The Ascent of Man

About forty five years ago one of the best TV series ever was broadcast by the BBC, and to the best of my knowledge it has never been repeated. In it was charted the progress of mankind, from its origins on the plains of Africa millions of years ago, to the discovery of the intricacies and structure of DNA in the 20th century. This 13 episode documentary series was written and presented by the scientist Jacob Bronowski. He went on in episode after episode to show the evolution of the human; how the increase in skull and brain size allowed man to fit himself to all environments; to use his imagination, his reason, his emotional subtlety and toughness to change his environment.

He details man’s switch from hunter/gatherer to farmer, and how this allowed him and her to settle in one area. We learn how man’s use of fire allowed him to make new tools and weapons, and says that ‘there is nothing in modern chemistry more unexpected than putting together new alloys, with new properties; to turn iron into steel.’ We learn how the invention of the wheel and the domestication of oxen and the horse propelled man forward.

Along the way he lights our darkness with dazzling displays of scholarship on science, philosophy, art, literature, and all the achievements of the human race. He explains to us the huge importance of the Roman arch in architecture, and how a later refinement of this, the flying buttress, allowed masons to insert massive stained glass windows in walls that had previously been used to support a roof. This gave us the magnificent cathedrals of the 12th century.

He recounts for us how Copernicus and Galileo fought conservatism in thought with mathematics and imagination. He explains in understandable language the findings of Newton and Einstein, and how the pioneer of atomic science, Ludwig Boltzmann, came to commit suicide in despair before his theories were taken up and expanded and developed by Niels Bohr and Rutherford and others.

It is a work of immense scope; a wonderful celebration of the genius of mankind, and yet in one of the final episodes Bronowski is found kneeling beside a pond in Auschwitz, where he says the ashes of four million people, including most of his family, were washed away. And he says ‘that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave’. He quotes Cromwell ‘I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ; think possibly you may be mistaken’.

He goes on to say ‘I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died at Auschwitz, to stand here by the pond as a survivor and as a witness’.

In this day and age of the primacy of the ignorant in politics, we could do with a repeat of this wonderful celebration of humanity.

*Man is used in the OED meaning: human beings in general; the human race.

Bronowski, J. (1973) The Ascent of Man. London: Published by the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Poets and Patriots.

A few weeks ago I watched a documentary on BBC, Return to TS Eliotland, presented by the eccentric but brilliant AN Wilson. I would say that Wilson cultivates this image of mild eccentricity; he is like Jacob Rees Mogg with a brain, and his dress sense is so bizarre he could be mistaken for the offspring of Dame Edith Sitwell.

But watching his skillful presentation, in which he neatly encapsulated the life and work of Eliot, made me aware that I knew little if anything about the poet; I had a passing notion about ‘The Waste Land’ and ‘Prufrock’, but little beyond that. A few months ago I was given some book tokens in Maynooth University in thanks for delivering a couple of lectures on theatre there, so when I was next in town, after having my appetite for Eliot whetted by Wilson, I went to one of the few remaining bookshops in Dublin, a city that had once been a city of bookshops. I treated myself to ‘Young Eliot’ by Robert Crawford, and Faber and Faber’s Collected Poems 1909-1962.

I finished a project a few weeks ago, a project that took nine months to complete, and a lot of hard work every day, six days a week; I translated the autobiographies of Ernest Blythe from Irish to English. He had been an organizer for The Gaelic League, the IRB, and The Irish Volunteers, and post-independence served as Minister for Finance and in other departments. Later on he was Managing Director of the Abbey Theatre for thirty years. My modus operandi was to translate for three hours in the morning, and then spend another couple of hours in the afternoon preparing for the following day’s work; finding the English version of remote Irish placenames and surnames, and investigating and translating as best I could the many uncommon words and phrases employed by the self-taught author in his wonderful account of a decade and more of loyal service to the idea of an Irish Republic. He was renowned for his use of unusual and little-known words in his writings.

But as a result of finishing these three great books I am now free to read other material, and Eliot is going to be a fascinating and rewarding subject.

So on we go into ‘The Waste Land’ and the world of the man who wrote the immortal words ‘I grow old, I grow old, I wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled’ when he was only in his early twenties.

The Raft of Life

We emerge, by a miracle, out of the black depths of oblivion from un-being to being. One sperm, out of one hundred million, fertilizes one egg from the supply created by a woman in her lifetime; if any one of the other millions of sperm made contact with that egg, we would not be born.

