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I saw a snippet in our local newspaper earlier this week that I’ve been mulling over ever since. It was in the community section, among the bridge club results and notices of forthcoming meetings. A brief announcement of such a bizarre nature that it took me completely by surprise.
BLESSING OF BAGS
Blessing of school bags will take place at 6.30pm Mass on Saturday, September 3.
It is probable that I am missing something; that this is a perfectly ordinary event in the Church calendar. And yet … I can’t help wondering precisely what those seeking to have their school bags blessed expect to achieve thereby. How might a blessed bag differ from one that has not been sprinkled with holy water and had some incantation recited in it presence?
Will such a bag acquire the capacity to hold more books than its un-blessed neighbour? Will it make the contents seem lighter to the child carrying it on his/her back? Will it render he texts within the books more intelligible, so that the child gains a better understanding of the information they contain? Will it provide assurance for the parents that this simple ceremony will increase the likelihood that their child will obtain a better mark in his/her examinations?
When considered alongside the vile things done to children in the name of religion, it might seem a strange thing to make a fuss about. The physical, mental and sexual abuse suffered by past generations at the hands of members of religious orders, in Ireland and elsewhere, is well documented. What harm can there be in the simple act of blessing a school bag? None, unless, like me, you take the view that permitting our young to believe such bizarre nonsense is to damage their minds by filling them with irrational ideas.
As I have said, I have been pondering this idea, on and off, for a few days now. Throughout, I have tried to fight off the possibility that my mind keeps coming back to: that the advertised event is not real; that it is, rather, some joke perpetrated by a hoaxer who wishes to make the Church look foolish.
I’m not sure which is worse, the idea that the event may be real, with all that implies – the totally irrational belief system behind it – or the possibility that someone is so full of contempt for the Church that he or she thinks it amusing to make fun of an institution that, despite everything, still means a great deal to many Irish citizens.
I’d be delighted to hear from anyone who can confirm that such ceremonies do, in fact, take place, and who can explain the thinking behind them. Please use the comments below or on Facebook.
How should we respond to disasters? Natural events – earthquakes, floods, forest fires – usually evoke an outpouring of sympathy accompanied by the dispatch of all manner of aid. Engineers, medics, machinery and food are flown in to the disaster area to ensure that victims receive succour. Appeals raise millions of dollars to support such efforts.
Is our response to famine different? Should it be? Are we more inclined to seek the cause of the catastrophe before making a commitment to assist? How deeply ingrained in our knowledge of Judao/Christian history is the story of how Joseph taught his Egyptian captors the importance of conserving the surplus from good years in order to provide for years when the harvest failed? We may not subscribe to Malthusian theories about the relationship between population and food production, but common sense tells us that there is indeed some form of interdependence between the two.
Natural disasters are just that. Largely unpredictable events beyond our control. Science has provided us with tools that reduce the unpredictability of earthquakes. Engineers have shown us how to design buildings capable of surviving any but the most intense. The same is true of floods. Even so, there are few circumstances in which we would blame the victims of such events. We might argue, after the event, that warnings had been ignored, that building design regulations had been flouted, flood defences neglected. In such circumstances we would be justified in apportioning blame to those responsible for the neglect, not to the victims.
Often potential victims are able to insure against such risks, although the premium might be prohibitive if the risk is high. And an insurer’s reluctance to underwrite the risk should act as a warning to anyone choosing to dwell in an area prone to floods or earthquakes. In such circumstances we might well withhold our sympathy on the grounds that they were aware of the risk when they took the decision to build their home on a flood plain or near a fault line.
The causes of famine – crop failure, drought, floods – are potentially just as predictable as are earthquakes. Tools and techniques to mitigate such events are well known. Could there, then, be some justification in attributing blame to the victims of famine? Maybe they failed to install proper irrigation systems; they chose not to plant disease resistant strains of their preferred crop; they did not make use of other agricultural techniques, such as spraying with insecticides, or sensible crop rotations to conserve soil fertility whilst allowing the disease bearing organisms to die before re-planting with the susceptible crop.
The Elephant in the Room
There is another factor in all these situations: population pressure. As populations grow, demand for food and housing increases, forcing people to build their homes, or to grow crops, in unsuitable locations. The corollary is true also: in good times people reproduce. Infant mortality reduces. The elderly survive for longer. Population increases. The likelihood of disaster grows. So, too, does the likelihood of war. Another lesson from Judao/Christian history concerns the wresting of the “promised land” from its occupants in order to provide a fertile home for former exiles.
Were I not an optimist I would say that, even without climate change, our planet is headed for catastrophe driven by the inexorable rise in population. Why do I remain optimistic? Because I believe in the power of education, of science and of technology. There will be great suffering, for sure, there always has been. Wars, natural disasters and famines will continue. Perhaps they will intensify.
In the past these would often have been attributed to providence, or the wrath of some invisible deity. The response would have involved religious rituals and invocations. But the advance of knowledge has given humankind an understanding of the causes of these calamities and the means both to mitigate their effects and to prevent their recurrence. I believe it will give future generations the power to find a sustainable balance between population and resource use.
