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Today you started your important State exams, your Leaving Certificate and your Junior Certificate in different exam halls from Meath and Dublin to Cork and Limerick. Each of you got every opportunity; good schools, extra tuition if you wanted it, support, help at home from parents with different talents as well as pleas, goads, threats and carrots. Saorla alone coped with tragedy, working towards a future without her beloved mother Deirdre, our beloved sister-in-law.
All your dreams and your abilities are different, but every exam hall was the same. In Ireland – as you well know – it is cold and wet for three hundred and humpty hump days in the year, but miraculously, the day the exams start, the sun shines and the exam halls are hot and stuffy. You could hear a pen drop.
Today in the Haute Savoie it was 24C. I sloughed off as many clothes as was decent and worked in the garden. At 5 o’clock I made a cup of tea, cut a slice of cherry clafouitis and lay out on a lawn chair by the swimming pool. Your Uncle P made the clafoutis yesterday before he went away (he also cleaned the pool!) The fruit was imported from Italy as the spring weather has been so bad that the native cherries are not yet available in our part of France. We usually start picking our own cherries around May 28th – Uncle P’s birthday – and take out ladders to finish the harvest on your grandmother Duggan’s anniversary – June 11th – but this year the cherries are still only hard little yellow marbles.
I was superbly happy (“a garden is a lovesome thing, God wot”…[don’t know if it’s on the curriculum, but here’s a reminder just in case it comes up: “My Garden” by Thomas Edward Brown, 1830-1897: “Rose plot, fringed pool, fern’d grot – The veriest school of peace……”] )I thought of you and prayed a ragged little prayer for you all in all your hot, stuffy, slightly odiferous, chair-scraping exam halls across the Nation. I am not great at such lofty communication, though being a creator of gardens, I feel close to the Creator of gardens (“ …the fool contends that God is not – not God! In gardens! When the eve is cool? Nay, but I have a sign; ‘Tis very sure God walks in mine”) and I though of when I sat my own Leaving/Matric…..
These days, the entire island is gripped by a fever of worry and concern when the young people of Ireland begin their state exams. International journalists and commentators scratch their heads in disbelief – and not a little envy – at how everyone, from the butcher, the baker, the cooper and the candlestick-maker to the old codgers in the pub, talk of nothing else for a few weeks from the start of June but the childer and their exams; how prayers are raised and parents fret and the best steaks are slapped on pans and entire families rise to an early alarm call. When I was doing my Leaving nobody much cared; we were expected to just get on with it. If you had money, or more than 2 Honours in your results, you could go on to university, taking whichever subjects, in whichever department you so choose.
I had been given every chance, every opportunity; At home we had books and intellectual and academic family friends and talk a-plenty. I’d been sent to an all-Irish residential college long before Gealscoileanna were even heard of – not to mind being fashionable – and on to one of the best convent boarding schools in Ireland…..but did I appreciate, or did I care? Not a tosser.
I dreamed of being free, and dreaming, I didn’t have time to study. My family despaired but I carried blithely on, intensely interested in the Irish language and English literature and the patterns of Latin and the wonders of Geology and the creative fun of Domestic Science and Art and the romance of Spanish…. (Maths? Naw. French? Just couldn’t get a handle on it. History? all very well, but a bit depressing and how could one POSSIBLY remember all the dates?)…but hating the repetition, the drudgery of homework. I dreamed and wrote and read and sang, I debated and acted and danced and dodged sports. I knew that I would be going on to university because as my father had been a university professor, I would not only get in, but get my third level education for free. I got through. I went on to university. I dropped out. I tagged along with the poets, the musicians and the hippies…….
Fifty years later I lie out in my garden, arms briar-whipped, scratched and scrabbed by rosebushes, nails broken and dirty, hands splinter-welted and sore; happy out. I think of exams and think of you, my nieces and nephews, your hopes and dreams, your parents’ pride and concerns. You are in the middle of a very important part of your young lives…..but you have been well prepared; just get on with it. Regurgitate what you’ve learned, what’s been drilled into you, what interests you, what you love as well as what you want to get rid of, say goodbye to, see no more…..and work for the music of what lies ahead when you rest your wrists, tired from writing.
Today I had sunshine and leisure and beauty, cherry clafoutis and hot Barry’s tea and good, honest, enjoyable, hard physical work. I could not ask for anything more, but I did have the niggling regret of not appreciating how privileged I had been……..I wish you luck and I wish that in a half a century you will be as happy as I am today, in a garden in sunshine, grateful for all that is and cognisant of all that was. Your ‘was’ of the future is your ‘is’ of today. ENJOY!
Lots of love and luck and all good wishes to you dear ones,
Auntie Belle xx
p.s. The pic is a sweetie from Eve’s Chocolate at Dennehy’s Cross in Cork