I REMEMBER a programme on radio one time in which well known people were asked to name the person in history they would most like to have met.
It was an interesting idea and one that stays with me still, as I have long had an interest in history myself. When I was in national school, I would have nominated Padraig Pearse at once.
Callinafercy was one of those old fashioned country schools with yellow washed walls and gabled porch facing the road. The year 1966 brought a welter of commemorative stamps and coins and medals: a specially commissioned booklet called Oidhreacht, meaning heritage, distributed to every school child then.
I still have the copy given to me by the Master, Murt Kelly in Callinafercy all those years ago, pictures of the G.P.O. on the cover. The booklet gave a brief summary of the events of Easter Week 1916, Pearse, observing in a statement issued the following Friday: ‘For my part as to anything I have done in this, I am not afraid to face either the judgement of God, or the judgement of posterity.
I think I liked Pearse even then, not only for his visionary genius, but also for his love of poetry and nature.
HIS POEM ‘The Wayfarer’ for instance, was printed in our English reader. In it he celebrates the small, the ordinary the beautiful things of nature that meant so much to him. He writes of squirrels and ladybirds and rabbits, the sun slanting in the fields of evening, simple yet vivid images that struck a chord with me at once.
The commemorative booklet was very effective tool in evoking the contrast between familiar streetscapes before and after the Rising. The photo of O’connell Street before the Rising for instance, showed the tram cars running peacefully along the lines, one with an advertisement for Mattersons, another bound for Donnybrook with an advertisement for a popular brand of tea. Nelson’s column looming large in the background.
Then there were images of the city in flames, many of the buildings crumbling or collapsed so that the contrast could not have been more dramatic.
Two other figures in Irish history were also featured in our English reader and both of them would have been on my list of heroes. One was Daniel O’connell universally known as the liberator, the writer, T.M.Kettle, celebrating his oratory, especially at the mass meetings with which he has long been identified.
Kettle had the good fortune to meet an eighty year old man who had heard the great man speak on the hill of Tan, the lull itself thronged with people, so that it seemed that half the country was there.
Quite apart from this, the folk-tales about O’connell were legion, portraying him, as they did, not only as someone who outwitted courts and landlords, but even the rules of Parliament in England too.
Another hero of mine was Robert Emmet, his speech from the dock reprinted in our reader, full of pathos and emotion “When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written. I have done.”
As I grew older I think I would like to have met some of the philosophers of ancient Greece. Thales for instance. Thales was fascinated by the stars, so much so that, while studying them one time, he fell into a well only to be rescued by a maid. In spite of his wisdom, he was poor so that he was often asked “what good was philosophy if it couldn’t pay the rent.”
Studying the stars one winter, however, he predicted a great harvest of olives the following year and so hired all the olive presses he could find at a low price. When the time-came and he was proved correct, he hired out the presses again at a profit and so made a great deal of money.
Thus according to Aristotle, he proved that philosophers could be rich if they liked but their ambitions were of a different kind.
Thales left some cryptic quotes which he did not feel the need to explain, among them “All things are full of gods.”
Among the writers and philosophers of later times; I would like to have met Emerson and Thoreau, the latter spending time alone in the woods and recording his experiences in his journal. One of his great beliefs was that life should be simple: “Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, Simplify.”
He believed too that people should be true to themselves: ‘If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”
Emerson also promoted the virtue of solitude: “It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion. It is easy in solitude to live after our own.”
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