Cultural Literacy. What every Irish student needs to know. Inspired by E.D. Hirsch


I have long been a fan of that great educationist E.D.Hirsch. He feels that children in the United states are being deprived of the basic knowledge that would enable them to function in contemporary society. Hirsch is on the ‘knowledge is power’ side of the great education debate between traditionalists and ‘progressives’. His book Cultural Literacy was first published in 1987. It seems not enough attention was paid to his arguments. We might not have Trumpism now had his point of view prevailed in U.S. educational circles.

Hirsch includes lists, in alphabetical order, of things he feels every American child needs to know. These include events in history, scientific facts, geographical knowledge, phrases, quotations , literary and artistic references. Many of these items might not be immediately important to Irish students so I have attempted to amend Hirsch’s list dropping some of these and substituting items which might be considered essential for the education of our own pupils. Let’s face it, we have all been appalled from time to time at what some young people seem not to know. How can they do all this discovery learning we hear so much about if they don’t know what they should be looking for in the first place?

My list is entirely subjective. Feel free to drop items and add some of your own. I have listed items alphabetically from A to D….so far. Let’s begin with some key dates from Irish and world history.





















1920 -1922






à la carte

A thing of beauty is a joy forever



Abbey Theatre, The

Abbeydorney, Co Kerry

Abbeyfeale, Co Limerick

Abbeyleix, Co Laois

Abbeyshrule, Co. Longford




absolute monarchy

abstract art

academic freedom


Achilles’ heel

Achonry (diocese)



Actions speak louder than words

ad hoc

ad hominem

ad infinitum


Adam and Eve


Adare, Co Limerick

Addis Ababa

Adeste Fideles









Aeneid, The

Aesop’s fables






Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale/Her infinite variety


Aherlow, the Glen of

al fresco


Aladdin’s lamp


Alas, poor Yorick



albatross around one’s neck


Alcott, Louisa May


Alexander the Great

Alexandria, Egypt




Alice in Wonderland


Alighieri, Dante


All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

All roads lead to Rome

All that glisters is not gold

All the world’s a stage

All’s well that ends well




Allingham, William






alma mater

alpha and omega

Alps, the

alter ego





Amazing Grace

Amazon (myth)

Amazon (place)


American War of Independence

amino acids




amniotic sac


amok, run




ancien régime

And thereby hangs a tale


Anderson, Hans Christian

Andrews, Eamonn



Angelico, Fra

Angelou, Maya





Anno domini (A.D.)


Annunciation, The

annus mirabilis



Anthony Susan B.







Antony and Cleopatra

Antony’s speech at Caesar’s funeral


any port in a storm

Aoife (myth)

Aoife (wife of Strongbow)






Aphrodite (Venus)




Apostles, the Twelve








April showers bring May flowers


Aquinas, Saint Thomas

Aquitane, Eleanor of


Arabian nights


Aragon, Catherine of


Arc, Joan of


Archduke Franz Ferdinand


Archimedes’ principle


Arctic, the

Ardagh (Limerick, Longford)

Ardara, Co Donegal

Ardee, Co Louth

Ardfert, Co Kerry

Ardmore, Co Waterford

Ardrahan, Co Galway



Arigna, Co Roscommon







Arklow, Co Wicklow


Armagh, archdiocese of



Armstrong, Louis

Armstrong, Neil


art for art’s sake

Art is long, life is short (ars longa, vita brevis)

Artane, Dublin

Artemis (Diana)



article (part of speech)

artificial intelligence  (AI)

As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods

as the crow flies

ascetic, asceticism

ascorbic acid


Asgard, The

Ashbourne, Co Meath

Ashe, Thomas

Ashford, Co. Wicklow

Ash Wednesday


Asia minor

Ask not what your country can do for you…..

Ask, and it shall be given

Askeaton, Co Limerick

Asquith, Herbert



Assisi, Francis of

Assumption, The

Astaire, Fred


Astor, Lady




As you would that men [people] should do to you do you also to them in like manner.

Athboy, Co. Meath


Athena (Minerva)

Athenry, The Fields of


Athlone, Co Westmeath

Athy, Co Kildare




atmospheric pressure



atomic bomb


Attila the Hun


au revoir


Auden, W.H.


auditory nerve

auf Wiedersehn

Augean stables

Aughrim, Battle of (Co Galway)

Aughrim, Co Wicklow

Augustine, Saint

Augustus Caesar

Auld Lang Syne

aurora borealis


Austen, Jane




auxiliary verb

Avoca, Co Wicklow, Vale of


Axis powers




Babel, Tower of



Bacchus (Dionysus)

Bach, Johann Sebastian


Bacon, Francis (painter)



Bailieborough, Co Cavan

Baker’s dozen

balance of payments

balance of power



Ballina, (Co Mayo)

Ballinamuck, Co Longford

Ballinasloe Horse Fair, Co Galway

Ballinrobe, Co Mayo

Ballintubber (Abbey), Co Mayo

Ballitore, Co Kildare

Ballybunion, Co Kerry

Ballycotton, Co Cork

Ballydehob, Co Cork

Ballyferriter, Co Kerry

Ballyfin, Co Laois

Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo

Ballyjamesduff, Co Cavan (Song – Come back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff)

Ballylongford, Co Kerry. (Birthplace of….)

Ballymena, Co Antrim

Ballyporeen, Co Tipperary (Ronald Reagan and song)

Ballyshannon, Co Donegal (poem)

Ballyvaughan, Co Clare

Ballyvourney, Co Cork

Baltimore (Maryland U.S. and Co Cork)

Baltimore, The Sack of (Co Cork)

Baltinglass, Co Wicklow

Balzac, Honoré de

Banagher, Co Offaly (That beats Banagher)

banana republic

Bandon, Co Cork


Bangor Erris, Co Mayo

Bantry, Co Cork (Bantry Bay, Bantry House, French expedition 1796))


bar mitzvah

Barber of Seville, The


Bard of Avon, The


Barleycove, Co Cork



Barry, James (painter)

Barry, Commodore John

Barry, Kevin

Barry, Sebastian

Barry, Tom

basal metabolism






Bastille, fall of the


Battle of Britain

Baudelaire, Charles

Bauhaus movement


Bay of Biscay

Bay of Pigs

Beatitudes (text)

Beatles, the


BeauMONT hospital not BeauMOUNT 

Becket, Thomas à

Beckett, Samuel

Beethoven, Ludwig von

beg the question

Behan, Brendan






bell curve

Bell, Alexander Graham

Belmullet, Co Mayo

Ben Bulben. ‘Under bare Ben Bulben’s head….’

