Arts

Anne Hailes: Young naturalist Dara McAnulty has certainly proved naysayers wrong

Naturalist and author Dara McAnulty, pictured when Anne met him and his family in Castle Archdale Forest Park, Co Fermanagh

THIS is a young man who has proved them wrong – big time. This is the student whose parents were devastated to be told he would struggle throughout his life, wouldn’t be creative and no good with empathy because he was autistic.

He was five years of age, the teacher thought the boy wouldn’t understand so this devastating conversation was carried out in front of him. He remembers it to this day but thankfully the teacher's lack of understanding only spurred Dara McAnulty on to great things.

There can be few authors, let alone one of 16, who has a book into its third print run. The first 5,000 published were gone before Amazon could even put on an order to carry it on their website; there followed 7000 more – all gone – and an additional 15,000 are now being gobbled up.

Diary Of A Young Naturalist is just that, four seasons of gentle observation of the nature all around us but often goes unseen. Dara has the ability of looking and seeing – no stone is left unturned, no birdsong unrecognised and what he hopes is that his book will introduce people to the natural wonders all around.

“I’m pleased with it,” he told me, “although I could have spent more time writing. I thought I might sell a few.” Understatement, as it turned out.

This book is an exquisite jewel. His language is exceptional; he paints pictures: "The lake is writhing in the wind." He looks into a bucket of rainwater where "the magic brew grew life, tadpoles squirming tear drops".

Dara McAnulty, his mum Roisin, dad Paul, brother Lorcan and sister Bláthnaid

Every night he fills in his diary, his innermost thoughts and his daily experiences. In the morning he returns to yesterday and adds intricate detail.

The success has taken over much of the family’s time with mother Roisin filtering invitations to festivals and events and fielding hundreds of phone calls and emails all the time, shielding her son from the dangers of becoming public property.

:: Taunts and jibes

Because of his autism Dara was dreadfully emotionally and physically bullied at school but he learned to protect himself.

"Over the years a wall of stone and beautiful ivy has grown up around me and only family and wildlife are allowed in. Although shafts of light are starting to get through all this, I am still wary and catch myself wondering how long it will last.

"This doubt creeps when the wall and the ivy are in shadow. But I’m starting to realise that I probably need both the light and the shadow. They are part of me, and I can’t change that."

He wants people to know that those who are autistic can achieve in a nurtured environment where acceptance and not tolerance is the norm. His message to those with autism is that the anxiety will get better the more challenges you give yourself – “Especially if it’s related to something you love and feel passionately about."

"People don’t realise how hard people who are autistic try, how much we have to keep at bay, process, faze out. The excruciating pain of trying to control our out-of-control brains; to do ‘difficult’ things, things which will hopefully, in the future, help others to follow hopes and dreams.”

Although still at school, Dara is in demand all over the UK to talk to environmental groups, to accept awards, attend to his responsibilities as youth ambassador for RSPCA – more recently, to read from his book on BBC Radio 4 when it was chosen as Book of the Week.

However, he’s uncomfortable when people tell him how ‘inspirational’ he is, that his talks are ‘amazing’ and he’s a fantastic role model to young people. He admits: “I hate it all.”

His mother tells me he isn’t interested in hearing back his interviews or reading reviews. In a way he’s writing for himself and if it goes further, that’s great.

It’s still difficult to accept invitations for public events where, if the situation is getting out of control and coping methods are overwhelmed, he turns to his mother and her understanding. He’s very open about his autism and reading of his experiences gives an insight into the condition.

“Autism makes me feel everything more intensely; I don’t have a joy filter. When you are different, when you are joyful and exuberant, when you are riding the crest of the wave of the everyday, a lot of people just don’t like it They don’t like me. But I don’t want to tone down my excitement. Why should I?”

:: The McAnulty family move as a unit

Paul, a conservation scientist, is steeped in his subject. However, as Dara explains, his dad is the odd one out because his mother Roisin, younger brother Lorcan and little sister Bláthnaid are all autistic.

“Together we make for an eccentric and chaotic bunch. We’re pretty formidable, apparently. We’re as close as otters and huddled together we make our way in the world.”

The family and their greyhound Rosie all feature in the book and the love Dara feels for them is very obvious. When I met them in Castle Archdale Forest Park this time two years ago I was welcomed into their circle and for a day I was mesmerised with what was going on around me as Dara seemed to have X-ray eyes that missed nothing, even the smallest beetle or an orchid hidden in the undergrowth.

More recently the family moved to live in the shadow of the Mourne Mountains which has given this young author a new theatre to explore and a school where he is happy. It’s a hectic time, a new book is in the pipeline, a children’s book written and Penguin publishers are in touch.

That teacher should eat their words; this power of nature knows no bounds. Dara, you have a remarkable gift and a wonderful family.

:: Diary of a Young Naturalist is published by Little Toller Books £16. Dara’s blogs are available at youngfermanaghnaturalist.com

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