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A love of books is the greatest gift that you can give a child

Doctor Daniel Corkery was the Professor of English in my first year at Cork University. He was a small man with a lame foot but when he sat behind his table he appeared to be a big man. That was due to the force of his personality. He gave the impression of being a kind man who would never say a bad word about anybody, but he had his prejudices. If he didn't like a man, his judgement was likely to influence his opinion of that man's poetry.

He used to say: "When anything of importance was going on in Ireland, Mister Yeats was away in France." And: "The Lake Isle Of Innisfree is only a piece of confectionery."

He loved the land and the sea but, on account of his physical infirmity, he was unable to take an active part in the life of either. In that way he resembled DH Lawrence who was a delicate child and was never "down pit", but from talking to his father and listening to conversation between his father and his fellow miners he got an intimate knowledge of the ground beneath his feet.

Thomas Hardy, too, had been a delicate child but he understood the fields better maybe than many of those who cultivated them. And then there was Emily Bronte: she seldom ventured far from her home but in Wuthering Heights she shows a remarkable knowledge of the moorland.

Corkery used to say: "Whenever you are writing, write about what you know best." Sometimes people send me stories about life in a world where they have never been. They can be good but they lack intimacy.

Some of Corkery's own stories could hold their place in any world anthology. They are mostly about the sea. He loved the coast of West Cork. He did not romanticise the lives of the fishermen. He knew that it was a hard and dangerous trade and sometimes not very rewarding. Yet there was a touch of romance about it in the battle between wind and weather.

The men who worked on the sea would never take a job on land unless they had to, maybe only for a few days. And they regarded those few days as wasted.

Corkery was a great lover of words and he taught us that there is more to a word than a simple meaning. Most words have what he called "associations". For example the word "forest" conjures up foxes and hares and rabbits and squirrels, various kinds of trees and many kinds of birds. Then take the word "sea": the sea is unknowable but, nevertheless, it evokes many associations, all the deeper because man can never understand its totality.

Corkery retired at the end of first year and there was fierce competition for his job. Sean O Faolain was the hot favourite and most of our class would have voted for him. We were wrong but it took us some time to know it.


He was a respected writer and as editor of a magazine called The Bell he was very much involved in Irish life but when he published his autobiography, we discovered that he was a very self-opinionated man and inclined to be too egoistic. And thus he was better on lecture tours in America and elsewhere than in the gritty classroom of the university. We hoped that he would bring us more into modern literature because Corkery didn't take us into that sphere.

Dr Bridget McCarthy, who had been a lecturer in our first year, got the post. We hoped that she might bring us into modern times but we were disappointed. Thus we got no mention of the big names such as Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Anderson, Dos Passos, Wilder and some others, not all American. Priestley was ignored and Joyce was anathema.

My generation got some of our education from the Penguin series, excellent books at a reasonable price. And so between Corkery and McCarthy and the Penguin series we got a fair education. At least they gave us a solid knowledge of the English language and much of its literature. I have lost all touch with the world of the Universities and do not know if the American greats, real and alleged, are on the various syllabuses, but from my contacts with young people now, it is doubtful. Indeed I must confess that many of the people taught by me, seemed to have lost interest in literature after they finished their examinations. Television may be a part of the cause, but I doubt it. You are a reader or you are not.

Corkery used to ask a very important question: "When man goes to the moon, what will be the reaction here? He believed it is more than likely that we would take greater interest in our own fields and in our own towns and villages." And he seems to have been right. More than ever now we see people writing about the history of their own parishes and so on.

Never have we seen more books about the history and geography of little places. Of course, printing has become fairly inexpensive. That is a factor. There are documentaries about communities, even though documentaries on television cost a great deal, they are fairly inexpensive on radio. It is a healthy trend.

We have seen, too, a proliferation of local radio. There is one sad aspect however, local provincial papers are struggling. Some have passed away. In recent years they cannot compete with local radio and the internet. One can only hope that reading will remain part of our lives. A love of reading is the greatest gift that you can give a child.

Fogra: Congratulations go to Ray Hennessy who was recently given the Hall of Fame for his great work for Munster Rugby on and off the pitch