Benburb, Battle of

Benediction  (liturgy)

Berkeley, George (Bishop)

Berlaymont building


Berlin (Irving)

Berlin Wall

Bernard of Clairvaux, St

Bernhardt, Sarah


    best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men

   Best, George

    beta radiation

bête noire


beware of Greeks bearing gifts

beware the Ides of March


Bible Belt


bicameral legislature

big bang theory

Big Ben

Big Brother is watching you

big business








bird in the hand is worth two in the bush., A

Birds of a feather flock together

Birr, Co Offaly (Birr Castle, Birr telescope)

Birth of Venus, The (image)

birthday suit


Bismarck, Otto von

bit between your teeth

bite the bullet

bite the dust

biting the hand that feeds you

Bizet, Georges

Black 47

Black and Tans

Black Death

Black Hills of Dakota

Black Hole of Calcutta

black market

Black Sea

black sheep

Blacklion, Co Cavan


Blackrock College

Blair, Tony

Blake, William

blank verse

Blarney, Co Cork  (castle)


Bligh, Capt.



Blood is thicker than water

blood, sweat and tears

Bloody Sunday (1920 and 1972)

blow hot and cold



Blythe, Ernest (Earnán de Blaghd)

Boer War, The

Bogart, Humphrey

Bogside, Battle of the


Bohola, Co Mayo

Boleyn, Anne



bolt from the blue

Bombay (Mumbai)

bona fide



Bonnie Prince Charlie

Book of Common Prayer

Boolavogue, Co Wexford  (Song)

boom  (sonic)

boom (business)

Booth, John Wilkes


Borgias, The

born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth


Borris, Co Carlow, Borrisokane, Co Tipperary, Borrisoleigh, Co Tipperary, Borris-in-Ossory, Co Laois. All Os in all Borrises  PRONOUNCED AS U and I don’t care what AA roadwatch says.

Boston Tea Party




bottom line



Bounty, Mutiny on the


bourgeois, bourgeoisie


Bowen, Elizabeth

Boy Who Cried “Wolf”, The


Boyne, Battle of the

Brahms, Johannes



Branagh, Kenneth

brave new world


breach of contract

bread and circuses

break the ice

Breen, Dan

Brehon laws

Breifne, Barony of (O’Rourke, King of Breifne)

Brendan the Navigator, St

Breughel. Pieter

Brevity is the soul of wit.


Brian Boru

Brigid, St



Britain, Battle of

British Columbia



Brontës, Charlotte, Emily and Anne


Bronze Age


brother’s keeper, Am I my?

Browne, Dr Noel

Browning, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert

Bruce, Robert and Edward

Brugha, Cathal


Bruton, John



buck stops here.,The



Buenos Aires

building castles in the air


Bulge, Battle of the

bull in a china shop

Bunclody, Co Wexford


Bundoran, Co Donegal

Bunratty, Co Clare (Castle)

Bunreacht na hEireann

Bunyan, John


Burke, Edmund

Burma (Myanmar)

burning the candle at both ends

burning the midnight oil

Burns, Robert

Burntollet bridge incident

Burren, the, Co Clare

bury the hatchet

bust (business, sculpture)

Butt, Isaac

Buttevant, Co Cork

buying a pig in a poke

Byrne, Gay (Gaybo)

Byron, Lord.


Byzantine complexity

Byzantine Empire



Caesar, Julius

Cahir, Co Tipperary

Cahirsiveen, Co Kerry

Cain and Abel





Callan, Co Kilkenny

calling a spade a spade



Calvin, John


Cambridge University





Canterbury Tales, The

Canterbury, Archbishop of

can’t fit a round peg in a square hole

can’t have your cake and eat it too

can’t hold a candle to

can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear

can’t see the forest for the trees


Cape Cod

Cape Town



capital punishment

Capitol Hill, Washington D C


captain of industry



carbon dioxide (CO²)

carbon dating

carbon monoxide


cardinal number



Carleton, William

 Carlingford, Co Louth


Carolan, Turlough

Carmen (Title)

Carndonagh, Co Donegal


Carraroe, Co Galway (An Cheathrú Rua)

Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan

Carrick-on-Shannon, Co Leitrim

Carrick-on-Suir, Co Tipperary

Carroll, Lewis

carry a torch for

carrying coals to Newcastle

Carson, Edward

carte blanche


Carter, Jimmy


Caruso, Enrico




Cashel, Rock of, Co Tipperary, archdiocese


Castlebar, Co Mayo

Castleblayney, Co. Monaghan

Castletownbere, Co Cork

Castletownshend, Co Cork

cast pearls before swine

Castro, Fidel


Catch-22 (Title)

 Catcher in the Rye, The (Title)


Catherine the Great

Catholicism, Roman Catholicism

Caucasus, The



cause célèbre


caveat emptor

Ceannt, Ēamonn

Celbridge, Co Kildare



centre of gravity, centre of mass



Central America


centrifugal force



cerebral cortex

Ceres (Demeter)


C’est la vie


Cézanne, Paul


chain reaction

Chamberlain, Neville

Chaplin, Charlie

Charge of the Light Brigade, The (title)



Charles I and II

Charleston (dance)

Charlestown, Co Mayo

Charleville, (Ráth Luirc) Co Cork



Chaucer, Geoffrey


checks and balances

chef d’oeuvre

Chekov, Anton




Cheshire cat


chickens come home to roost




chip on one’s shoulder

chip (silicon chip)





Chopin, Frédéric


chosen people


Christie, Agatha

Christmas Carol, A (title)


Churchill, Winston



Cid, El (Title)


circuit, electric

circuit court




cirrus clouds

civil disobedience

civil rights

civil service

Civil War

Clancy Brothers

Clancy, Peadar

Clancy, Willie

Clara, Co Offaly

Claremorris, Co Mayo


Clarke, Austin

Clarke, Harry

Clarke, Thomas

classical music




cleanliness is next to godliness

Clemenceau, GeorgesCleopatra



Clifden, Co Galway

Clogher (diocese)

Clogherhead, Co Louth

Clonakilty, Co Cork


Clones, Co Monaghan

Clonfert, diocese

Clonmacnoise, Co Offaly, monastic site

Clonmel, Co Tipperary

Clontarf, Battle of

Clontibret, Co Monaghan, battle of

closed shop

Cloughjordan, Co Tipperary

Cloyne, Co Cork, diocese of Cork, Cloyne & Ross


coat of many colours

cobbler should stick to his last., The

Cobh, Co Cork (Queenstown)

cockles of the heart, warm the


Coghlan, Eamon

cognitive development



cold war

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor

Colfer, Eoin

collateral damage

collective bargaining

College of Cardinals

Collins, Michael

Colmcille, St., (Columba)

Columbanus, St



colon (anatomy)

colon (:)




Colosseum, The

Columbus, Christopher


come full circle

Come live with me and be my love…



comme il faut



commissioned officer


common denominator

common law

common-law marriage

communicative diseases


Communist Manifesto, The (title)


composite materials

compound interest

compound-complex interest



Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur

concentration camp




condensation point

conditioned reflex


Confederacy, The


conflict of interest



Cong, Co Mayo, cross of

congenital disease


Congo, The

Congress (US)

Congress of Vienna



Connell, Desmond (Archbishop)

Connolly, James

Connolly, Sybil



Conrad, Joseph

conscientious objector

consent of the governed




conspicuous consumption

Constable, John

Constantine (Emperor)





contempt of court






Coolea, (Cúil Aodha), Co Cork

Cook, Captain

Coolidge, Calvin

cool your heels


Cootehill, Co Cavan





coral reef



Corofin, Co Clare

coronary artery

corporal punishment


Cortès, Hernan

Cosgrave, Liam

Cosgrave, W.T.



