Friday 24 February 2023

What Used to Be

Excerpt of what I've been writing lately:


When I read writings from the Middle Ages, or letters from the 1700s, or novels from the 1800s, I'm struck by how rich they were with references to the Greek and Roman classics. Even when I casually read magazine articles or watch black-and-white movies made a mere few generations ago, created not for professors but for regular mailmen, farmhands or construction workers, I’m struck by how liberally they are peppered with references to the people who created democracy, theatre, history, philosophy, and most of what we value today.
Even if you only watched football, you were expected to know classical references; the Yale football cheer for decades was “Brek-ek-ex Ko-ax,” which is simply nonsense unless you’ve read Aristophanes’ "The Frogs."
Children across the Western world once began their Latin lessons by reading Julius Caesar’s account of the wars in Gaul, beginning with the line “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres,” or “All Gaul is divided into three parts.” As scholar Wes Calliahan pointed out, this was so well-known that when "Cheaper by the Dozen" authors Frank Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey could begin their 1948 memoir with, “My father, like Gaul, was divided into three parts,” confident their readers understood.
Similar jokes appeared in short stories, Broadway musicals, even cartoons. Charles Addams – creator of the Addams Family – drew a cartoon of a pig teaching a Latin class, writing on the chalkboard “Alligay estay nis-omay ivisaday in artespay restay.” The cartoon had no caption to explain, for Addams could safely assume everyone got the joke – it was a pig teaching Latin in Pig Latin. And in those days everyone would have understood, just as their ancestors might have for centuries. Today, just decades later, not one person in ten thousand would understand.

Wednesday 22 February 2023

Wisdom of children

Tonight, after a long day at work and on the bus, I got home to a four-year-old that had, apparently, eaten a wheelbarrow of sugar-coated espresso beans. After being bounced on repeatedly, playing games and giving many piggyback rides, I said, "You’re bouncing like a rubber ball. Why is that, sweetie?"

"Because that what childs are supposed to do," she said earnestly.

- Originally published in 2009.

Tuesday 21 February 2023

The Wake


Imagine, as Irish journalist Kevin Toolis put it, inviting all your neighbours to your home, only to reveal Grandma’s dead body lying on the kitchen table. Imagine, in our culture, offering everyone whiskey and sandwiches while everyone sat around the body and chatted. Imagine hundreds of people coming by, not just to sit in uncomfortable silence around the corpse but to tell stories, to laugh about good times past, to sob in each other’s arms. Imagine an entire party where people flirted and fought and played games around the body. Or carrying the body for miles to the graveyard by hand, or digging the grave yourself. 
Most people today, of course, would call the police; exposing a body near a public road is illegal in the UK, Toolis points out, and accident victims are shrouded or pixelated. Many of us go years or decades without ever seeing a body, and never one that has not been embalmed and covered in cosmetics to feign life.
Yet in traditional Ireland people laid out their loved ones just like this – and a few still do. Virtually every traditional culture has some similar ritual where the living gather around the dead and say farewell, whether jungle tribes, desert nomads or the Greeks of the Iliad feasting for nine days to mourn Hector. The wake could be our species’ oldest and most universal tradition – and one that has disappeared from many cultures in living memory, without anyone noticing.

Monday 13 February 2023

The Lost Civilisation


More of my writing lately:

For many children, book-learning was not limited to school, but was a part of daily life, in-between farm chores. In the Irish 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.” (The Farm by Lough Gur, 172)
Alice 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.”
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.

Tuesday 7 February 2023

Learning years ago

From an article I'm working on: 

Tens of thousands of children, often barefoot and dressed in clothes sewn from flour bags and worn by several other children before them, walked to schoolhouses each morning across Ireland. Their tiny hands often carried bricks of hand-hewn turf, or sticks that they picked up along the way, to keep their single rooms warm – or less bitterly cold – as they studied. School budgets effectively did not exist; children often carried a few coins here and there for the teacher when the parents could afford it. Nor did children go to school all year; they left whenever the parents needed an extra pair of hands on the farm, or to baby-sit their brothers and sisters, or to bring in the turf for winter, or to make some extra money at a job. Some children described going to school until they were 16, or 14, or 12, or 11, and then never again.

Now: Tell me what kind of education they got. 

Every modern person, without exception, assures me the results 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 true – in the USA today, two-thirds of all adults cannot read at a proficient level, and a third cannot handle a basic level. They are adults and can’t read.

Also, some of these children lived a century ago, and since we assume knowledge only becomes vaster and more refined over time, our learning must soar far beyond anything they could have imagined, and our children’s learning farther still. This is why we spent 25,000 hours of our best years in giant cement warehouses – our parents wanted us to keep up with the competition in a race forward. It’s is why so many of us spent years in college, and decades paying off college, to join the future and not be left behind.

Not a bit of that belief, though, stands up to the simple test of listening to accounts of schools a century or two ago, or reading actual school papers on file in Irish historical societies, or reading newspapers from the time, or looking at the books everyday people read. Children then often read classics and 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 college elites might today, but out of a passion for learning. They talked about these works with friends. 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. 

... more on this later. 

Monday 6 February 2023

Pub in the Bog of Allen

 Pub in the Bog of Allen, Ireland. The ground swells and shifts, so the pub leans. Nonetheless, it stays in one piece, and remains a great place for a drink around the fire.