Famine of Knowledge? Part 1: The Beginning

Ever wished you’d paid more attention at school? Wished you’d chosen a different path of study, a different course of learning? Ever wonder how different things might have been if you’d taken that module that your head had overruled your heart on? I guess we all have. It’s not so much that I regret not paying attention, rather than I regret not having had the savvy to pay attention to the signs that mattered – to follow my areas of interest. Although, as someone who deeply loves learning, I guess I had so many interests that to follow all would have been an impossibility. I can say now, with the sagacity of a 37 year old, that the journey is just as important as the destination, and although I haven’t reached my destination yet, I am further along the way than ever before.

The Beginning

I still have copy books and notebooks of mine from primary school and they show that in my younger years, there was always a keen interest in writing. I wrote stories on just about everything and used to give some to my mother as presents. She has kept them all. Along with my writing, was a deep respect for books. I loved books and every Sunday down in Kingscourt from about the age of 4, my uncles used to bring me to the shop after mass to buy me a few bars of chocolate and whichever Ladybird book I wanted. Nothing beat the feeling of leaving The Well with your new book safely ensconced in a brown paper bag. Fair play to Ollie and Frieda for always having a well stocked book rack for me to choose from – my very own Barnes & Noble in Dún A Rí. The uncles also kept me well stocked in stationery and still do, in fact.  So much so that I still have the makings of an office supply centre in my ‘stationery press’.

The first day Dad brought me to Trinity College to see the Long Room, I rambled across the cobbles of Front Square holding his hand and knew that I’d one day be a student there. It was on that trip that he brought me to my first second hand book shop and Mother of God did I enjoy it! A few weeks later, there was a Sale of Work in the community hall in Kingscourt and I went down with a handsome 40p to spend- the 20p coins had just come into circulation. I hadn’t asked anyone if I could go, just headed down to it of my own accord. The sheer joy of finding a book to buy for 5p has never fully worn off. I can still remember it – a Ladybird version of A Tale of Two Cities. Of course, I splashed the remaining 35p on other books and went home a very happy little lady.

It wasn’t that I’d been born into a house full of literature, but for as long as I can remember, getting a book as a gift was the greatest present of all (apart from a pack of magic markers, which I bloody loved!). It’s only in my old middle age, that I’ve realised maybe there’s something in the DNA that fuelled my passion in reading and writing. The great Pauric Colum was a first cousin of my paternal Grandmother and the British writer and journalist Patrick Marnham, is a first cousin of my father. My own first cousin, Larissa Daly is also a British journalist. There’s certainly a family inkwell to draw from, and sure if the well runs dry, I have about 2,000 ball point pens I can hit up. It may also have been the result of growing up next door to Austin Clarke that ignited something! No, not THE Austin Clarke, but this character was one that definitely implored you to write stories about.

Heading off of my own accord is something I’ve done from as far back as I can remember. On my first day of primary school, I misunderstood break-time, and when everyone filed out of the class in the direction of the yard, I made for the front door, thinking that it was home-time. Nobody was there to meet me, so off I went up the town, schoolbag on my back, pigtails bobbing. When I came to a road that needed crossing, I employed the services of a local red-setter. Snipe was the beautiful dog of a family relative and when I called him, he came across the road and accompanied me over to the other side. From there, it was plain sailing, down Main Street, turn at the Four Counties, pass Dr. McMahon’s and on up the Rocks Road. It probably took me about a half an hour. Needless to say that the look of shock on my parent’s faces when I appeared at the kitchen window was unforgettable.

And by third class, St. Joseph’s Kinsgcourt had given way to Scoil Treasa Firhouse and I was the girl in class with the funny accent.  Probably the only benefit of being the culchie in a Dublin classroom is that you have been through a rural school system, which in my experience, was far superior to that of Dublin. The content and level of lessons I’d done in first class in Cavan weren’t even reached by sixth class in Dublin. In particular, Irish and history were taught to an extremely high level, maybe driven by the fact that in the country school there were two grades of class sharing some rooms at a time – and sure rising tides lift all boats. Anyhow, the girl with the bogey accent had decent Irish and loved her history and geography. She loved anything meaty that involved lots of learning and writing.

The sorest part of my primary education was my sixth year teacher Mr. O’Connor telling my mother in a parent teacher meeting that “Gráinne will never be a Dr, her maths are not good enough.” In all his Kerry wisdom, he was accurate in saying my maths weren’t brilliant, though I took honours maths right up to the Christmas of my Leaving Cert, I am not numerically inclined, much preferring the lexicon. But you know what, I pity a person with the mindset to tell young people that they can’t achieve their dreams (at that point I wanted to be a Pathologist – largely driven by my interest in physiology and my fascination with crime writing.) By all means, employ reason and logic, but being a person that students look up to, try avoid belittling their dreams. If anyone shares their dream with you, try share that dream too, and if you can’t help to steer them towards it, then at least resist the urge to be a prick. At that young age, I hung on his words and didn’t know any better than to believe him. ‘I’m not good enough‘ took root. It haunted me for many years.

Secondary school gave me a chance to shine in languages, history, woodwork and art, scoring A’s in the three latter in my Junior Cert. And then, in a case of total eejitry, I chose completely different subjects for my Leaving Cert, leaving behind the creative ones. Science and business beckoned for me, along with languages. Surprisingly, I don’t think I was much of a student of English during the Leaving Cert cycle, my work from Junior Cycle was far better.

This probably came down to the influence of a wonderful teacher. We had Kevin McDermott from first to third year and there simply was no better man to work you hard, to praise good effort, to make you challenge yourself. He was the first person to say he believed in my writing. He took an essay I wrote in first year and gave it to his sixth years with a note “this is how you write“. I still have that essay and it still gives me a deep sense of pride when I recall him calling me back after class to compliment me on it. Good teachers build good people. In Leaving Cert, we had a lesser influence who vaguely discussed poetry with us. She covered fiction as though it were a tick box exercise in her boring existence of counting down the days until she could retire and move back up to her beloved bloody Donegal. I didn’t do as well as I should have in the exam. Irish and business studies were good, french and biology also, but chemistry and english weren’t much of a cause for celebration. Bottom line – I probably should have stuck with the creative subjects, but I had my sights on doing forensic science or biotechnology, hence my reliance on science.

But as all 17 year olds are entitled to do, I went in the direction of Arts in Trinity, reading Modern Irish and French. That 5 year old was going to make her dream of being a Trinner come true. At the time, I also undertook my first Reiki course. I never wanted my learning to be purely academic, so doing a few courses simultaneously has been a pattern of mine for years.