Costa Rica

Costello, John A.



Counter Reformation

coup d’état

coup de grâce


course of true love never did run smooth, The

Courtmacsherry, Co Cork

Courtown, Co Wexford


Cowen, Brian

Craig, James

Crash (financial)


Cratloe, Co Clare

Crean, Tom




credit union

crème de la crème



Crick, Francis, and James Watson


Crime and Punishment (title)

Crimean War

critical mass

Croagh Patrick, Co Mayo

Crockett, Davy

crocodile tears

Croesus, rich as

Croke Park, (Archbishop Croke)

Cromwell, Oliver

Crosby, Bing

Crossbarry, Co Cork

Crosshaven, Co Cork

crossing the Rubicon

Crossmolina, Co Mayo

Cross that bridge when you come to it

crown of thorns

Crucifixion, the

cruel and unusual punishment

Crumlin, Dublin, Crumlin Road, Belfast


Crusoe, Robinson

Crystal Palace


Cuban missile crisis



cum laude

cummings, e.e.

cumulus clouds

Cupid (Eros)


Curie, Marie

Curracloe, Co Wexford

current, electric

curriculum vitae

curry favour

Cusack, Cyril, Sinéad, Sorcha, Niamh

Cusack, Michael, Cusack Stand

Custer’s last stand

cut off your nose to spite your face





Cyrillic alphabet


Czechoslovakia (Czech Republic)





Dali, Salvador

Dallas, Texas


Damascene conversion

damn with faint praise

Damocles, sword of

Daniel in the lions den

danke schön

Dante Alighieri



Dark ages

dark horse

Darwin, Charles

date which will live in infamy

David (Bible)

David Copperfield

David (of Michelangelo)

Davis, Thomas


dead heat

Dead Sea

Death of a Salesman




Declan, St, of Ardmore

de facto


defence mechanism


definite article


Degas, Edgar

de Gaulle, Charles

déjà vu

de jure

Delany, Ronnie



Delphic oracle



Demeter (Ceres)

De Mille, Cecil B.



demonstrative pronouns





deposit (geology)


Depression, The Great

de rigueur

Derrynane, Co Kerry

Descartes, René

Des Moines, Iowa




Detroit, Michigan

deus ex machina

de Valera, Eamon  (Dev)


developmental psychology

devil can cite scripture, The

dialectical materialism


diamond in the rough

Diana (Artemis)

Dickens, Charles

Dickinson, Emily







Dingle (Daingean), Co Kerry


Dioysus (Bacchus)



direct object



Discretion is the better part of valour


Disney, Walt

Disraeli, Benjamin




District of Columbia



Divine Comedy, The

divine right of kings

divinity that shapes our ends., There’s a

division of labour

DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid)

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Doctor Livingstone, I presume?

dog in the manger


Doll’s House, A (title)

dominant trait

Dominican Republic

domino theory


Doneraile, Co Cork

Don Giovanni

Don Juan

Donne, John

Do not go gentle into that good night

Doolin, Co Clare

Don Quixote

Don’t count your chickens before they hatch

Don’t cry over spilled milk

Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes

Don’t give up the ship

Don’t hide your light under a bushel

Don’t judge a book by its cover

Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket

Don’t put the cart before the horse


Dostoyevsky, Fyodor

Double, double, toil and trouble

double entendre

double helix

double indemnity

doubting Thomas

Douglass, Frederick

doves and hawks


Down’s syndrome



draft (military)

Drake, Sir Francis

dramatis personae

Dreyfus affair

Drew, Ronnie

Drink to me only with thine eyes….

Drogheda, Co Louth

Dromahair, Co Leitrim

Dromcollagher, Co Limerick

Drumcliff, Co Sligo

Drumshanbo, Co Leitrim

due process of law

Duhallow, (Barony of), Co Cork

Dunboyne, Co Meath

Duncannon, Co Wexford

Dundalk, Co Louth

Dungarvan, Co Waterford

Dungloe (An Clochán Liath) Co Donegal


Dunlavin, Co Wicklow

Dunmanway, Co Cork

Dunmore East, Co Waterford

Dunquin (Dún Chaoin) Co Kerry


Dürer, Albrecht

Dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return

Dutch treat (go Dutch)

Dylan, Bob



The disappeared world of Flann O’Brien (1911-1966) shows us how far we have come.



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Kevin Barry, in his foreword to Anthony Cronin’s biography of Flann O’Brien (aka Brian O’Nolan and Myles na gCopaleen), No Laughing Matter, states that Flann had posthumously found the ideal biographer. I have just finished reading it, first published in 1989 and recently re-issued. I fully concur with Kevin Barry. Cronin’s style is unsurpassable and his honesty in dealing with his subject, who was also a friend, is impressive. Barry opens his intro with an interesting statement:

It feels like a different world. In fact, the city of Dublin, as it is presented here – and it is a character or player in the book in its own right – seems to be not just of another era but of another dimension entirely.”

The tragic downward spiral of Flann into alcoholism and all its attendant evils for his life as a writer is well documented. The dominant thought I am left with is how the world has changed for young people, men and women, writers, students, workers. Cronin depicts the dark decades of the first half of the twentieth century with the pinpoint accuracy of one who was actually there.

We feminists are well aware of how far we have travelled in the past century and how far we must still venture. But what of the menfolk? Cronin depicts a man’s world in the Ireland of those decades which was grim in the extreme. Those at the bottom departed De Valera’s ‘cosy homesteads’ in droves for distant parts . Eldest sons inherited farms and businesses. The rest, even those who were fortunate enough to have second and even third level education, were condemned to inhabit a world of what we would now call toxic masculinity. Flann and many of his contemporaries, Behan and Patrick Kavanagh among them, were caught up in this cruel world circumscribed by pub culture and the unrelenting pressure to be the ‘hard man’. One of Flann’s works is entitled The Hard Life. Indeed.

Women, it must be said, do not figure hugely in this biography. Flann’s wife, one suspects, was a woman of fortitude and loyal to a fault. We are not told much about her. Flann’s mother seems to have endured the same crucifixion as many other Irish mothers. Who today has eleven children? Of the five sisters we are told little or nothing. Flann’s father, a civil servant like his son, died suddenly at what we would now call a relatively young age. How startling to hear that a civil servant’s widow was not entitled to a pension. The widow’s pension as we know it did not exist. This left our hero, son number three and the only member of the family in employment, as breadwinner for this army of twelve people then living in Avoca Terrace, Blackrock. This is the kind of a trap which few young men or women nowadays experience. Add to this the struggle to make it as a writer while holding down the day job and being expected to turn up at all the ‘literary’ pubs in town, put away copious amounts of drink, and flaunt the wit first made famous at the UCD Literary and Historical Society. “…literary Dublin”, we are told, “…central to its myth of itself as a place where heavy drinkers who were also wits consumed many hours of each day in literary converse enlivened by anecdote and epigram.” One assumes that a vast amount of tobacco was also smoked. It sounds like unbearable pressure. One had to be a ‘character’.

