How rote spawned a glorious creativity

3rd September 2004 at 01:00
Some years ago I broadcast a documentary on BBC Radio 4 about the mystical Boyne River valley in eastern Ireland. In the local primary school we recorded children chanting a history lesson aloud and a number of listeners wrote to profess astonishment that this still occurred.

Not amazing to me - such rote hallmarked my earliest school experiences. My primary teachers were my parents, who taught side by side for 38 years in a two-room country school and under their strict rule we chanted poems, prayers, geography mnemonics - a full chorus of information delivered to us in a method designed to make us retain it.

After that, in secondary school, run by the Christian Brothers six miles away in Tipperary town, the rote continued; up to the age of, I reckon, 15, I learned Wordsworth, Caesar, Shakespeare, Stamp's Geography, in sing-song tones.

Looking back, it seems as though cadence had a powerful role and from time to time the rhymes of the past ride forward to the front of my mind.

I suppose the days of education through the ears have largely ended. If so, I regret it - and not just because of the antique traditions of the Agora and the steps of the Acropolis and Sappho's girls in Mytilene. Learning by rote and the general use of speech in teaching may indeed have its roots on those shaded walks - but I think it goes deeper, in Ireland at any rate.

To over-simplify: Man, in general, has three means of recording existence: formal history, archaeology and - the poor relation - the oral tradition.

Of these, the third had its greatest power in primitive societies. As a consequence we have come to believe that, as we grow more sophisticated and cosmopolitan, we need, and therefore employ, the oral tradition less and less. But in Ireland it formed a root of education from early days. First, the pagan druids, fearing theft of thought, wrote nothing down; they retained their influence by secrecy, by appearing wise, by showing the power of their minds when they spoke. Then, they and this unwritten tradition were slowly eclipsed when writing finally arrived in the fifth century with the Christian evangelists, whose rise to power was aided by the illuminated manuscripts and the poetry of the monks. This happy state continued, with a slowly spreading literacy of sorts, for many centuries A thousand years on, however, politics refuelled the oral tradition. As the grip from England tightened and education was forbidden to all who did not embrace the Reformation, teaching went underground. The 17th-century closure of all "Catholic" schools, the bounty on teachers' heads and the later shoot-on-sight policy of the penal laws created the "hedge schoolmaster". He, formerly a teacher or perhaps a priest or failed seminarian, taught Cicero or Euclid or rudimentary geology - or, perhaps above all, history - to eager, secret groups of scholars in the shelter of hedgerows, out in the countryside, far from prying official eyes or deadly local informers. The hedge schoolmaster had no books, only a richly furnished mind and a powerful oral gift. He stalked the land like a spectre and brought secret wonders to slake thirsty minds.

When the penal strictures were finally lifted and the mainstream population received emancipation (in 1829), the dominant teaching remained oral. You can tell from long passages in James Joyce that, for example, Socratic dialogue contained innate comedy and I used to think, looking back on the great talking teachers of my schooling, that the critic Kenneth Tynan knew the reason why such educators "performed". Said Tynan (apropos the playwright Brendan Behan), "The English hoard words like misers; the Irish spend them like sailors."

And yes, we all saw how certain teachers delighted in the roll of a phrase's tune from their lips as they led us in the songs of words that formed the lessons of the day. But that underestimates the oral factor in education.

In my own direct experience, being made to memorise by chanting aloud enriched me in a way that still seems to me marvellous. It decorated my mind with huge coloured swags of great verse; it flexed the muscles that give memory; and I think it made me feel part of the third branch of record, the oral tradition. It had one other - Jand unexpected - effect: to this day I always read aloud what I write. In other words, I make a conscious effort to reach readers through the ear as well as the eye.

Frank Delaney's new novel, Ireland, a storyteller's history of the Emerald Isle, is published by Time Warner

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