Thursday 4 July 2024

Nations of the Learned


When I describe the schools that barefoot rural children once attended, in the USA of 1900 or the Ireland of the 1950s, everyone assumes their education would be pathetic -- the “three Rs,” so named because we assume that backwoods hillbillies would have spelled the subjects “reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmatic.” We assume that the poorer you are, the worse your education, and these days that’s often true in my native USA, where two-thirds of all adults cannot read at a proficient level, and a third cannot handle a basic level. We assume knowledge only becomes vaster and more refined over time, and the further back you go, the dumber everyone was.

This belief, held by almost every man, woman and child today, crumbles the instant one reads descriptions of schools from a century ago, or actual school-papers of children then, or newspapers and magazines of the time, or reading the books normal children once read. Children used to read sophisticated literature that few college students – or professors – attempt anymore. So did mechanics and farm-hands, house-wives and fishermen.

They did not read them to boast that they had done so, as a few intellectuals might today, but out of a passion for learning. They discussed these works at the lodge and the shop and the pub. They wrote about them in their diaries. All this, you’ll recall, in addition to their practical skills, their knowledge of local lore, of the natural world and the people around them – all of which are also rare today.

Ann Gardinier remembered learning John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Dante’s Inferno, and Milton’s Paradise Lost, as well as Latin, poetry and Shakespeare, all at the age of 11. [1] Alice Taylor remembered translating Virgil from Latin to English and back again. [2] Sean Cleary described performing Gilbert and Sullivan operettas in school, translating them into the native Irish language.

Nor was their schooling limited to literature; Liam Bradley remembered having to prove geometry theorems in grade school. “Mental arithmetic was a daily feature in our school life. My old school companions would be horrified at the hesitancy of modern schoolchildren in mental computations … there was really no need for pocket calculators.” [3]

Country schoolhouses might have been only one room with children of many ages, but that was a great advantage to which modern students have been denied, Bradley said. “Students of many ages had to be taught together, and younger children, instead of being isolated, overheard some of the things that their older peers were learning.”

Teachers – especially the Christian Brothers – gained a reputation for strict rules and corporal punishment. At the same time, Christy – who was taught by the Brothers, and became a teacher himself --said they had a dedication that few teachers show today. “They gave 24/7 in their teaching,” he said. “They were there after school, and they were there in the morning. The principal would have done the secretary work, the accountancy, the timetable, everything” without much of a salary. In contrast to movie monks, real ones grew up on farms, were “men with ruddy, weather-beaten faces who might have been .... uncles or neighbouring farmers, men who could turn from teaching honours maths to fixing the tractor,” according to one old student. [4]

In the countryside where there were no monasteries or convents, Taylor remembered that teachers rented their own schoolhouses and rode bicycles for miles every morning to school. “Those young educational entrepreneurs could have found jobs in well-established convents or colleges, or emigrated to exciting new places, but chose instead to face an uncertain future and invest their time and money in renting premises to set up these small schools,” she said. “These teachers are the unsung educators and enlighteners of many young minds around Ireland. We owe them a debt of gratitude.” [5] [6]

For many children, book-learning was not limited to school, but was a part of daily life, in-between farm chores. In the countryside of the early 1900s, Mary Fogarty estimated she read five hundred books a year, waking with her mother and sisters at 5 am to read for two hours, and then again before bed. “We read Lorna Doone – I was in love with John Ridd for weeks – The Vicar of Wakefield, more Dickens,  Thackeray, Kingsley, and the Brontes, returning now and then, for little Annie’s benefit, to the loved books of our first days – Little Women, Masterman Ready, Scottish Chiefs, Gulliver’s Travels, and Mayne Reid,” she wrote in her memoir. “Mother enjoyed Maria Edgeworth more than we did, also Jane Austen; we much preferred George Eliot.” [7]

Ann Gardinier remembered reading Robinson Crusoe and Charles Dickens around the fire with his family. [8] Alice Taylor devoured Dickens as well before moving on to the Brontes. [9] Crosbie began reading with crime novels, as well as Treasure Island and Kidnapped, but soon was reading any kind of book. [10] “Reading had always been our great escape. We devoured anything we could get our hands on, suitable or not, though my mother kept a close eye.” [11]

Of course, everyone was poor by our standards, and schooling varied wildly from one person to another; a survey around the time of Irish independence in the 1920s found that 14 percent of the population were illiterate – but that is lower than the portion of Americans that are functionally illiterate today. Even the unschooled, though, valued the written word; some elders remembered people who were illiterate, and who dropped in at a neighbour’s house to listen to the newspaper read to them.