The position of the intellectual in post-independence Ireland was not an easy one. One could not be too daring. Parental pressure was a reality. Breaking a parent’s heart was a big issue. Celibacy was taken for granted for large numbers of people well into adulthood and even middle age. The state of Ireland’s economy at the time permitted few to have what we would now call a life. Cronin recalls the huge numbers of young men working as clerks and civil servants and living in ‘digs’ in 1940s Dublin.

          “Many of these civil servants were confirmed bachelors who would spend their entire lives in digs, perhaps graduating to more comfortable circumstances and favoured status, but still propping the evening newspaper up against the sauce bottle at the evening meal and coming down to breakfast with hangovers after a night of pint drinking.”

Breakfast, dinner and ‘the tea’ in the evening. That was the Ireland before foreign travel and interesting food. The metaphor of the sauce bottle is brilliant and will remain with me. Cronin is equally good on the horrors of the dance halls. He recalls his own arrival in Dublin to attend UCD in the forties and his discovery of Flann’s Myles na gCopaleen column in The Irish Times.

I bought The Irish Times whenever I could afford it because The Irish Times was a symbol of liberation from the values of one’s Irish Independent reading forebears and of graduation to intellectual Dublin”.

We read of Flann’s altercations with Gardaí and his record of reckless driving. It is striking that one does not associate this sort of thing nowadays with men of his level of education. The drink, of course, explained much of this just as we associate the drug culture of today with rock musicians and their entourage.

I had cause to rejoice at the end of this book. It struck me that young men are now allowed to be human. I suspect that this is one of the benefits of the women’s movement. We no longer tolerate the machismo that made for such misery for so many. There is no longer any compulsion to regard the pub as the centre of one’s existence. We have also largely freed ourselves from smoking cigarettes. Young men are now allowed to push the baby’s buggy down the street without being jeered at for not being a ‘hard man’. Our fathers would not have dared. Young men are allowed to change a nappy, to cook a meal, to go to a parent/teacher meeting. They are now permitted to participate in family life to the full beyond the role of mere breadwinner. Dublin is transformed. The country is transformed. Now if only young people could afford a nice place to live we would really be getting somewhere.


In praise of dining rooms



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Vocabulary sections in beginners’ French books always featured La Maison. Pupils were delighted to learn la chambre, la cuisine, le salon and la salle de bain. The phrase ‘la salle à manger’ often caused consternation. “Do you mean the kitchen?”. “A special room for meals?”. Nothing in the culture of the more disadvantaged pupils had informed them that such a thing existed. More middle class individuals were smugly aware of dining rooms. Local authorities never gave thir tenants the comfort of a dining room.

The houses in my area, built in the 1930s, all had dining rooms. But something bizarre has been happening in recent years. Great extended kitchens with island units and living spaces have been added on to the rear of many houses. This is all to the good as suburban kitchens of the nineteen thirties were poky affairs where one could not swing the proverbial cat. We have all seen Dermot Bannon’s programme Room to Improve where he supervises the installation of a great glass box kitchen/diner/living room at the rear of the house and light floods in from every side. (Who cleans all that glass I ask myself). The problem is that all this bannonisation is being accompanied by the suppression of the traditional dining room. I have noticed that younger neighbours have turned the dining room into what is called a ‘playroom’ which has been filled with plastic toys in primary colours.  I have seen dining rooms turned into bedrooms and kitchens. Sometimes the dining room just becomes a place to store stuff. We now live in a world where people actually make a boast of the fact that they are untidy. There is always someone on twitter assuring us that people with tidy houses are boring people. I suppose it comforts them to believe this.

Millennials must now eat Christmas dinner in the big kitchen/diner in full view of the cooking debris. How festive is that? Culinary disasters can no longer be concealed from guests. They are there witnessing the ineptitude and embarrassment of the cook if she or he drops the hot dish en route from the oven. There are those who will argue that the dining room was seldom used except at Christmas and for guests. I think not. It was often the room which housed the piano, where children could practise their instrument away from the kitchen din. The dining table was often the place of study. The project did not need to be cleared away at mealtimes. There have even been committee meetings in our dining room. I can’t imagine that happening in the kitchen. I found when the offspring left home and the piano was unused it gave an excuse to install an extra bookcase. The dining room cum library is a splendid idea. It can serve as an oasis of calm.

We pensioners are constantly being told we should downsize. Downsize yourself. You are not getting my dining room. What would become of grandmother’s table in a bannonised world? I calculate that at least three generations have done homework around it. Visitors from far and near have been entertained around it for more than a century. It would look out of place in a glass box kitchen. There is room for both a kitchen table and a dining table in our world surely.

Every winter I look forward to the Christmas days in the dining room. The kitchen mess is out of sight. Candles are lit. Linen tablecloths are ironed. Christmas is meant to be special. None of your paper napkins thank you. No plastic in sight. We strive for what elegance we can. Why go downmarket when it is so easy to have a bit of style? Let us not kill off the dining room. It is the mark of civilisation.


The Vocations Myth



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The Vocations Myth

In DeValera’s Ireland and before armies of young people entered religious orders or became diocesan clergy. One was ‘called’ by God, we were told, to the religious life, the married state or the single life. It was made clear that the first was preferable. Number two was inferior and we won’t even mention the stigma attached to number three. Families basked in the prestige derived from having a member with a religious ‘vocation’. How often have we teachers been told that our profession was ‘a vocation’? Sorry. No voice was heard from the clouds. There was no call. The reasons people follow a particular path can be complex and varied.

The pressure on young people to ‘enter’ was relentless at one time. Visiting nuns questioned small girls as to whether they might like convent life. Nearly everyone had an aunt or uncle in religion which accounts for a great many of the Conceptas, Alacoques, Ignatiuses and Alphonsuses God help us. Religious orders visited secondary schools touting for postulants. The Sisters of the Incarnate Word from Texas were regulars in my first secondary school. Some orders had cutesy names such as The Poor Sisters of this, The Little Company of that or The Poor Servants of the other. We were herded into the hall to hear their spiel. This usually happened at the hour laid aside for dancing and never during Maths, Commerce or the wretched Home Economics. Girls who had an aunt in the order were singled out as possibles. This never happened in my second secondary school. The principal, Sr Domenico OP, a lady and a scholar, would not entertain such tactics.

The traffic into the orders went into reverse in the mid sixties. Did God suddenly stop ‘calling’? Some of us had smelled a rat long before. Why did God never seem to call the very poor? While some very worthy people were called by God we wondered why he chose some other very strange individuals. Why did God set his face against the ordination of, in the parlance of the times, illegitimate persons? It is quite shocking to find the words ‘illegitimate, ‘de parentibus ignotii’ and even ‘bastard’ inserted  in baptismal records of the 19th century ( catholic records). On occasions these words are underlined. Some priests were more assiduous than others in their emphasis. The ordination of the illegitimate was contrary to canon law. Did this have something to do with it?

