EVERY now and again I have to stop and pinch myself hard to make sure that I haven’t slipped inadvertently into another dimension or some parallel universe. I’m so out of sync with everyone else in the country at this stage of my life that I can’t even work up a bit of enthusiasm for the forthcoming 1916 centenary celebrations, mainly on account of my patriotism being at a particularly low ebb at this time. I can’t even drop into the Augustinians on O’Connell Street to say a prayer when I’m in desperation, without glancing over my shoulders to see if any of my ‘enlightened’ friends are watching. And even when everyone gets into a frenzy over our sporting prowess on the world stage, the best I can muster is lukewarm. No wonder then that they call this column ‘Don’t Mind Me’.
Anyhow, at a time when nearly everything I really cherish – including myself - is being scornfully condemned as anachronistic, superstitious and backward, it was a bit of a morale booster to read Darragh Murphy’s interview in the Irish Times at the weekend with Ireland’s latest Nobel Laureate, Donegal born, William C Campbell. Professor Campbell shared this year’s award in Medicine for developing a cure for fatal parasitic diseases.
But Oh My God, he also actually believes in God, and prays every single night of his life – without having to look over his shoulders, I presume. The last time, as far as I know anyway, that such an eminent scientist so openly acknowledged God was when Einstein admitted that the only certainty in the universe was that there was a God. There was a time when I wished I had thought of that myself when I couldn’t solve an equation in the Leaving Cert. Now it just leaves me awed.
Professor Campbell admits to having a ‘very complicated sense of religion’, but who among us hasn’t? Except, of course, most of those minor celebrities who appear on Gay Byrne’s ‘The Meaning of Life’ and who are so cocksure of themselves in their pompous existence and self proclaimed ‘spirituality’ that they couldn’t even contemplate the thought of a Superior Being. Bully for them, but I wish they would stop trying to make us lesser mortals adore them instead.
One refreshing thing about the Donegal-born Nobel winner, however, is that he’s not interested in courting the trendy intellectualism that has replaced religious faith in many areas of Irish life and which, I believe, is now determined to undermine religious education in schools for fear their offspring might be indoctrinated. They don’t want the Angelus on RTE, but they have no problem at all indulging the growing practice of people putting out a statue of the Child of Prague the night before a wedding to ward off the rain. My mother, by the way, used to put a coin under the Child of Prague in the belief that we’d always have money, but it was always disappearing.
Science and religion can co-exist according to the professor. Militant atheists, he concedes, make very good arguments, “but there is a certain level at which argumentation doesn’t come into it. Believing in something you know exists isn’t a matter of faith; it doesn’t require faith.” So next time I drop into the Church during the day - looking for a favour, more than likely - I’ll be holding my head up high, and thinking nostalgically of the man from my own native village who, in the 1911 Census listed himself under ‘Religion’ as a ‘freethinker’ and who went to war with his neighbours for years afterwards over the right to a pew in the RC church in the village.
One other thing that tickled my fancy in the interview with Professor Campbell was his unashamed acknowledgement of rote learning in his own distinguished academic career. Rote learning has become an even bigger bugbear than religion with the Department of Education. Modern educationalists in general now regard it as a threat to Ireland’s international reputation for scholarship and erudition. The very idea that someone might have reached such heights by learning anything off by heart along the way should, however, be a consolation to others who would die with embarrassment if anyone discovered how they really got their grades. I can still recite huge chunks of ‘Paradise Lost’ off by heart myself because it was the only way I could get the language and the images into my head, but I was dead set against rote learning when I heard that kids were now even memorising generic essays which could be used on exam day.
Now, I’m not so sure that rote learning should be dismissed so easily. It certainly didn’t do this Nobel Laureate, who admits to having learnt things by heart, even when he was in Trinity College, any harm at all. Maybe then we should revive the practice of memorising great lines of literature in the classroom and dump the brave new Junior Cert - if for no other reason than to produce a few more Nobel Laureates, and at the same time annoy the multi-nationals and industrialists who want to dictate the kind of schooling we provide in order to bolster their own burgeoning labour pools and profits at the expense of the country’s scholarly reputation.