Most said that everyone they knew read whenever they weren’t working. Sometimes they did both at the same time; one elder described ploughmen holding books in front of them – usually something we would consider a classic – as they ploughed, or craftsmen employing a boy to read to them from such a book as they made barrels or shaped leather. Taylor said that her father loved poetry and recited it for his children. “His favourite poet was Goldsmith and The Deserted Village rolled off his tongue with such relish that you knew he approved of all the poet’s sentiments.” [12]

Farmer Stephen Rynne, who chronicled his life in the early 1900s, described passing the winter nights reading Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, Cobbett’s Rural Rides and Advice to Young Men, Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, and Joseph Joubert’s Thoughts; without them, he said, “the long winter nights would be too long by streets.” [13] Nor were any of these people wealthy; Rynne remembered one of his farm-hands spending his leisure hours reading the Confessions of St. Augustine, [14] and the local greasy mechanic in Rafferty’s village had read Gibbons’ Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Dickens, Gerard Manley Hopkins, WB Yeats, and Paine’s Rights of Man. [15]

“That generation .... seemed on average to have greater facility with words – better handwriting, even – than we do and to use language more precisely,” Gene Kerrigan said. [16] If you want first-had evidence of this, read from Rynne’s journal from almost a century ago. Read it aloud to yourself, slowly, letting the words roll around like music:

“One pauses to look at the bronze and golden trees: every beech a Titian, every lime a Norse goddess, elms like sunsets, and oaks like Vandyke’s old men. Boastfully a Spanish chestnut holds up her unlocked seed-vessels. The berry clusters of the hollies bite out like rubies from the rich velvet of foliage. The brownish-green masses of the sycamores seem like tapestry in which one could imagine pictures: horses and huntsmen, or medieval battles. In the wood, this year’s leaves lie with the skeletons of their ancestors.

... Yet give me gleaming autumn with its fast hours, its replete grandeur, its pacific beauty languishing on earth and bending from the sky. Just now the world is like a Dutch kitchen: all bronzes, lustre and pewter. There are calm, gold days making up weeks together, each day as rich as the woven costume of a mandarin. Leave me autumn with its threat of winter, and let romantic-minded urban dwellers enjoy the summer to their hearts’ content.” [17]

When I describe this to people today, they are sceptical: these must have been the few rich farmers, people tell me, the oppressors rather than the oppressed. Or they must lie to justify how miserable their life was. They didn’t know any better, people tell me – they were too stupid to realise how miserable they were. And if we use simpler language, they tell me, it must be an improvement – back then, people were too ignorant to use small words. And why, they ask, would anyone want to read works from long ago, before anyone knew anything?   

They never ask the more obvious question: If even the poorest people spoke and wrote beautifully less than a century ago, if people knew and loved magnificent works for thousands of years until recently, if everyone had a book in front of them until yesterday, what happened to us


 Photo: My daughter helps with the firewood while she catches up with her reading.

[1] The House Remembers, 136

[2] Quench the Lamp, 104

[3] No Shoes in Summer, 68

[4] Ballyfin – A Boarding School Memory, RTE documentary

[5] Books in the Attic, 15

[6] No Shoes in Summer, 14

[7] The Farm by Lough Gur, 172

[8] The House Remembers, 129

[9] Quench the Lamp, 127

[10] Your Dinner’s Poured Out, 131

[11] The House Remembers, 10

[12] To School Through the Fields, 61

[13] Green Fields, 69

[14] Green Fields, 76

[15] And the Band Played On, 85

[16] Another Country, 67

[17] Green Fields, 19

Saturday 29 June 2024

Living with animals

When my daughter and I felt ready for animals, she helped me put up a fence and build a coop, pausing for me to show my daughter how to use a hammer and nail and wincing as she experimented. Rather than painting it, I learned how to mix water with lime powder and make whitewash. I first tried to show my daughter how to paint walls as well, but soon gave up and let her exult in her more Jackson-Pollack-inspired technique.