Why did God tend to call several members from the same family? This can be observed by perusing the obituaries. The death notices of religious make frequent reference to siblings also in religion. Rarely do religious come from smaller families. The words ‘surplus to requirements’ spring to mind. Some families were completely ignored by God when he was in calling mode. What career options were available to people in the past? Emigration was anathema to some. Going abroad as a missionary was a more acceptable option. Marriage opportunities were problematic. The supply of eldest sons who might be heirs to farms or businesses was ever limited. To abide in polished parlours would seem preferable to marrying Paddy down the road and enduring two decades of childbearing in a world without contraception.

My mother had a schoolfriend in the 1920s called Gussie (Augusta). She had ten siblings. Gussie told my mother that her mother had decreed that all of her offspring should enter the religious life. Gussie complied. One of her brothers became a well known cleric, author of a prayer book which we were told was essential if one were to live a christian life. A search of census records and reveals that several others entered also. The youngest daughter was present at her mother’s death. It looks as if she was the one kept at home ‘to look after mother’. There lies another tale of the exploitation of single daughters in times past. There was a woman in my parish whose daughter entered. Asked by a neighbour how the girl was getting on she replied “If I knew how  much I would miss her I would not have pressed her so hard to go”. This mad eagerness on the part of mothers to get their daughters into convents suggests a deep dissatisfaction with their own lives.

Events in the 60s brought vocations to an abrupt halt. Things loosened up a little in the church in the wake of Vatican II. Philip Larkin summed up other changes

So life was never better than
In nineteen sixty-three
(Though just too late for me) –
Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

Nobody from my Leaving Cert cohort in 1966 entered. The post-Beatle world was utterly different from the pre-Beatle world.

There was an even more revolutionary change in Ireland with the arrival of free secondary education in 1967. School fees had presented a huge challenge to parents of large families in the past. Some of them were able to exploit whatever opportunities there were and who can blame them? Many’s the boy ‘temporarily’ joined an order in order to avail of the free education on offer within the walls. I have in my possession a letter written in August 1955 by a relative who was a Christian Brother. Writing from the juniorate of the southern province in Baldoyle he relates “Young aspirants are pouring in this week, about 140 in all”. 140 entering the brothers in the southern province alone. Staggering to our minds. It is a fair bet that the bulk of those aspirants did not remain once a certain educational level was reached. It is rumoured that similar ploys were used by a few to acquire university level education. At my time in UCD the place was black with religious.

Here we are now all these years later. Religious are dying at the rate of 5 or 6 a week in the back of The Irish Times but God seems to have ceased ‘calling’ anyone to replace them. In parts of the developing world this is not the case. Social and economic conditions in African and Asian countries could be compared to what ours were decades ago. One is tempted to think that entering religion is still a route to opportunity in these places. Asked why he had entered at the end of the nineteenth century yet another Christian Brother relative answered that he had wanted to be in a place where there were lots of books. Coming from a family which had been evicted from their holding during the Land War it seems like a very good reason to me. No mention of being ‘called’.

Now here’s a mystery. Who is the little person at the head of this piece shrouded in medieval garb? She has an unworldly look. It is from my archives. My mother just knew she was a cousin of her mothers, a Good Shepherd nun. The photo was taken in New York. I have gone so far as to contact the Good Shepherd archives in the US in the hopes that they may have been able to identify her. To no avail. Possible names are Ryan, Maher, Devaney, Benson, Hennessey, Finn or Shanahan. May the earth lie lightly upon her and on all those others from the great age of the ‘vocation’.


The Demonisation of Memorisation



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Not a week goes by in Ireland without someone in the media telling us that the Leaving Cert is ‘not fit for purpose’. Everyone from property consultants, architects, educationists, journalists and STEM people of every hue condemn it as a mere exercise in what they call ‘rote learning’. Students need 21st century skills they say, creativity, critical thinking and so on and on and on. These terms have now descended into a swamp of cliché. The mantras are passed from one to another in a way that suggests a profound lack of original thought. These arguments apply to training for a job not education for life. This is gradgrindery at its worst. Memorisation of anything at all is roundly condemned. These  Irish times articles are typical.
I do not believe for an instant that English teachers, as suggested in the first above, are demanding that students learn answers to literature questions by rote. Perhaps some foolish pupils engage in this independently in their exam panic. Perhaps grind schools encourage this. Perhaps not. I imagine examiners can spot the learned off answers at fifty paces. I cannot believe that the student who gains A1 in English has prepared for the exam in this fashion. I have never met an A1 English student who was anything other than a star. Let us not denigrate them.
Having said all that I believe that some things must be memorised. We are told that we need to store certain essentials in long term memory so as to be able to free up the working memory which we use in daily tasks. How I wish I had learned my times tables properly in 3rd class. Verbs must be learned if one is to progress in foreign languages. Even French people learn ‘bijou, caillou, chou…’ etc by heart so as to remember which nouns have a plural in x. Little bits of what we learned by heart can be recalled years later. ‘Derwent, Swale, Ure, Nid, Wharf, Aire and Don’. ‘Da Estrela, De Gata , De Gredos, Toledo, Morena, Nevada’. What fun as an adult to find oneself beside mountains and rivers we had memorised in geography class and to find we know which one comes next. When Americans talk about ‘the rust belt’ I find myself chanting ‘Detroit, Pittsburgh, Toledo, Buffalo, Wheeling, Erie, Youngstown, Chicago’.
Professional singers must memorise songs and librettos. Actors must learn their lines. Music fans happily memorise lyrics for their own pleasure. Little kids love the repetition of favourite nursery rhymes and songs. It is a big component of how language is learned. Once upon a time before everything had to be demonstrably ‘useful’ we had poetry on the curriculum of the old Inter Cert which we memorised . I remember ‘Quand je serai grand j’aurai des moustaches, un chapeau de soie, un bel habit noir…’ The point is this was useful also. That line alone taught us the irregular futures of être and avoir, that quand takes two futures unlike English and the interesting exception of bel rather than beau before the masculine h mute. We learned our prayers too God help us. I can still muster up some pity for millennial refusniks who are strangers to the Magnificat and much more.
The memory can be a storehouse of all kinds of delights which can stand to one in later life. Has it dawned on any of these education gurus that people might actually enjoy memorising poetry? ‘Give us a recitation’ they demanded of old guys at parties who claimed they could not sing. Many’s the man performed all eleven verses of The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God with no small degree of pride. I consider myself a lucky person in that I had a mother who delighted in reciting verse. The Stag Hunt and The Deserted Village were regularly revisited while baking bread, milking cows or driving the car. ‘…so work the honey bees’ from Henry V, Act 1 was a favourite.

