Monday 26 September 2016

I was torn between book and brook

Published 18/09/2008 | 07:00

Con Houlihan
Con Houlihan

Much of the talk in this page last week was about the aftermath of World War Two, especially in the context of Cork's fair city. Of course academic life went on: I believe that the hardship of the times made us better students.

  • Go To

Fuel was very scarce. A man not unknown to me did his best to make up for the lack. He was known as The Rancher. He was a big, powerful man who went around the streets selling firewood from a handcart. His slogan became part of folklore: "If you wish to taste Hell on earth, buy my blocks."

Emboldened by his success as a salesman, he stood for election to The Corporation. He got 27 votes. He demanded a recount -- he didn't get elected.

The fuel situation in Dublin was worse than in Cork because it was a far bigger conurbation. Some people cut their own turf: most people didn't because it needed certain skills and knowledge. A famous cartoon in Dublin Opinion illustrated the situation in the capital city. It showed an elderly couple, possibly a colonel and his good lady, huddled in front of a big fireplace. There was a heap of turf in the fireplace, there was a billow of smoke but not a sign of fire. The caption said: "Dear, I think you should go out and cut another bucketful."

You could make a big book from the jokes about fuel in those years of hardship -- and a bigger book about food. Rabbits played a big part in the cuisine of that era, especially in our neighbouring island. One morning a landlady was surprised because her Kerry lodger wasn't up and ready to go off to work for Wimpey or McAlpine or whomever. He told her that he had wicked pains in his stomach. "Will I send for the doctor?" "No, ma'am, a ferret."

Rabbits were in such demand in the late 40s that the price went up to five shillings. This was about the equivalent of a day's wages for a casual labourer. And so, of course, casual labourers were in short supply. It was a simple proof that parts of the economy were interlinked.


Money made from catching rabbits came in handy for me in second and third year in Cork University. I had also got a prize called an Exhibition out of the first year examination. It wasn't big, but it kept me ahead with the digs money. We had no classes on Saturdays -- and so I was able to go to many of the Point-To-Points that were a big part of life in the county. Also I went to the Greyhound Track on The Western Road a few nights a week. Some of my kind friends used to say that I attended classes in Latin and History and English and that I studied Racehorses and Greyhounds.

Second year in college could be dangerous. Because there were no scholarships or prizes to be won, you tended to take things easy. You were inclined to forget that in the BA you were examined on the work of both second year and third year. This entailed an almighty amount of reading, especially in Latin. No matter how sharp your mind, you couldn't answer questions about a book unless you had thoroughly read it and digested it. My digs were in a house where the number of lodgers seldom fell below 30 -- it wasn't an ideal place wherein to study.

The college library was ideal but it was a long way from the digs -- and so on some evenings I would not go home to my supper. This upset my budget but it was worthwhile in the long run. The secret in studying for an examination is to get ahead and stay ahead.

As the date of an examination draws near, time seems to take on a new dimension -- be ahead of it. In those far-off but well remembered years, I found out that it is easy to deceive yourself in the context of study. In putting in long hours you may be mistaking quantity for quality.


Now I will tell you a story. It concerns Ludwig Wittgenstein, the most famous philosopher of the last century. His first teaching job was at Cambridge University. There he was tutor to a class of 12. Some days as class began, he would ask his little group to sit on the floor -- and did so himself. After perhaps half-an-hour he might say: "What have you been thinking about?" It may have seemed crazy but at least it taught the students that thinking was a good discipline.

You needn't sit on the floor but when you have finished a period of study, you should ask yourself a very important question. Do I know something now that I didn't before I started -- or do I understand something better?

From all this you may suspect that I was a born student -- indeed I was not. I went through primary and secondary school with as little work as I could. I liked school but I was a child of nature, happiest in the fields and the woods and by the streams. And I was always a reader, even though most of that reading had little to do with school. It would have been easy to get high marks in an examination about America's Old West or the Bush Rangers of Australia.

Before I came to college, I had spent more than two years working at many jobs and so when I arrived, I was determined to make the most of my time there. Study was enjoyable because I loved my subjects -- of course there were times when I wondered where I was going. And I recalled the story about the little girl who was looking over a bridge admiring the mallard. A neighbour said: "Mary Ann, it's half-past nine. You'll be late for school.'' She said: "There's no hurry -- it doesn't close until three.''

A knowledge of racehorses can be a help. There is the oft-told story about the boy who in his Leaving Certificate picked as his essay "Great Races In History". He wrote about The Derby and The Grand National and The Melbourne Cup.

Fogra: Peter Roche has organised a coffee party for tomorrow morning in Mulligan's of Poolbeg Street. It is for The Raheny Hospice

Read More