When their home was ready, we picked up the chickens from a nearby farm and brought them home in a box, my daughter cuddling and reassuring them all the way. It took only a day’s play for her to give them all names, learn their personalities, and advise me on which ones to watch out for. 

“Look at the scratch Marge gave me!” she said one day, holding out her hand.

That’s impressive, I said. Marge and Trudy are the troublemakers, aren’t they?

“It’s Marge doing it!” my daughter said. “Trudy’s not really bad at heart – Marge just drags her along and gets her in trouble. Trudy’s like Peter Lorre’s character in Arsenic and Old Lace.” 

One of our hens late-bloomed into a rooster, who ... raised questions for a child. A lot. All day. He also darted out of the chicken run whenever I opened the door. I thought he might stay where the food and sex were, but most evenings my daughter and I had to chase him all over the garden to get him back. The first time I grabbed him, I thought I could simply let him go over the fence, and he would flutter gently to the ground like the bird he was. Instead, he dropped like a bowling ball into the mud and was all the angrier the next day.

One night one of ours went missing, and we scoured the nearby woods for an hour and found nothing. Just as I was consoling my sobbing daughter, I noticed a hole next to the coop that led to a tunnel, and poking down it with a broomstick we heard a “BWAK!” The hen apparently started scratching the ground and didn’t stop until she had created a tunnel, and then panicked when she remembered she was a bird.

They were well worth the trouble, though, as they gave us pest control, lawn-mowing, garbage disposal, fertiliser, entertainment, and concentrated protein. They did seem determined to lay that protein everywhere but the coop, though, so on Easter morning my daughter found twice as many eggs as I hid. My daughter resolved to keep an eye on them, and followed them around scolding over their latest infraction, from fighting to pecking at their own manure.

“Don’t do that!” she ordered. “You’ll have your own poo inside you! I mean ... again.”

We tried ducks as well, less successfully. Of course they needed water, and the canal that ran past our property offered endless food and territory; the only problem was how to get them to come back and lay eggs.

Our neighbours the settled Travellers had done this, training their ducks to think of their property as the place to sleep and lay. Their ducks waddled down the road to the canal every morning, feed themselves, and waddled back in the evenings to lay their eggs for my neighbours’ breakfast table. Their flock stayed in the same spot in the canal, in front of their home; I used to tell delivery drivers to “turn right at the ducks.”

My daughter and I tried to follow their careful instructions, luring the ducks a little further out every day with food and then luring them back every evening. We did this for weeks, thinking we were building trust and understanding between ourselves and the birds. Once in the canal, however, they made a beeline for the far bank and stayed out there, laughing at us in the distance. 

My daughter seemed on the verge of tears, but I put my arm around her and reassured her that they are home now, where they want to be, and we’ll see them every day. I’m sure they’ll be all right.

"But I worry about them out there, Daddy," she said solemnly. She leaned close and whispered, "They're really dim. And that's by duck standards."


Saturday 15 June 2024

Singing Lessons

As my daughter and I travelled home over the Wicklow Mountains, our voices echoed between the cliffs, turning the heads of passing sheep as we rolled into the wooded hollows below. She knows these songs by heart from years of lullabies and sing-alongs since, but doesn’t yet realize that children like her might have sung the same songs on the same paths hundreds of years ago.

The water is wide, I cannot cross over . . .
Neither have I the wings to fly . . .

We would turn the heads of most humans, too, these days; most people never sing aloud anymore, except meekly in church, and snicker at those who do. Older people, though, can remember people whistling as they swept the streets, everyone singing at the pub, neighbours gathering at each other’s homes in the evenings to sing, or people gathering around a deathbed to caoin. * This constant singing of songs our ancestors knew let traditions thrive and wisdom accumulate through the generations.

Today we cannot choose to avoid the latest hits; even here they blast from loudspeakers in buses, restaurants, gas stations, and the earphones of the kid sitting next to you, cranked up so loudly you can recognize the song. The problem is that after many years of this, we have lost touch with what music is for. For thousands of years, in every part of the world that I know of, songs were made to be sung by ordinary voices in communion, and they told the basic stories of the human condition.