Creatures that by a rule in nature teach
The act of order to a peopled kingdom.
They have a king and officers of sorts,
Where some like magistrates correct at home,
Others like merchants venture trade abroad,
Others like soldiers armèd in their stings
Make boot upon the summer’s velvet buds,
Which pillage they with merry march bring home
To the tent royal of their emperor

I learned early on that having lots of poetry in one’s head could be a comfort. Nobody had to force me to learn it. I would cut out bits of verse from magazines and learn them on my own. Teachers who clearly loved poetry could inspire one also. Miss W., who taught me French in fifth year and who clearly loved Ronsard, would go all dreamy telling us about his love for Hélène and Cassandre and recite ‘Mignonne, allons voir si la rose..’ in a wonderful voice. It made me want to learn it too. I admit there were those who knitted and wrote letters while she recited. Later they joined the bank. They knew their times tables though. We can’t all be the same.
Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were passed down the millennia by means of recitation. Shakespeare’s schooling in the Stratford Grammar School consisted of a great deal of memory work. We are the beneficiaries of what the Bard stored away. Without Homer, Virgil and Shakespeare we would have no Derek Mahon, no Seamus Heaney. The poetry of both is infused with the classics.
Packing our heads with lovely stuff can sustain us in adversity while Keeping up with The Kardashians and Say Yes to the Dress are sure to gain entry to vacuous minds. Last year I happened to find myself in a group where the discussion turned to the response of writers to nature. One of our number spontaneously recited the two wonderful opening paragraphs of Alan Paton’s, Cry the Beloved Country. ‘There is a lovely road that runs from Ikopo into the hills…..’ He had memorised it out of sheer love. Then there was the man who, not distinguishing himself in school, was advised by a teacher to learn as much poetry as possible. He thought this the best piece of advice he had ever been given. Lacking in outstanding qualifications he became a respected public speaker and passed through the world with an aura of learning about him.
I’m still trying to commit a few more bits of poetry to memory. I’ve downloaded some Horace on my phone to play over and over while walking the dog. Very soon I hope to have it de ghlainmheabhair . The perfect verse for the coming of Spring. Here it is with Houseman’s translation on a separate link. It would be great stuff for a skilled twenty first century creative critical thinker too.

………and it never did me any harm.




…….and it never did me any harm.
Does anyone else get weary from hearing folks say they did not study such and such a subject or learn such and such a skill but “it never did me any harm”. This mantra is usually tossed off as humour. It is very common in Ireland and is intended to diminish those who have a particular knowledge or skill. Why do I feel that this phrase conceals a deep inadequacy and not a little anger? Do these people secretly suspect that they may have missed out on something? Damned if they are going to admit it. Best be a joker and dismiss anything one does not know oneself as irrelevant.
We are all harmed by what we have not learned. We are all more or less imperfect, stumbling along in this vale of tears as best we can. Life is not long enough to learn all that one would wish. We would need several lifetimes to delve into all the lovely activities which exist in this world. To suggest that we are perfect as we are is just plain silly.
I know not a word of classical Greek. How great would it be if I did. How enlightening it would be to make all those etymological connections to English. What fun it would be to be able to read in that alphabet. I know only a few words of German. No hope of reading about young Werther in the original then. I cannot swim. What wondrous splashing have I missed? My musical skills are sadly lacking. Wouldn’t it be great to be the entertainer at the party? I am no singer. That rules out the camaraderie of being a member of a choir. I have learned no Italian at all. I was never an athlete. All these shortcomings have done me irreparable harm. There could have been much more fun. I might have travelled much further down the road of scholarship. I might even be thinner.
So you didn’t do grammar or Latin or French or ballet or Hamlet? So you didn’t learn to play the piano? So you can’t dance a hornpipe? Had you done so you might have been more of a wit and less of a chippy bore. Get over it.

Man on Bridge – a pictorial history of Irish society from the 30s to the 80s



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The story of Arthur Fields, aka Abraham Feldman (1901-1994), a Jewish immigrant to Ireland from Kiev in the Ukraine, has been the subject of a fascinating recent documentary on RTE. Fields was a familiar sight for decades in the O’Connell Bridge/O’Connell Street area. He photographed countless Dubliners and visitors to the capital from the 30s to the early 80s.These photos are being assembled on this website
The Fields family have been enthusiastic about the project. The public are invited to submit any pictures they may have of themselves, their relatives and friends. The collection is growing daily. One may watch this happening on the project twitter account @ManOnBridgeDoc. There is an accompanying book Man on the Bridge, The Pictures of Arthur Fields.
What is most interesting about this collection is the light it throws on Irish social history in the twentieth century. It will, in time, prove an invaluable resource to those studying, amongst other things, the history of fashion. We were supposed to have been poor for most of this period. And yet, how well dressed most people seem to have been. Whether in town shopping, out for the evening or on the way to work people took pride in being well turned out.


It might be argued that Fields picked the more photogenic but this does not hold up when we study random people in the background. Practically everybody was making some effort to look smart. Have we lost this pride in how we look when out in public? There is not a tattoo in sight of course or a pair of torn jeans. Everyone had a good warm coat. Hats and gloves were everywhere. Whatever happened to gloves? Ladies wore what looks like well tailored suits and good dresses. One gets the sense that garments were more likely to have been well made nearer home from natural fabrics such as tweed, cotton or linen. Tailors and dressmakers were still to be found in most towns and villages down to the early sixties. Big business had not yet conned us into wearing garments made from shoddy synthetic materials, badly finished in the sweatshops of the third world. A machine edged hem was unthinkable in those days.


People also seemed more capable of dressing for Irish weather. It is true we now have climate change but it is still a bit dicey to go to town without some protection from the elements. Young people nowadays increasingly ignore this fact. I have seen leather jackets and warm scarves in Spain in May while young Irish persons in the same month bare all on the street in the name of fashion. How they can stand the cold is one of the great mysteries of our time.

This blogger’s mother on right with her cousin in town shopping sometime in the thirties.

Body language is also revealing in the photos of Arthur Fields. There are oodles of couples on the way to the pictures or to what were known as ‘dress dances’ in the Gresham.Some are emerging from McDowells, The Happy Ring House, having just made a crucial purchase. Almost invariably she is linking him in a most proprietorial fashion. A signal is being given to the world. He is ring fenced. Any other female should approach at her peril. Hard work and perhaps not inconsiderable cunning has gone into this achievement. It seems to me that we do not see all that much linking on the street these days. Might that have something to do with greater female independence? I have no answer. I merely ask.
This blogger (centre) and friends 1971.

There are delightful family groups and groups of friends in the photos. The trip to town as a Communion or Confirmation treat figures strongly. This gives the lie to the theory cherished by younger people that Ireland was a place of unrelenting gloom in the mid twentieth century. It is often forgotten that there was a great deal of hilarity about. And there are nuns, lots of nuns, in full canonicals. Remember them?


On the downside it can be disconcerting to see so many smoking on the street. We are so repulsed by the practice now we have forgotten how normal it was. Those who disliked it then knew better than to object and kept silent even when being near asphyxiated in cinemas and pubs. It is also remarkable that no man is pushing a pram or buggy. There are several men with children but no prams thank you. Men have smartened up in this area and we are all the better for it.

Four cute girls in front of the Gresham in the forties. Note the traveller woman in the background. She is wearing the typical shawl of those days. Some things have improved for everybody.

