Love Of Learning - 11th Nov. 1950


Love Of Learning: Text Version

11th November 1950


The most recent celebrations at Clonmacnoise, on the lonely Shannon shore, and the earlier celebrations in honour of Columbanus, at Luxeuil, in France, may have served to send the thoughts of many of our people back to a golden phase in Irish history. Both events recalled the glorious days when Ireland was truly called Oilean na Naomh is na nOllamh – the Island of Saints and Scholars. This proud title was not undeserved; for the centuries of native rule that followed St. Patrick's coming saw a wonderful blossoming of piety and scholarship in Ireland. Great monastic schools and universities sprang up all over the land; renowned scholars like Comhgall, Cartage, Finian, Ciaran and Enda taught in them, and thousands of students flocked to them, not from Ireland alone, but from England and Scotland and the mainland of Europe as well.


The lamps of learning shed their brilliant light at Bangor and Clonmacnoise, at Lismore and Clonfert, at Durrow and Kells, and in a hundred places scarcely less famous. And across the seas at Lindisfarne and Iona and Luxeuil and Bobbio, and wherever these Irish monks who had chosen the white martyrdom of exile laboured, scholarship flourished. A thirst for knowledge and a love of learning filled the land, and men were cherished not for what they possessed, but for what they knew. Side by side with the monastic schools the secular bardic schools grew and developed, and continued to function long after Clonmacnoise and Bangor had become pitiful heaps of stone.


It must have been in that golden age of learning that a poet was prompted to write:-

Aoibhinn beatha an scolaire

Bhios ag deanamh leighinn;

Is follus dibh a dhaoine

Gur do is aoibhne in Eirinn-

A quatrain which has been rendered into English as:

"Pleasant is the scholar's life,

Happy he when reading;

Well you know, dear people,

Happiest he in Eirinn."

The men of old Ireland sought knowledge in the same manner as other men sought wealth and fame; and when the long dark centuries of persecution settled down on the land, and when the schools were dispersed, and schoolmasters outlawed, with a price upon their heads, they defied the fury of Penal prohibition and sought out the hedge-schools. Pitifully poor in wordly goods, bereft of all hope of material advancement, they yet thirsted for knowledge.


Country boys learned Greek and Latin; and for pastime, or to give voice to their emotions, wrote hundreds of Irish songs that have survived to our own day. During the first years that the Christian Brothers were teaching in Rathluirc, lads from certain outlying districts arrived in the Latin classes with old copies of Virgil and Horace that had their covers sewed on with wax-end. The copious marginal annotations in these books were all in Latin. These books had been used in the hedge-schools of the Cork-Limerick border. Besides the hedge-schoolmaster there was another well-known type of tutor – the Poor Scholar, who went around the country from house to house, exchanging his learning for a night's lodging and a meal or two. The love of learning that had been kindles away back thirteen or fourteen hundred years earlier, in the time of the great schools of Clonmacnoise and Lismore, still burned in 19th century, however, saw the end of the last remains of the native system of education and the substitution in its place of a completely alien system, ironically called "National."


What is the attitude of Ireland – or rural Ireland, let us say –towards learning to-day? Despite all the facilities for education at present offered – in contrast to the days of the hedge-schools and Poor Scholars – it is now true to say that from the first day he goes to school the eyes of the average pupil are focussed on his fourteenth birthday, that great day when he'll walk out of the school as out of a jail. Some, unfortunately, cannot avoid leaving school immediately that they reach that age. Necessity compels them to seek employment as soon as they can, in order to help their parents. But there are many more who leave school at that age, who need not. A child of fourteen does not know his own mind; his education is only just beginning. Up to then, if he happens to haves a harsh, unsympathetic teacher, he s both teacher and education. He has not yet learned to distinguish between the two, and to realise for himself what are the benefits of a good schooling.


Because their parents cannot afford it, many brilliant pupils never get an opportunity of attending a secondary or vocational school. However, there are thousands of parents who could easily give their children the benefit of a few more years at school, but who do not. Education is no load, and no matter what calling in life a person is destined to follow, increased knowledge certainly will not hamper him. It is this apathy towards schooling that makes one wonder if the old love of learning is in Ireland. "What good is it to them?" seems to be the attitude of too many towards everything – apart from the proverbial "Three R's" – that a child might learn – even towards their native language, the most precious thing they possess outside their Faith.


