Revisiting her childhood imagination



Shelly O’Neill’s debut children’s book, ‘The Watchman of Westport’, draws on the wonder of childhood fantasies

Anton McNulty

WHEN Shelly O’Neill was a young girl visiting her grandparents home on High Street in Westport, she was fascinated with one towering landmark at the bottom of the street, known simply to all as The Clock. Her imagination would run wild.
“The door at the back of The Clock always enticed me. I always thought someone had to live there because, why else would there be a door there?,” she laughs.
Those childhood memories of her visits to High Street have now been put on paper, and this Thursday, Shelly launches her first children’s book, ‘The Watchman of Westport’, in Westport Town Hall.
Beautifully illustrated by O’Neill, it tells the story of Ethan, whose granddad tells him a story about a giant who lives in the tower of the clock that stands in the middle of the town. Nobody believes George The Giant is real, but he turns out to be very real, and both he and Ethan become good friends.
“The story is all from my own childhood imagination, and it is great to relive those memories through this book,” Shelly explained to The Mayo News.
“I am no Julia Donaldson or anything like that, and would not claim to be. This is a personal project for me and I’m just getting a lovely story out there. I had to do it. Westport is the town I grew up in, and The Clock is so close to my heart. I spent many a night there with my grandparents [Mick and Nan Staunton], so High Street and The Clock will always be magic to me, and it will be lovely to give that magic to other kids as well.”

Now or never
‘The Watchman of Westport, is over 20 years in the making. The concept first came to Shelly when she was studying for her degree in Visual Communication at Dublin’s National College of Art and Design in 2002. As part of her final-year degree exhibition, she designed and illustrated the first draft of the book.
After graduating from college, Shelly worked as a designer with The Mayo News for many years, before setting up her own successful graphic-design business in Westport. Married to Fearghal and with two young children, Ethan and Caoilainn, she said publishing the book took a backseat until eventually she decided that it could wait no longer.
“It was the elephant in the room! It was something I had to do, but I have always been busy … It was a case of doing it now, or it will never be done.”
As a young child, Shelly says she loved Roald Dahl’s books and the illustrations of Quentin Blake and how he brought the characters to life in his own unique technique. As a mother of two young boys, she has recently been introduced to the works of Oliver Jeffers books and says those illustrations have also stood out.
First love
The unique and striking feature of ‘The Watchman of Westport’ is the watercolour illustrations of the characters, which are hand-sketched by Shelly herself using traditional methods. While most illustrations are now digitally finished, Shelly said that hand-sketching the illustrations were a return to her roots and the most enjoyable aspect of the book.
“I’m really an illustrator with a story to tell and I am hoping the illustrations speak for themselves. Graphics is my bread and butter, but illustration is my first love and it was lovely to go back to my roots. I loved it and could sit for 16 hours a day easily because you are completely engrossed in it, and I want the the kids to get engrossed in the illustrations too.”
Shelly says she has been drawing and sketching since she could hold a pencil and credits her mum, Teresa, for supporting her in when she said she wanted to make a career out of art.
“I have to thank my mum for her encouragement … As I got older I was more interested in art over other subjects. It would not normally been seen as a career option, but my mum always believed in what I wanted to do. She believed in me pursuing my own goals. That is so important, to have that influence in life, that allows you to follow your dreams and have that support.
“I was 12 when I told my mum I wanted to go to the NCAD. Once I heard about a college of art and design I said I was going there. That was my goal from early on. I kept drawing. Mags Duffy, my art teacher in the Sacred Heart School, was another person who was really influential and very encouraging with my art.
“I believed I could get in, and I haven’t looked back.”
As a first-time author, meeting the deadline to get the book published before Christmas was very daunting at times, but Shelly made it, and is really grateful to all the people who supported her through her journey. She said that she is excited about seeing ‘The Watchman of Westport on the shelves around Westport but also nervous about how it will be received. “This is definitely putting my neck on the line because I am so used to doing work for other people and I am just in the background not getting a mention. It is like everything, when you do something for yourself you are your worst critic. I don’t know how it will go, but you have to take the good with the bad.
“I loved doing it but now the reality is here that I have to put myself out there and sell this. I am not a public person, and it is a little daunting and scary. I am totally out of my comfort zone … I think JK Rowling said the same thing.”

The launch of Watchman of Westport will take place on Thursday, December 8 from 6pm in Westport Town Hall Theatre. Readings from the book will take place, and refreshments will be served and children’s entertainment provided.The book is available at and from local bookshops.