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Year by year we cross the viaducts which link the seasons. Likewise, we must cross the milestones as we progress through life.

As we bid farewell to lost carefree childhood, and have danced along the road of exuberant adolescence, we assuredly must cross the bridge onto the road of sobering adulthood. It is adieu to our formative years, and whether they have been influenced by primary education, or it combined with second tier education, or by both of these combined with third level, it becomes all too evident that our formal schooling has been but a preparatory school for entrance to that great University of Life: Experience.

At nine years and some months old, while attending the local primary school, I won a prize, a history of Ireland book from earliest times to the Treaty of 1921. I read this book from cover to cover and committed to memory all nations who took up residence on our island: from ill refuted Parthalonians to the consequential Normans with the Saxons in their train.

This story of our country as depicted in this historical presentation, ended with the signing of the “Treaty”. By way of epilogue the author stated that he could not tell the post “Treaty” story “until perhaps happier times” when it would, in his opinion, be political to do so. He added the flourish “that amidst the travail and fire, the Irish Free State, Saorstát Eireann, came into being”; a statement that surely put the master of understatement, Tacitus, into the halfpenny place. “Oh Wicked, acquisitive, perfectos England”, was my spontaneous reaction to my reading this book. This opinion was elevated to the status of firm conviction by the teachers and grown-ups around me.

So, I crossed to adolescence a convinced Anlophope, with a pronounced disgust towards those historic tyrants and insatiable acquisitors. I also accepted the popular conception of that time, that England was an immoral and despicable nation to the power of N squared, as being a fair assessment, worthy of the enlightenment of that reflective age of the fifties.

The drawn-out World War II ended in the mid-forties; and inexorably upon us came the stagnant early “Fifties”. Owing to the Nation’s neutral stance in the war, and it was the only sane policy she could follow, we were practically ostracised by the victorious nations of the alleged “Free World” and likewise by those nations which found a cosy haven behind the benign Iron Curtain. Behind me were the preparatory days of formal education, and the not so heady days of adolescence, and the viaduct that leads to the sober road I had to cross. For the conviction derived from the history book was due an apologia pro vita sva.

The prospects in the Ireland of the Fifties did not fill me with hope. So, I decided to reluctantly vacate John Bull’s Other Island and head for John Bull’s principal island. In Dun Laoighaire I boarded the “Princess Maud”, a pocket sized armour clad troop ship, which successfully sustained a German mine in World War I. She was not fitted with sea rollers and reflected that by a marked tossing movement to the discomfort, in varying degrees, of passengers prone to sea sickness.

On a July night in 1956, when I made the first of many crossings to Britain, it was quite a rough sea which caused the Maud to rock and this wrought an expected effect on quite a number of the passengers. I enjoyed the journey and I have invariably enjoyed all subsequent sea journeys whether rough or smooth, over many years. Curiously enough, I was never partial to air travel. I must have an affinity with the sea.

Eventually I reached the second city, Birmingham: Baile Mhic Fhomhairis. My first impression of Birmingham was of a hybrid of wonder and devastation. The seemingly unending row upon row of monotonous red brick houses, coupled with the scurrying stricken multitudes, made me feel like a lone green leaf on Antarctica, or an anoetic observer of a hyper kinetic ant colony on the move.

Oh! Brum it is grand you looked,

With scurrying crowds adorning.

If a path I gaze right through that maze,

I’ll bid you top of the morning.

These four lines I composed in the tranquillity of my newly negotiated lodgings, oh so many years ago.

As the “Shothran and the Rake” discovered in the U.S.A. neither did they require any loafers in the “Land of Hope and Glory”. I propose not to bore with a catalogue of posts I filled during my stay of nigh on one and thirty years in England. I synopsise by saying, that while there, I was alert to opportunity and alive to limitations. I not readily assimilate, but I looked upon it as being part of my education to understand these people, and be as the liberator was, a keen student of people. So I became keen observer of the natives. I noted their modes of expression, reaction to utterance and occurrence, perceptions of absurdity and anecdotal preferences.

On cursory perusal they, by and large projected a facade, which had the initial of confirming the traditional unworthiness so often ascribed, was very often a mask which concealed helpful hands, honest hearts and the potential for firm friendship. I also at an early stage made a friend of the local public library. I found this very helpful and it not only entertained but educated as well. Ignorance even when it implies innocence, does not imply virtue.

The pursuit of knowledge is the pursuit of liberty, and the pursuit of liberty is the pursuit of the luxury of self-discipline of being studious.

The University of Experience is the finest learning institute there is. It’s my Alma Mater, it can be yours, and the man and woman around the corner may enrol.

John Gaffney. Tysaxon

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About this record

Written by John Gafney, Tysaxon

Published here 27 Oct 2022 and originally published 1995

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