Through the miracle of conception and creation we are fed and nurtured in the darkness of the womb, until we are ready to emerge; to come aboard the Raft of Life, afloat on the River of Life, with our spirit, self, or soul in place From our first day in the light we start to learn about ourselves, about our family, our kin, our clan, our tribe, and our race. Little by little we acquire the greatest of human skills, language. Without formal teaching we learn how to use nouns, verbs, and the other elements that constitute the complicated structures of speech. We learn the word order of sentences by listening and repeating.

Our journey on the Raft of Life may be, as it has been for countless billions, very short. Many will never know anything but hardship, hunger, pain. Others will live for seven decades or more; they will see the beauty of the world, in nature and art. They will hear the music of great musicians, and be given the greatest of gifts, the freedom to think and to speak for themselves.

On the Raft of Life we meet a small number of the many millions who share the Raft with us. Sometimes we live in harmony with them, sometimes we don’t. War, the man said, is the locomotive of history. Mankind is constantly at war, on pretexts valid or invalid, and much of the wealth of the world, human and material, has been spent and squandered in the pursuit of the short-lived gains of war.

During our time on the Raft we learn skills; the first imperative is to find enough to eat, every day, which keeps our body temperature at the necessary 98.6c. The aborigine in Australia and the bushman of Africa find their food by picking, by digging, by knowing where the wealth of their terrain is kept. In more advanced societies we are taught how to use our hands and our minds, in order to fill a role in our society that will provide us with the means to purchase our needs: a roof over our heads, and the food to keep us alive.

But whether we succeed or fail, the Raft moves on. When we came aboard the Raft, we were introduced to the generation before ours and maybe some members of the generation before that. As time goes on we ourselves become the principal generation. We are then the ones who create and teach the next generation. When that task is complete, we move aside, we make room for the next principal generation.

If we are lucky, this period of senior status will allow us to enjoy the company of our offspring; to marvel at the wonders of the world, to smell the lilac. Many of us live a serene and fulfilled old age: others have long since succumbed to cancer or to any of the other scourges that beset humanity: debilitating diseases, or simply the loss of the will to live.

But the time comes, as surely as night follows day, when our days on the Raft draw to a close. We then slip off the comforting familiarity of the Raft of Life, and drop back into the welcoming oblivion of the slow-moving River of Life. The Raft moves further and further away from us, until we are remembered by only a small number of Raft dwellers: remembered for our deeds, good or bad, for the love we gave and received, for our kindness to others, for our legacy of goodness. All else is trivia.

Not getting any younger

First published 30th July, 2013.

 

Some time ago the Irish Times started a daily birthday list. I soon noticed that rarely was there anyone older than me mentioned, unless it was a dinosaur like Bruce Forsythe, or someone very old like Nelson Mandela. Yesterday I saw that Frank McCourt’s younger brother Alphie is a few days older than me, and today Buddy Guy the jazzman is 77. Next Sunday I will be 73, and I must admit, I never saw that coming.

Six years ago I realized that I had been working for fifty years. I had started working at 17 as an apprentice in the Air Corps, then after a few years changed direction and spent most of the rest of my working life involved with the Abbey Theatre, with many interesting jobs in the freelance world of TV, film and radio to keep me renewed. However, fifty years is a long time and there were other things I wanted to do before I got too old. I decided to park my life as an actor and get an education.

I had only ever spent one year in secondary school, then two years in a ‘Tech’, and was acutely aware of my educational shortcomings. I enrolled in a Diploma course in Irish in NUI Maynooth, over two years, and while I was engaged in that I heard that it was possible for mature students to enroll in university. I put in my application to the CAO, was accepted, and in September 2008 I started my life as a full time undergraduate. My first year subjects were Modern Irish, Medieval Irish and Celtic Studies, and Greek and Roman Civilization, with the latter being dropped for the final two years of the course.

In my Irish class there were 209 students, only two of us hadn’t done our Leaving Cert. that year, so it was a culture shock, to say the least, to be in the same boat as that many teenagers. But they were great, for the most part hard working, pleasant companions. I had the advantage in as much as I was doing this for my own sake, I was not looking to the future, but they had the burden of knowing that their efforts in the next three years was going to have a knock-on effect for the rest of their lives, a big burden.

Three years passed, I had never worked so hard in my life, the challenges were enormous, but the reward of doing well in all three years was unsurpassed. I graduated in 2011 along with hundreds of my classmates, in the lovely surroundings of the Maynooth south campus, one of the best days of my life. I decided to go on and do an M.Litt , did some work for a year, reading and tutoring, but have now decided to park that task for a while, maybe for good, there are other things to be done.