Families here had their own sets of carols for any number of seasons or tasks. They told us who their people were and why this day was different. They kept the rhythms of churns and scythes, of tanneries and looms, and grew and changed as they were passed on. They were sung secretly about the days when earthly kings would be overthrown, by farmers who feared a rapping at the winter door.

The summertime has come, and the trees are sweetly blooming, I hear my daughter sing idly to herself, And the wild mountain thyme grows around the purple heather. . . .

The older the song, though, the more questions my daughter has, and the more I’m reminded of why I teach them to her.

Tell her to buy me an acre of land between the salt water and the sea strand . . .
Tell her to harvest with a sickle of leather, and bind the crop with a rope of heather.
Tell her to make me a cambric shirt without any seams or needlework . . .
Tell her to wash it in yonder well, where water ne’er sprung nor rain ever fell . . .
. . . then she’ll be a true love of mine.

“Why are all those jobs impossible?” she asked. 

How do you know they’re impossible? I answered. 

“Well, you can’t really make a shirt without seams,” she said. 

You’re right, I said, and you can’t wash it in a dry well. You can get an acre of beach below the seaweed strand, but it disappears with the tide. The song is meant as a kind of joke, I explained—it’s a love spell, but it’s a sarcastic one.

“Is it a potion?” she asked, “and the herbs are the other ingredients?”

Yes, I said, but the potion will never work, because you can never do those impossible things, or if you can, they’re not worth it. And you can’t get someone to love you if she doesn’t, and if you can, you shouldn’t. Most dreams will be like that, I tell her; they’re not fun anymore up close.

That, I think, is what these songs were for—teaching lessons we abandoned when everything became cheap and fast and easily discarded. They do not tell us that we can accomplish anything if we believe in ourselves, or that we deserve to follow our hearts. They tell us our lives are brief and sad and funny, subject to injustice and bound by duty. They pass down, in a way spoken words cannot, our forbears’ grief and gratitude, their violence and remorse, their comfort and joy.

Sometimes I try to explain these things to her in common language, and her spirit is willing to learn, but her flesh is nine years old. So we go back to singing the old songs, whose lessons, I hope, she stores inside like seeds awaiting the spring.  


 * In Irish, a grieving wail. Pronounced keen.

Photo: Musicians celebrating Wren Day in our local woods.

Saturday 1 June 2024

The World Made By Hand

Apologies for not posting in a while; there's been a lot going on. I'll try to be more regular now. 

In the cellar of my parent’s house sit a series of tools that have served my father and grandfather and great-grandfather, for they were created before the throwaway world was conceived. They were created for a world of carpenters, like my great-grandfather, or like the saddlers, thatchers, farriers, smiths, cobblers and builders that I could still find in rural Ireland. They were made for a nation of craftsmen, of people who bore in themselves the power that all humans once had, to reshape wood and hide and stone into a human landscape. It was a world that humans had known and made and remade through the ages of the world, until less than a century ago.

I wrote a few months ago about the lost world of craftsmen, and some responded that people back then had no choices in life, and that’s true if you, again, compare the richest today to the poorest then. Census records from the late 1800s, though, show not just the basic crafts I’ve mentioned, but around 1,500 job titles: ale tunners, archil makers, battures, bozzlers, camlets, clouters, arbalesters, brachygraphers, culvers, danters, and many others just in the first few letters of the alphabet. They represent a way of life so alien to most of us that even when we look up the definition we still don’t understand what they did. A modern person can read on their screen that a “garthman” was the proprietor of a weir, but they’d need to learn what a weir was, and why people depended on them, especially during Lent.

All the tasks we unthinkingly relegate to machines today were once done by people, so most people’s jobs had obvious value; everyone needed shoes, so everyone needed a cordwainer to make them and a cobbler to fix them. Everyone needed tailors for their clothes, haberdashers or milliners for their hats, butchers to cut their meat and grocers for their flour, masons and carpenters for their homes. Everyone needed publicans to serve the beer on Saturday night and priests to forgive them the next morning. When they died they needed carvers of headstones.

There was little chance for a carpenter to become a CEO, but there is little chance you will become a CEO either. If you were a carpenter, though, you had a status and an identity no outsourcing or artificial intelligence could take away. Even if you lost your physical ability with age or accident, you could mentor others, for each craftsman represented a distillation of centuries of experience, of lore and secrets.

