cycling from place to place he started discovering things. Where Elvis's ancestors were born, what Clew Bay looked like at sundown, where exactly the haunted Leap Castle lay. Curious finds and facts, which 20 years later he passed on to his children and which, through extended research, and an avalanche of colour and cleverness, his daughter Fatti has illustrated in a new book.

Irelandopedia: a compendium of maps, facts and knowledge, is a modern, visual encyclopaedia of 32 counties and their history, geography, nature and culture. It states it is for 'armchair travellers of any age', but the nuggets of interest were first gathered on a bicycle, far from Wikipedia or even books.

John's cycling trips were famous in Passage East, Co Waterford. When his former pupils in the villages heard about the places he visited, they wanted to follow him. He conceded, so long as they didn't interrupt his holiday.

All day they cycled, staying alive on grilled sausages, bread and butter, and berries from trees. Farmers let them camp in their fields, mothers in their front gardens, priests in their parish halls. When it rained all night they camped in a hollow and woke with their belongings floating around them. Once, when they boated to France, they even lost all their bikes.

John, with a beady eye for an ancient site or quirky place name, was prepared to stop and stare at small wonders. "Now, I knew about the Burren," says the Waterford man. "But I remember we were cycling up a hill, and when we got to the crest I saw the Burren for the first time. We got off the bicycles, and just sat on the wall and stared. When you don't expect it, it's just so beautiful."

As it turned out, the Burren was the hardest thing to illustrate. Limestone rock formations took their time to awaken the muse but they did, and like every jot of detail in the book, Fatti's rocks are humorous, enlightening and so easy on the eye you might rest your head on them like pillows.

This father-daughter production is certainly unusual, as generational gaps widen and we learn more from information amassed online, less from learned people. The pair say they never dreamt of writing a book together.

Fatti is an NCAD graduate, and an illustrator and mapmaker to watch indeed. When she was commissioned last year by Gill & MacMillan, the publisher needed a primary school teacher to provide the facts. Fatti's father, now retired, had taught in a primary school most of his life. John sent her 60 facts on Waterford and Fatti chose which to illustrate. They worked alphabetically through each county from Armagh to Wicklow.

It was "a match made in heaven," says Fatti. "It worked out beautifully," her father sighs.

Over coffee in Dublin, Fatti and John appear not to match. John, 69, with his mane of white hair and smart mustard jacket and tie, might have come from a different planet to Fatti, 26, and a glam-rock vision of peroxide blonde, red lips and tattoos - she has 14 and plans for more. "They look strange when there's only a few. I like more of a sleeve effect." (Her father pleads, "Just don't do it to your face, that's all!")

They show a cheerfulness and mutual respect in each other's company that other collaborators, beset by secret competitiveness, might not. It is clear who calls the shots in this co-authorship. "As far as I'm concerned this is Kathi's book," says John (Kathi is Fatti's real name). "I wanted to assist her in any way."

At school, Fatti called her father "Sir", because he was her teacher for fourth, fifth and sixth class. But as soon as the bell rang he was family again, taking her and her sister, Shauna, on long drives, pointing out lakes, rivers, mountains, wildlife, and repeatedly - Fatti bursts out laughing to remember - showing them the place in Youghal where Moby Dick was filmed.

Fatti and Shauna soaked up what they learned; they loved bird-spotting and making leaf-rubbings. They painted elaborate sets for their Barbie dolls and filmed the scenes. Most of all, Fatti loved books. "Books would have been my toys," she says. "I liked making stories. I made my first book about an otter when I was seven."

It was in these early stabs at illustration that a striking trait emerged. "My first dog was called Kim. I used to draw the dog over, and over, again. My teacher, Mrs O'Neill, went to my dad and said, 'you'll have to get her to draw something else because she's drawing that dog for every single picture'. I get obsessed with motifs."

Mrs O'Neill had it wrong, because the recurring figures that make up this book's motifs are what please the eye so. All Fatti's people are the same: dots for eyes, sticks for noses that place the eyes endearingly low on the face, and tiny upturned mouths. People are told apart by their hairdo - a bouffant backcomb for Liam Neeson, a side-parting for Ardal O'Hanlon.

Fatti's inspirations are Quentin Blake - most famous for his Roald Dahl illustrations - "'cause it's so rough" and Roger Hargreaves, who drew the Mr Men series, because of their jarring quality.

"I don't like when things are too perfect. If something's going to be realistic, I could just take a photograph of it. I like things to have the artist impression, rather than being exact. When something looks not quite right - I like that."

And I like a girl who uses her childhood nickname as her adult alias, even if it is a pejorative term for corpulence - the great taboo of women (lest there is doubt - she is Fatti just by name).

Her older brother - she has two - called her Fatti when she was a baby. When she became a professional illustrator she found that a British comedian had already poached the name Kathy Burke, so this comic illustrator needed a name.

She is certainly set for renown, working at home in the Liberties in Dublin in a converted nursery, her dog, Aidan, next to her. She draws with a stylis and tablet, using Photoshop and Illustrator, taking breaks to sketch on paper when her eyes hurt.

On this book, "I was working 18-hour days. Nobody saw me for a few months. I think my friends all hated me. My boyfriend would come in and give me a cup of tea and leave." She is a perfectionist, she concedes. "I'm quite hard on myself."

The book is a formula that has not been tested. Until publication, it had not been read by a child, and Fatti doesn't know what the younger readers will make of it. But John, readying himself to get home in time for choir practice, says that every age wants to learn. Retirement gives a person hunger for knowledge. He doesn't cycle at the moment because of a bad knee, but he is secretary of Barony of Gaultier's historical society and amassing boxes of research on their locality.

"I'm getting more fun out of learning things now than I did when I was younger. We have this perception that children want to learn and adults are stuck in the mud. They're not! I'm hoping children will annoy their parents on a Friday saying 'oh daddy, can we go to Roscommon, or Longford, this Saturday?

"We really have a beautiful country. Rich with things to see and do." His favourite place in Ireland? Sneem, in Co Kerry.

And the county that got preferential treatment? They admit they were biased towards Waterford.

Father and daughter even make a Hitchcockian cameo in the chapter about their home village, Dunmore East.

Turn to page 61 and you find Fatti and John sitting at the harbour by a crayon-pink fishing boat, legs dipped in the sea, fish jumping around them. "Us, in the past," says Fatti. No iPhones, no Wikipedia and no selfies, just a family out shooting the breeze.

'Irelandopedia: A compendium of maps, facts and knowledge' by Fatti and John Burke is published by Gill & Macmillan, priced at €24.99

Irish Independent

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