I strongly recommend a browse through this great site. The photos are divided by decade. One may even find some of one’s own relatives. Better still, you can submit that photo of grandad and his pal on the way to Croker.


Here are some folks I know. Still going strong together.

A Note on Four Fictional Heroines



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It was probably not a good idea to read Colm Tóibín’s recently published Nora Webster immediately after finishing Charlotte Brontë’s Villette. My impatience with the former novel was further compounded by reading Mrs Gaskell’s Mary Barton first published in 1848. Mary Costello’s  Academy Street which, like Tóibín’s novel, appeared in 2014 somewhat restored my sympathy with the twentyfirst century fictional heroine.

Gaskell’s heroine serves as a device to illustrate the horrors of industrial revolution Manchester. Will Mary Barton be seduced by her wealthy admirer? Will she survive? Will she have enough to eat? Will she end up on the streets like her Aunt Esther? These are the questions that preoccupy us as we are carried along by Gaskell’s narrative. This book should be read by history students of all ages. It conveys the grim realities of those times better than any history text.

Brontë’s Lucy Snowe, the heroine of Villette, is of a different kind. Blessed with an education unattainable to the likes of Mary Barton and a character and intellect which endeared her to many of those she encountered, she is, nevertheless, cast upon the world without family or funds and must forage for herself in the best tradition of the bildungsroman.

Mary Costello’s novel is well researched resulting in a wonderful sense of time and place as we follow the heroine, Tess, from Ireland to America. There is a cinematographic feel to the novel. It is as if we are following Tess from a short distance. We do not get inside her head but we watch her every move in such a way that we identify with her. Her patience and stoicism are impressive.

Then, there is Nora Webster. The author explores her character forensically. She is a recent widow. We are invited to pity her. Try as I can I just cannot feel sorry for her. She is not a nice woman. There was a reference to a time when she was cruel to a contemporary in her youth. This comes back to bite her when she encounters the same woman in the course of the employment she is forced to take up in her widowhood. She is short with people. She demolishes her younger son’s school principal. There had to be a more diplomatic way to fight the boy’s corner one feels. You wouldn’t have wanted Nora Webster in your class in school. You wouldn’t have wanted her as a sister-in-law or a colleague. The main merit in this book is as a guide to music. Nora takes an interest in classical music which puts her on the road to recovery from the shock of her husband’s death. There is a wonderfully detailed account of her growing appreciation of music. I might even use it myself as a handbook to smarten myself up on the works of various composers. Nora lives in Enniscorthy. The town is recognisable but the sense of realism breaks down when Nora and her daughters go shopping in Dublin. In the late sixties. On a Saturday afternoon. I laughed out loud. Grafton Street was like a morgue after 1PM on a Saturday in those days. All shops were closed. Mary Costello is better on the accuracy of period detail.

Nora Webster is what they call nowadays ‘feisty’. We observe her growing in feistiness. Both Tess and Mary Barton are carried along by circumstance. Mary has lucky breaks, if one can call them breaks in 1848. Tess endures and arrives at the shores of calm.

Nora Webster enjoyed all the prestige of wifehood and, what is often overlooked, the prestige and sympathy attached to widowhood. She did not go hungry like Mary Barton. She did not have to conceal a side of her life like Tess. Nora Webster got to go to the races. She was even in the winners’ enclosure on four occasions in the sense that she had four intelligent, handsome children. She is not totally without funds. Mary Barton, Tess and Lucy Snowe struggle to get through the turnstiles. Alone. Theirs is an aloneness of which Nora Webster knew nothing in her own youth.

Of the four novels only Villette is written in the first person which probably goes some way to explaining why Lucy engages our sympathy the most. Her brand of feistiness has no truck with rudeness or sour provincial snappery. She is a survivor against all the odds through the power of her intellect. We’ll leave the last word to her.

“How I pity those whom mental pain stuns instead of rousing.”

I am adding Villette to my list of books to be re-read when I am in the nursing home.

The Irish death notice – a social study and inflated language.



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“Do you know who’s dead?” Our mothers perused the death notices in the Irish Independent unfailingly every day. Not turning up at a neighbour’s obsequies or not sending the obligatory mass card would be a serious omission. As we age we take on mother’s mantle and read the death notices ourselves. We have moved up a notch to The Irish Times and curse the fact that not everyone dies in the same paper. We have recourse to and hope that we have not missed anyone.

Irish death notices are an interesting social study. I can recommend it to the twenty and thirtysomethings. It might smarten them up a bit about the social history of Ireland. One can play a game of guessing what part of the country the deceased is from just by reading the surname. There aren’t too many McGinleys in Kerry or McGillicuddys in Donegal. This is beginning to change with more social mobility and the first exotic Eastern European names have made an appearance. A study of the dramatically different first names of the generations can be a fun exercise. Granny Teresa is often the mother of Paddy and Eileen but she’s almost a dead cert to be the granny of Sharon and Karen and maybe even the great-gran of Jack, Chloe and Sophie. Try it. It’s uncanny. Elderly religious are dying at the rate of several a week. Has anyone noticed that they tend to come from very large families? Now what was going on there? Needless to say they are not entering the orders at the same rate as they are dying. Mention is often made of the former workplace of elderly men and single women but rarely of married women. This is a reminder of the days when married women in the public service had to quit the job. Spare a thought too for the single women who soldiered on alone. It’s all there in the death notices.

Death notices are couched in inflated language. They ooze clichés. I suspect that undertakers may be partly responsible here. Perhaps they press a formulaic announcement on mourners who may not be in a frame of mind to offer resistance. Huge numbers, we are told, ‘pass on’ (nobody dies anymore) ‘after a long illness bravely borne’. It would be a brave person who would complain in the face of such pressure to bear everything so heroically. I imagine if Uncle Joe was a crank of long standing his passing would still be couched in these silly terms. The deceased was invariably ‘in the tender loving care’ of X or Y nursing home or hospital. Hang on a minute. Medical professionals are obliged to care for us but to expect them to love us tenderly seems a bit unrealistic. They are just people doing a job. If our own families loved us tenderly we would be doing very well. Even that is not always the case. One could be forgiven for thinking that people these days are either suing medical personnel or thanking them in the most gushing terms. A little moderation please.

The dying person is said to pass on ‘surrounded by’ a loving family. ‘Surrounded by’ sounds positively frightening. Give the unfortunate person some air for God’s sake. I have heard nurses complain that it is sometimes difficult to get near the patient such is the press of relatives. Would ‘in the presence of’ sound a little less intimidating? ‘Surrounded by’ puts me in mind of those scenes from Dickens where some poor wretch is in extremis while an army of relatives seek to beat off the lawyers lest he be tempted to disinherit them. Mercifully feminism has seen off the dreadful term ‘relict’ to describe a widow. ‘Mary, relict of Michael’ was once ubiquitous. Meaning that Mary was part of the property he was leaving behind. We should give language more thought.
As I recall, provincial and evening papers are more given to long reams of doggerel verse. Or maybe that’s the In Memoriam announcements. Imported American notices seem excessive in the extreme. What a rí rá.  Many death notices end by suggesting that mourners donate to this or that charity. When did this start? It seems a little odd to be telling people to give money. I can’t quite get my head around this. Surely some things should be left to the discretion of the individual. It smacks of giving orders.

