Thursday 20 October 2016

When brown paper wasn’t for parcels

Post-war hardship led to humour, imagination and innovation

Con Houlihan

Published 11/09/2008 | 07:00

Con Houlihan
Con Houlihan

My memories of my second and third years at Cork University have more to do with hardship than scholarship. The war that ended in 1945 left a terrible legacy. Food and fuel were very scarce -- the city of Cork didn't escape. Many women spent much of their time prospecting for pieces of dry turf in the mounds created by the city fathers. During a severe spell of bad weather a strike at the gasworks didn't help.

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Some women cooked in the backyard with sawdust in tar barrels. I can never forget the smell. Many men in those days had only one suit. You could smell the damp clothing in the reading room in the City Library. You could get the same smell at Mass on Sunday in the South Chapel. It was the smell of poverty.

The bread of that era -- if you could call it bread -- had a flavour all of its own. It was concocted from various ingredients, including flour. Sometimes due to a bad harvest the flour was damp -- the bread had a rather mouldy taste. People in rural Ireland used farina to make bread -- this was the flour of potatoes and produced a very tasty loaf.

Tea, of course, was almost unobtainable -- all kinds of herbs were substituted -- it was an age of culinary invention. Some people even pretended to make banana sandwiches by using parsnips with some kind of flavouring such as vanilla essence for the filling. People got by. Miraculously this strange food didn't seem to harm anyone -- but it was very hard on the body.

Toilet rolls were part of a different culture. A saying sprang up and became part of the local language: "Only for the brown paper we wouldn't do at all." It was the opening line in the pantomime that Christmas -- and also the closing line. Of course, it evoked ribald laughter.

Despite all this, life at the College went on -- even if sometimes you saw students wearing their overcoats in class.

Daniel Corkery was our professor for English. He was a small man with a lame foot. Such was his personality that when he sat behind his table in class, he seemed to be a big man. He was a devout Catholic and a dedicated Nationalist. The fusion seemed to colour his view of literature.

He wasn't over fond of WB Yeats. He used to refer to some of his most popular poems as pieces of confectionery. He had a more cutting comment: "Whenever anything of importance was going on in Ireland, Yeats was in the South of France."

Nevertheless, he was a fine teacher, even if he seemed to believe that English poetry ended with Matthew Arnold. He hadn't much time for those writers he deemed Anglo-Irish. He used to say: "Would any one of them feel at home at a Munster Final in Thurles." Sometimes I felt like applying the same criterion to himself -- life in Ireland could be rough and dirty.

Daniel Corkery was never properly appreciated as a writer: some of his short stories are among the best in the English language. He used to say that International fame is not a mark of greatness -- he was probably thinking of James Joyce. Corkery was a great man for asking what you might call philosophical questions. One day in class he said: "When man reaches the moon, how will people react?" He evoked a wild array of answers -- we all had wonderful ideas. When the verbal dust had settled, he said: "People will take more interest in their own patch of ground." The growing strength of provincial newspapers and the proliferation of local radio seem to hint that he was right.

Brigid Gertrude McCarthy was Daniel's assistant -- and succeeded him as professor. She was a woman of great beauty and charm. We boys adored her just as the nuns and girls adored Henry Atkins, the maths professor. We wondered why she had never married and used to make up stories to account for this. One story was that the true love of her life had been shot down over London in the Battle of Britain. This was the ultimate in romantic drama -- but many years later I discovered that it wasn't untrue.

BG, as she was known, was a most dedicated teacher -- and old fashioned in a good way. She regularly gave us essays to do over a weekend. She reminded me of the old days in the primary school. We used to meet on Monday mornings and the big question was "Have you the comp done?"

BG didn't comment on individual essays -- they were handed back marked out of ten. Before this was done she used to comment on mistakes in grammar and syntax. And she would comment on mistakes in spelling without giving a clue as to the identity of the guilty parties. I remember especially a spelling mistake in an essay on Wuthering Heights. "Heathcliff and his friends used to spend the nights gambolling in the big hall."

Brigid McCarthy, as did Daniel Corkery, stressed the importance of learning poetry "off by heart." He used to say: "Then it is your own." BG was a fellow believer. And so one morning as we went in to an examination, a wee lass said to me: "I know a thousand lines of poetry off by heart."

Brigid McCarthy was a dedicated scholar but she didn't live in an ivory tower. One day when she noticed that a student of hers had been absent for several days, she asked her classmates why. She was told a sad story: the girl's father had been on trial for attempted murder -- and found guilty. BG went to her house that night; the poor girl was back in class next day and went on to get a good degree.

We were blessed to have such good teachers as Daniel Corkery and Brigid McCarthy. You can teach such subjects as mathematics and Latin: English must be evoked and implanted.

We were also lucky to have the brown paper -- only for it we mightn't have done at all.

Fogra: My colleague, Feidhlim Kelly, did well in Frankfurt recently: he took Gold in the 400, the 800, the 5,000, and Bronze in the relay. Congratulations are due

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