Thursday 25 August 2016

Great Latin lover but no girlfriends

Con Houlihan

Published 04/09/2008 | 07:00

Con Houlihan
Con Houlihan

Last week I wrote about Henry St John Atkins and Billy Porter, the two teachers I encountered in my first day in Cork University. In due course I found out that they were the teachers closest to their students. That helped to make them great teachers in their different ways.

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Henry Atkins taught mathematics as if building a brick wall, or better still, as if building a drystone wall. In building such a wall you are dealing with stones of different shapes and sizes -- you must proceed craftily. You must make sure that what you have done is solid before going on to the next layer. Henry had a very clear mind and this made his students think clearly too.

Of course, it was impossible to have personal contact with a class of 70 but he encouraged the students to ask questions. And once a week he held an optional class in his office to help those who had some difficulties. We had mathematics three times a week at nine o'clock. I lived more than three miles from the college but I never missed a class -- and I attended the optional classes out of respect.

He was unique in holding that casual class. He was unique too in setting an examination at the end of the Christmas term. This wasn't a do or die examination. Its purpose was to help students see where they were heading and to prepare for the big examination at the end of the year. This examination was absoloutely fair. It covered only what had been thoroughly studied in class. Henry St John Atkins was a saint in more than name.

Ernest Hemingway used to say that enthusiasm wasn't enough -- it can be when backed up with knowledge and skill. Bill Porter, teacher of Latin and Greek, was an example of that happy fusion. His enthusiasm seemed boundless; his sense of humour overflowed -- he made you fall in love with Latin.

Of course it is a wonderful language. Not the least of its virtues is its economy. Take the slogan that you see in public houses, "Carpe Diem" -- it means: "Make the most of the day." One day on his way into class he fell from his bike or perhaps his bike fell from him; he was picked up and picked himself up and, though he had a bruised forehead, he continued his class as enthusiastically as ever.

One of my friends was studying Greek as well as Latin -- and thereby hangs a tale. He was at home in the summer before his Finals and was very worried because he had mislaid a very rare text book. He wrote to Bill. A few days later he was told to collect a box at the post office. The box was a biscuit tin. The lid was secured with binder twine, inside was the rare book and two cream crackers. Bill Porter, like most men with a great sense of humour, was deeply serious and a devout Presbyterian. He did his Church proud.


In my first year in College I found a great place wherein to make friends. Just off the quadrangle there was a sunken field about the size of a soccer pitch. It was called The Quarry. In my free hours I spent a great deal of time there. Something was always happening. There might be kicking around or playing backs and forwards or an improvised game of Gaelic football or soccer or rugby.

If the day rained in my free time, I often adjourned to The Library. There in its intimate atmosphere and its privacy you felt that you were a real student. Between the classroom and The Quarry and The Library my first year sped by on wings. Of course there were disappointments: one was in the context of the Irish language.

The course was unexciting. The professor was a famous scholar but hardly a great teacher. He treated the students as if they were back in primary school -- his assistant was little better. Because I came to college almost a month late, I couldn't change to some other subject such as Spanish. So I attended the minimum of classes -- 75pc -- and I didn't study the syllabus. I hadgot over 90pc in the Leaving and depended on that to see me through the examination.

The other disappointing aspect was more serious. All my secondary education had been in boys' schools -- I looked forward to becoming acquainted with the feminine gender. It wasn't to be. There was hardly any communion between the boys and girls in our class. We might exchange a few words on the way into lectures or on the way out -- that was all. It was part of the Ireland of the times: men and women were deemed separate species.


There was an aspect other than the mental climate of the day: you needed money if you wished to take a fair lass for a pot of tea and a few sticky buns. Students of today can hardly conceive how scarce money was then. I do not begrudge them. I couldn't afford to buy newspapers -- apart from The Evening Echo. I read the main papers in the City Library.

And I was in fourth year and making a few pounds at coaching before I acquired a friend girl, not to mention a girlfriend.

The college did not send examination results to you; they were posted up in the main hall. My Leaving results were received on the way home from taking a cargo of turf to Castle Island railway station. The results of my first arts examination came in much the same way. I tied the mare to a pole and was having a drink in that same pub, Joe McCarthy's. He said: "Your name is in The Examiner." He took it from under the counter with the page open -- I hadn't done too badly.

I should have gone off to a small Greek island with a few of my friends. Next day I was still in my own small Island drawing turf to the railway -- and happy that it would comfort some families in Dublin's fair city.

Fogra: My old club St Patrick's Athletic have taken a great stride forward -- congratulations and good luck to them in Berlin

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