There is a solution to all this unthinking conformity. Each one of us should write out our own death notice well in advance. Dates etc can be filled in later. Keep it simple and truthful. There was one death notice in the past number of years which impressed by its brevity and honesty. It was that of a well known politician. It stated simply ‘Will be missed by those who loved him’. Now, that’s class.

The Cobbler and the Banker.  You should have listened guys.



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Jean de la Fontaine 1621 – 1695

In UCD in the old Earlsfort Terrace days in the mid and late sixties students of Commerce and Law were required to take two arts subjects in first year. Some took French and it became clear as the year went on that some chaps were contemptuous of this requirement and manifested their impatience in no uncertain terms.

The fables of La Fontaine were on the first year course. A nice Frenchman called M.Voisin gave these lectures. Each week he distributed printed notes on the fables in question. I vividly remember male Commerce students in the upper rows of the lecture theatre making paper airplanes of these notes and sending them floating downwards to the hapless M.Voisin who bore it all with equanimity.  I recall being shocked that people could be so rude. Female students never indulged in this carry-on of course. I thought that people privileged enough to be in the university would have sophisticated manners. Such innocence. At year’s end these guys moved on to their full-time economics and accounting and we were left in peace to continue our littérature française for the remaining years.

One of the fables on the course that first year was Le Savetier et le Financier, the Cobbler and the Banker. The cobbler is a happy carefree man who sings all day and never worries about money. The banker marvels at  his insouciance and offers to lend him 100 écus to invest which he says will make him secure. The cobbler takes the money and hides it but never knows another day’s peace. He worries constantly about thieves and other possible disasters which might befall his money. He returns to the banker to demand the restoration of his peace of mind.

Perusing the papers during the furore following the economic downturn it struck me that some individuals at the centre of the banking scandals were the same vintage as myself and a few had been commerce students in UCD at the very time when M.Voisin was enlightening us on La Fontaine. Could it be, I wondered,  that the engineers of paper planes had gone on to even more destructive activities in their later careers? C’est bien possible. Qui sait?  You should have paid attention boys. It would have been more profitable in the long run. We might all be singing all day just like the poor old cobbler before he ever had the misfortune to listen to the banker.

Here is the fable and translation. Thank you M.Voisin. You were a gent.

Jean de la Fontaine (1621 – 1695)  LE SAVETIER  ET LE FINANCIER 

Un Savetier chantait du matin jusqu’au soir :
C’était merveilles de le voir,
Merveilles de l’ouïr; il faisait des passages ,
Plus content qu’aucun des Sept Sages  .
Son voisin au contraire, étant tout cousu d’or,
Chantait peu, dormait moins encore.
C’était un homme de finance.
Si sur le point du jour, parfois il sommeillait,
Le Savetier alors en chantant l’éveillait,
Et le Financier se plaignait
Que les soins de la Providence
N’eussent pas au marché fait vendre le dormir,
Comme le manger et le boire.
En son hôtel il fait venir
Le Chanteur, et lui dit : Or çà, sire Grégoire,
Que gagnez-vous par an ?  Par an ? Ma foi, monsieur,
Dit avec un ton de rieur
Le gaillard Savetier, ce n’est point ma manière
De compter de la sorte ; et je n’entasse guère
Un jour sur l’autre : il suffit qu’à la fin
J’attrape le bout de l’année :
Chaque jour amène son pain.
Et bien, que gagnez-vous, dites-moi, par journée ?
Tantôt plus, tantôt moins, le mal est que toujours
(Et sans cela nos gains seraient assez honnêtes),
Le mal est que dans l’an s’entremêlent des jours
Qu’il faut chommer ; on nous ruine en fêtes .
L’une fait tort à l’autre ; et monsieur le Curé
De quelque nouveau saint charge toujours son prône .
Le Financier, riant de sa naïveté,
Lui dit : Je vous veux mettre aujourd’hui sur le trône.
Prenez ces cent écus : gardez-les avec soin,
Pour vous en servir au besoin.
Le Savetier crut voir tout l’argent que la terre
Avait, depuis plus de cent ans
Produit pour l’usage des gens.
Il retourne chez lui ; dans sa cave il enserre
L’argent et sa joie à la fois.
Plus de chant ; il perdit la voix
Du moment qu’il gagna ce qui cause nos peines.
Le sommeil quitta son logis,
Il eut pour hôte les soucis,
Les soupçons, les alarmes vaines.
Tout le jour il avait l’oeil au guet; et la nuit,
Si quelque chat faisait du bruit,
Le chat prenait l’argent : à la fin le pauvre homme
S’en courut chez celui qu’il ne réveillait plus.
Rendez-moi, lui dit-il, mes chansons et mon somme,
Et reprenez vos cent écus.


There was once a cobbler who was so light hearted that he sang from morning to night. It was wonderful to watch him at his work, and more wonderful still to hear his runs and trills. He was in fact happier than the Seven Sages.

This merry soul had a neighbour who was exactly the reverse. He sang little and slept less; for he was a financier, and made of money, as they say. Whenever it happened that after a sleepless night he would doze off in the early morning, the cobbler, who was always up betimes, would wake him up again with his joyful songs. “Ha!” thought the man of wealth, “what a misfortune it is that one cannot buy sleep in the open market as one buys food and drink!” Then an ideacame to him. He invited the cobbler to his house, where he asked him some questions.

“Tell me, Master Gregory, what do you suppose your earnings amount to in a year?”

“In a year,” laughed the cobbler, “that’s more than I know. I never keep accounts that way, nor even keep one day from another. So long as I can make both ends meet, that’s good enough for me!”

“Really!” replied the financier. “But what can you earn in one day?”

“Oh, sometimes more and sometimes less. The mischief of it is that there are so many fête days and high-days and fast-days crowded into the year, on which, as the priest tells us, it is wicked to work at all; and worse still he keeps on finding some new saint or other to give weight to his sermons. If it were not for that, cobbling would be a fine paying game.”

At this the wealthy man laughed. “Look here, my friend, to-day I’ll lift you to the seats of the mighty! Here is a hundred pounds. Guard them and use them with care.”

When the cobbler held the bag of money in his hand he imagined that it must be as much as would be coined in a hundred years.

Returning home he buried the cash in his cellar. Alas! he buried his joy with it, for there were no more songs. From the moment he came into possession of this wealth, the love of which is the root of all evil, his voice left him, and not only his voice, but his sleep also. And in place of these came anxiety, suspicion, and alarms; guests which abode with him constantly. All day he kept his eye on the cellar door. Did a cat make a noise in the night, then for a certainty that cat was after his money.

At last, in despair, the wretched cobbler ran to the financier whom he now no longer kept awake. “Oh, give me back my joy in life, my songs, my sleep; and take your hundred pounds again.”