“A man who was a carpenter was more than a man,”  Irish journalist John Waters wrote in his book Bring Back the Bad Roads. “A woman qualified as a dressmaker was someone from whom an opinon emanated in a new way, seen to be born of a depth of endeavour and application to reality that made her worth listening to.”

All the crafts disappeared in a generation or two – the coopers, wrights, milliners, cordwainers and thousands more. All the stories handed down through generations disappeared in a few generations, until we all know only the same few pop-culture stories. Almost all the apprenticeships, lodges, clubs, co-ops and guilds disappeared, in Ireland and elsewhere. We are the survivors wandering the ruins of a post-apocalyptic society, but it has been a cultural apocalypse, a mass forgetting, and it’s still going on.

When I walk around Dublin today, or any city that has buildings or churches built before the fossil-fuel window, I see breathtaking architecture that spans the ages, church sculptures that shape marble like silk, art that ennobles and inspires, all works that – if they are not demolished, as many have been – are likely to outlast all our fragile modern architecture. These buildings used to house clubs and unions and libraries and schools that taught philosophy, literature and democracy. They survived unimaginable hardship to overthrow an empire and create a free, healthy and safe society.

I realise that we could not build some of these churches now; the crafts to create them are forgotten, along with the conviction to devote a life to them, and the social organisation, and the families to support the craftsmen, and the relationships between men and women needed to start families to create successors to these trades and ... everything. The entire human infrastructure.

And I think: None of this world could have been built by the people now living in it.


Photo: My daughter making sure we stayed warm at night. 


Friday 19 April 2024


Some years ago, the UK government completed a study on the food people bought and ate, and came up with a sobering result: in a time when global hunger is increasing, one-third of food in the UK is thrown away uneaten. That is about three billion pounds a year wasted – a part of the estimated one metric tonne of waste per household per year.

Of course, everyone will have some kitchen waste – no one wants to eat the potato peelings or woody stems – but throwing it in with the rest of the rubbish isn’t the best solution either. There are different kinds of decay, and when organic material is trapped away from oxygen and insects it decomposes slowly and anaerobically, releasing methane – which smells foul and contributes to climate change.

Many people would like to grow their own food, but need help with the earth, which in many yards is builders’ waste covered in a thin veneer or topsoil and turf. To grow things properly, many people need to build up their soil with organic waste.

Fortunately, all three of these problems can solve each other, and there are already volunteers ready to help in your neighbourhood. They will work hard for you 24 hours a day without complaint, they are experts at turning kitchen waste into great soil and they work for free. They are worms.

We got a wormery for Christmas this year, and it came in an easy-to-assemble kit – the bin, a stand, an interior tray and – snug in a plastic bag with air holes – the worms. We lay them gently in the tray inside the bin, spread a bit of peaty earth, shredded newspaper and a bit of kitchen waste around them, and then let them settle in.

A medium-sized wormery can process several pounds of organic waste a day – that’s several pounds you don’t have to put in bins, wrap in plastic and put outside in the cold; that won’t take up space in the landfill; and that won’t worsen climate change.

When it’s cold my daughter and I wrap insulation around the bin and placed cardboard over the top to keep them warm, and they keep going. According to worm experts, they slow down below eight degrees Centigrade (46 Fahrenheit) and stop altogether below five degrees (41 Fahrenheit). The outside temperature can go five or ten degrees below that, however, and they can still be all right if the wormery is sufficiently insulated. If you live where it regularly goes below freezing in the winter, you can bring it inside or into the shed – a well-maintained wormery should not smell foul.

A few things are not suitable for the worms. They don’t like high-protein dishes like meat, cheese or beans, acidic waste like citrus peels, too much grass, or pet poo. A little bit of these things can be okay, but not much. Most wormeries also come with an alkali powder of some kind in case the compost gets too acidic, and I'm told that seaweed, crushed eggshells or fireplace ash will also help. You can tell if it starts to smell or if you see tiny, threadlike worms. The worms – called potworms in Britain – are harmless themselves, but an indication of a problem.

One nice thing about a wormery bin is that most have a valve at the base for draining excess water. The liquid is called “worm tea,” and is about the colour of tea – dilute it and use it to water your plants.