So maybe 73 is the new 63, I know I don’t feel 53, so to hell with it, I’ll go on, following wherever my heart and head tells me to go, which is usually the path less taken, but that direction has never let me down yet.

A Small Event in Farmleigh

First published 6th August 2013

 

I was sitting at my ease outside the cafe in Farmleigh, the magnificent estate in the Phoenix Park that the government had the wisdom to buy for the nation. The veranda of the cafe sits over the edge of the little lake that nestles between the trees, which lends a wonderful artistic dimension to the park. I had a cup of coffee, a homemade scone and some jam in front of me this lovely summer’s day. Children were throwing bread to the pair of swans and the many ducks who were vying for the attention of the donors. One mallard hen had eight ducklings in her wake, the chicks gave the impression that they were running on the water at times in their haste.

Three women were sitting nearby, pots of tea and cups before them, apparently without a care in the world, but then I heard one of them say “I’m not afraid of dying, until I think of the kids being without me, then a great sorrow, a crushing feeling of loneliness comes over me”. When one hears something like this, questions come unbidden to mind, the first and foremost being ‘Where is the hand of God in all this? Why does God allow so much suffering in the world? This is a question that theologians feebly try to answer, modern philosophers don’t even try.

As I was preparing to leave I sneaked a glance at the women, one was wearing a big cap, a sort of a beret, pulled down over her ears, an indication maybe that chemotherapy had or was being endured. My heart went out to her, my sister had died of cancer and my wife had breast cancer a couple of years previously. Fortunately my wife had survived this savage and merciless disease, but she too had worn a variety of caps while undergoing treatment.

I left, went on my way, walking in the sun, the ducklings were still running hither and thither on the picturesque lake. The three women were chatting, drinking their tea, but what of the woman in the big cap? Did she go on meeting her pals for elevenses in Farmleigh? Did God, or the Lifeforce, or Fate spare her? Will she live to see her children reach adulthood? I hope she does, oh I hope she does.

Eachtra bheag i bPáirc an Fhionnuisce

First published 5th August, 2013.

 

Eachtra bheag i bPáirc an Fhionnuisce

Clive Geraghty

Bhí me ar mo shuaimhneas, i mo shuí lasmuigh den chaife i bhFarmleigh i bPáirc an Fhionn Uisce. Bhí cupán caife agam agus bonnóg agus subh os mo chomhair amach. La álainn samhraidh, na lachain agus dhá eala ag ithe arán, páistí ag baint taitneamh as an gcaitheamh aimsire seo mar a dhéanann gach glúin. Bhí lacha amháin agus ál ocht éinín aici, na leanaí ag brostú i ndiaidh a máthair, cheapfá go rabhadar ag rith ar an uisce.

Bhí triúr ban taobh thiar díom, pota tae acu, iad, de réir dealramh, ag caitheamh roinnt ama anseo gan chúram ar bith. Ach chuala mé bean amháin, an bhean leis an gcaipín mór ar a cloiginn ag rá “níl imní ar bith orm bheith ag fáil bháis, go dtí go smaoiním ar na leanaí, iad a bheith ann gan mise. Tagann uaigneas, brón orm ansin”. Nuair a chloistear focail mar sin, is éasca uaireanta an saol a cheistiú, agus an cheist ba mhó ná, cá bhfuil lámh Dé anois. Cén fáth a ligtear tubaistí mar seo a tharla. Agus ar ndóigh, níl freagra ar bith ar an gceist sin, ní féidir fealsúna ná diagairí an cheist a fhreagairt.

Nuair a bhí mé ag fágaint na bialanna thug me sracfhéachaint, chonaic mé an caipín, saghas bairéad , tarraingthe síos ar a cluasa, fianaise go raibh ceimiteiripe á fhulaingt, nó fulaingthe ag an mbean óg. Ní gá dom a rá go raibh bá agam di, fuair mo dheirfiúr bás den ailse dhá bhliain ó shin, agus bhuail ailse bhrollaigh mo bhean chéile an bhliain chéanna, ach buíochas le Dia, tháinig sí slán ón ghalar gan trua seo.

D’imigh mé, choinnigh mé ar mo bhealach, choinnigh na héiníní lachain ag rith trasna an locha, ach cad faoin mbean óg. Ar choinnigh sise ar aghaidh le fada? Ní fheadar, ach tá súil agam go raibh trócaire ag Dia uirthi, agus nár fhág sí na páistí ina diaidh le fada an lá.