How different things were in Penal Ireland, when the farmers' sons, and the labourers who worked in the fields, learned Greek and Latin, not for what they could get out of it, but for the sheer love of learning, and for the joy of enriching their minds. We know the famous example of that sweet-voiced spalpeen, Eoghan Rua o Suilleabhain, he who was known as Eoghan a' Bheoil Bhinn, how, when he broke the haft of his spade, he came to his master, Seamus Mac Gearailt, and addressing him, said:

"A Chara mo chleibh, 's a

Sheamuis ghreannmhair


D'fhuil Ghearaitaigh, Ghreagaigh,

Eachtaigh, airm-nirt aigh-"

Or, as an English translation has it:-

"Shemus, the loving and laughing,

of comrades the best,

Son of the Geraldine breed, the

Greeks of the West,

Muster your craft and make me

a haft, not too big,

And fasten it into my spade – for

my trade is to dig.

When work-day is ended, and

spent is the strength of my arm,

And the steward affirming it's

little I'm worth to the farm,

Softly I'll sing of , the

ender of woe,

And tell how Troy was destroyed

and its pride laid low."


To-day's sad apathy towards learning is reflected in many ways.

A great proportion of young people show no interest in anything that might add to their meagre score of knowledge and broaden their outlook. They scarcely read a book, and most of the little they read is of the flimsiest and most unedifying kind. Lectures and debates, and night classes in the local technical schools, they deliberately shun, if a serious talk comes over the radio more than likely they'll switch it off and tune into something else. And if that something else happens to be a programme of raucous American jazz, or some silly unmelodic inanities that are supposed to be songs, it will not be switched off, but will be given increased volume. It is very difficult now to imagine how a patriotic paper like the "Nation" could have moulded the mind of Ireland. But that was a century ago. No paper like that would be read and discussed by the young people of our towns and villages and countryside to-day; while the publications that seem to have the best chance of moulding the future mind of Ireland are the English Sunday newspapers.


Hollywood, of course, is the great school of the moment, the school where so much time is spent and where so pathetically little is learned. Boys and s, who never read a book since they left school at fourteen years of age, flock to the cinemas once, twice, or sometimes three times, a week. If there was anything of value to be learned from these visits the country should now be over flowing with well informed, well educated, broad-minded young people, capable of discussing, and talking sensibly on, a wide variety of subjects. If a series of lectures on any serious but interesting topics were inaugurated in ninety per cent of our small town and village halls, or if classes to teach music, language, literature or any of 50 such subjects, were begun in them, and if attendance at these classes or lectures were free, you'd still find that the great majority of those who could would not attend them. The old love of learning, characterised in monastic school and hedge-school, and Poor Scholar, seems to be as as mutton over the greater part of Ireland to-day. It is true that very brilliant men have come to the fore here in recent years, and that we possess an Institute for advanced studies. We see pictures of, and read accounts of, scholarship and exhibition winners, students and scholars who have distinguished themselves in various fields. But their numbers are small, and the achievements of the few are offset by the apathy of the many.


Is docha go gcualaidh alan dibh on craoladh a thainig on Roimh an la a sonruiodh Dogma Togala na Maighdine Muire. Bhain gach duine a chualaidh e – fiu amhain na giotai beaga as a cuireadh are siul ar cheirnini o Radio Eireann ag am nuachta, oiche an lae sin – taithneamh as. Dob e an tAthair O Nuallain a chraoluigh on as reatha i mBearla o Theampall Naomh Peadair an mhaidin sin. Sagart Eireannach d'ord na nIosaganach an tAthair O Nuallain, go bhfuil post aige i Radio Vaticana. Ta an Ghaeilg go breagh binn liofa aige, fe mar is eol do nios mo na 70 Gaeilgeori a threoraigh se treiarsmalainn agus galeirithe an Phalais Vaticanaigh cupla mi o shoin. Ar feadh tri uair a chluig bhi se ag taispeaint iontaisi ealaiona an domhain doibh, agus i rith an ama sin go leir do laubhair se leo i nGaeilg.


An old woman, who was fond of a little drop, decided, for the tenth time, to give it up. She went to the priest and said:

"Father, I want to take the pledge."

"Good," said the priest, "and for how long are you going to take it"?

"Sue Father," came the reply, "sure I always takes it for life"!

previousPrevious - For Winter Reading - 17th Sept. 1949
Next - What We Read - 18th Nov. 1950next