Ordinary composting, however, has some disadvantages that every gardener knows well. One can’t simply add bones or meat – and some gardeners even avoid eggshells – for fear of attracting vermin. Also, plants that have gone to seed cannot be added, or the resulting soil will be peppered with the beginning of next year’s weeds. You can’t add diseased plants, or the diseases might remain in the resulting soil, ready to infect next year’s crops. Also, it takes a long time, and one loses much of the kitchen waste volume in the process of rotting down.

If you have enough waste, you might also try a different kind of composting, enough to heat all the hot water of your house. Called the “Berkeley Method,” it involves adding the right combination of carbon-rich and nitrogen-rich materials, and flipping it occasionally to give it enough oxygen – which grows kinds of bacteria that generate heat. This “hot composting,” generates too much heat for worms. That’s for another column, but something you should look into.

Saturday 6 April 2024

Living with animals


Virtually all our ancestors had a working relationship with animals of some kind, in any era and culture, until historically yesterday. Before we began using machines for everything, animals were the literal horsepower that carried us, the teeth that guarded us, the wings and legs that helped us hunt and fish, the oldest and most faithful of companions, lovingly nursed to life and to health. They were also, without contradiction, meat and milk and eggs and blood and life for oursleves and our children.

Many modern people treat cats and dogs as the babies they will never have, and I see first-time riders try to control horses as they do dead machines. Animals, though, are beings with their own personalities and goals, if not the words to express them.

Animals will not be measured by us,” wrote Henry Beston in his memoir The  Outermost House. “They move through a world older and more complete than ours, as finished products, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or have never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren or underlings, they are other nations, caught with us in the net of life and time, fellow creations of God and bound to the exalted Earth.”

Farmers had to be midwives, to monitor when their lamb or calf was due, help deliver, coax milk from the mother and stay with her all night -- and until electricity came in, to do all this by touch in darkness. Boland remembers sitting with his pig all night helping it give birth – which he looked forward to, as he got to skip school. Farmers trusted a man who knew animals; when he was stringing electicity cables across Ireland, John Fitzpatrick got a farmer to agree to let them cross his land when Fitzpatrick rolled up his sleeves and helped deliver a calf.

Even in the middle of the city, people had their own farmyard animals. Christy Conville said that across Dublin many back gardens housed a pig, and many had cows and hens. “I wish to stress again the ‘farm’ atmosphere of our whole district,” wrote Paddy Crosbie. “The only unusual things about the farmyard which joined onto the house in which I was born are that it was in ... Dublin, and there was no farm to go with it,” wrote Patrick Boland. Cattle were driven to market in Dublin “by cowboys on bicycles, men with overcoats and hats, furiously pedalling this way and that, whacking the cattle with their sticks and shouting at them,” Gene Kerrigan said.

Backyard animals not only gave each household meat for the year and money for selling the extra meat, but also rid the community of rubbish; “float cars were a common sight in the streets as boys or young men went from house to house looking for slop for the pigs,” Crosbie said.

With food waste, we have two sane choices; to pile it up in a compost bin and let micro-organisms decompose it naturally into soil, which we can then use to grow new crops in a garden. The even better option is to feed it to animals that will eat it and convert it into meat and animal waste; Britons did this in World War II as a national duty, and we could do so again. 

There is also one insane choice: We could transform precious sources of fuel like coal and oil into plastic, wrap the food waste in plastic to cut off all oxygen, and throw it into a pit. The chemicals in the plastic will break down over thousands of years, gradually poisoning the groundwater, and the food waste cannot decompose in the normal way, by oxygen-breathing micro-organisms. Instead, it will gradually be eaten by micro-organisms called methanogens, which release methane, one of the worst greenhouse gases. You won’t be surprised to find that this is exactly what our modern culture does; again, we split an elegant cycle into multiple problems.

Modern suburbanites might be alarmed at the idea of having livestock in their yards, but that’s what yards were for originally, when people expected to provide for themselves. As Ireland modernised, Conville said, new laws forced urban families to get rid of their animals, citing public hygiene. Yet when they had animals, Conville said, “they were getting organic meat, and you were getting it fresh. You knew the pig and where it came from; it wasn’t from Argentina or anything like that, it was from your own neighbourhood.”