Northern Ireland news

Former teacher of Booker Prize winner Anna Burns celebrates 'innate' talent of 'quiet' Ardoyne schoolgirl

Former Ardoyne woman Anna Burns, who won the Man Booker prize, has been lauded for her writing by her former primary school teacher
Seanín Graham

A FORMER teacher of Belfast-born Man Booker Prize winner Anna Burns has revealed she kept the poetry of her 10-year-old pupil for decades - admitting she is in "awe" of her talent.

Anne Tanney, who went on to become the high-profile principal of Holy Cross girls primary school in the north of the city, said she was "absolutely thrilled" by the Ardoyne woman's triumph.

Burns became the first writer from Northern Ireland to win the prestigious literary prize on Monday evening for Milkman, a coming-of-age story about a young girl's affair with a married man.

Growing up in Brookfield Street, Burns (56) began Holy Cross school in 1969 and witnessed some of the worst violence of the Troubles with many homes burnt out in her street. She moved to England in her mid-twenties.

"She was a very quiet, hard working little girl who was particularly good at poetry. She lived near an interface and Anna and all the other children did experience a lot of trauma," Mrs Tanney told the Irish News.

"I kept a poem she had written about the Troubles and peace - I kept a lot of the children's poetry. In 2003 I sent her the poem and she sent a very nice letter back. She came to see me and told me she loved to hear me coming into the class which was lovely...We have kept in touch, I am very fond of her."

Former Holy Cross principal Anne Tanney's face was beamed around the world following a loyalist protest outside the girls primary school in 2001. She is pictured comforting a mother and child after they were attacked by a loyalist pipe bomb on their way to school.

The book is Burns' fourth novel and was described by judges as "simply marvellous". All its characters are unnamed with its "funny, resilient" 18-year-old narrator referring to herself as "Middle Sister".

Set in an unknown city riven by sectarianism, Burns admitted that growing up in Belfast had impacted on her work.

"I was brought up in Belfast and that did have a huge influence on the book, writing about an entire society affected by long-term violence, living under intense pressure, and how that becomes normality," she told the BBC.

Mrs Tanney, who was thrust into the international media spotlight following a loyalist protest outside the school in 2001, said she was "amazed and horrified" at how violence affected children like Anna Burns.

Now retired after 38 years at the primary school, she treasures many old poems and creative stories penned by different generations of mothers and daughters she has taught.

"There was no such things as counselling in those days and Anna's book shows great psychological depth...but what she also shows is the great resilience and humour which many people in Ardoyne had during the worst of the Troubles. It was like a black humour," she said.

"Anna's talent can't be taught, it was innate...I have read all her work. I am in awe at the standard of her writing."

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