One of the great pleasures of participating in the #atozchallenge has been the opportunity to look at what others have done with it. Over 1300 people completed the challenge so it would be impossible for any one individual to read them all. I have looked at a few – and intend to look at a few more over the next while. I’ll provide links to some I’ve liked and that you might like too. Here, in no particular order, are the first five.
The submissions from The Dublinhousewife.com take the form of conversations between husband and wife or wife and her friends, all in Dublin dialect. It’s a bit ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ meets Roddy Doyle and captures the various relationships well. In the process it manages to introduce comment on current events (check out Y for ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ for the day the verdict was announced from the Hillsborough inquest).
Damyanti Biswas used her 26 contributions to publicise the work of an education and support charity working in India called ‘Project Why’. Her stories about the volunteers and clients of the Project are truly inspiring and should live on long after April 2016 is forgotten.
Several writers used the opportunity to tease with quotes from their books, or to share some of the thing that inspired thee events or characters it depicts. Val Tobin is one of those, so is Yolanda Renee whose murder mysteries are set in Alaska. Her #atozchallenge posts evoke the Alaskan landscape and history very well.
Marjory Witt settled for 26 posts each exactly 67 words long and each relating to an obscure word. It’s fun to read and, with entries that short, doesn’t take long.
I’ll be back with 5 more #atoztreasures soon. Meanwhile I hope you enjoy this first selection.
When I was fourteen I was faced with a choice. I had to decide which 8 subjects I was going to study over the next two years leading to the GCE ‘O’ level examination. For those who are not familiar with the school leaving examinations in Britain in the 1950s, the initials stand for General Certificate of Education, Ordinary level. This exam was taken by a relatively small proportion of 16 year-olds. An even smaller proportion continued for a further two years and took ‘A’ (for advanced) level GCEs in 2 or 3 subjects leading either to university or a training place in a profession like law or accountancy. The majority of young people left school and entered the workforce at age 15.
The choice for me and my colleagues was fairly simple. Six subjects were compulsory: Maths, English (Language and Literature), French, Latin and Physics. The choices were limited to Chemistry or Geography and History or Art. Believing that a second science subject would be of greater use in my later life, I chose Chemistry over Geography. I had no obvious talent for Art, but History would mean learning a lot of dates and other facts by heart.
Kings and Queens of England
The fact that I regularly earned high marks for history essays I discounted. This was, I knew, much more to do with my ability to precis the relevant chapter from the text book than any real affinity with the subject. I figured that it would be hard enough filling my brain with the science facts I needed, without trying to stuff in the sequence of Kings, Queens and Prime Ministers, the dates of battles and the underlying reasons for wars. I chose Art.
To my surprise I discovered I did in fact have a talent for painting and drawing. But I missed out on the opportunity to study much of 18th and 19th century history. The period from the Industrial Revolution to World War I remained vague for me, apart from the scientific discoveries I learned about whilst studying those subjects. Only when I began to take a keen interest in the cultural and social environment of the 1960s and ’70s did I realise the significance of this gap in my knowledge.
Knowing more of the history of the Trades Union movement, for example, and the formation of the British Labour Party, would have helped me better understand the many industrial disputes that characterised the period. Learning about the factors underlying the American Civil War and its aftermath would have made it easier to understand the Civil Rights movement and the accompanying violence. And knowing about the Irish famine and the campaign for Home Rule would surely have improved my understanding of the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland.
Of course, such events generated articles in the press and television documentaries that went some way towards explaining the background to them but it was not until the 1990s, when I purchased all three volumes of Simon Schama‘s History of the British Isles, that I grasped something of the importance of history in our understanding of current events. Then, in 2007, came a discovery that, for me, had quite profound implications.
It was in that year I made my first visit to a heritage site close to my new home in Ireland. The site consists of a rocky knoll nestled between several other hills. Surrounding its peak is a crumbling stone wall and, at the peak, the remains of a Norman castle keep. (At the top of the page is an image of the site from local photographer Ciara Drennan). The Norman invasion of England had, of course, been almost the starting point for my historical studies up to the age of fourteen, as it is for every British school child. And I knew about Norman castles because I grew up within half a mile of one of the chain of such buildings that mark the border between England and Wales.
I knew much less about the Norman’s involvement in Ireland. My interest was further piqued when I read, on the information board at the site, that the castle was once occupied by Roger Mortimer. That name rang bells. I knew that one or more men of that name had a base in my native Herefordshire and had played significant roles in English history in the 13th and 14th centuries. What, I wondered, was his connection to Ireland? Was it even the same man?
Thus began a long and fairly detailed study of the Normans in Ireland during which I discovered that Mortimer was not alone in being someone with Herefordshire connections who played a leading role in Irish history. Names like Strongbow and De Lacy are probably better known in Herefordshire than in Ireland, if only because they live on in place names or, in Strongbow’s case, the name of a Hereford produced product.
As I learned more, I became particularly attracted to the story of a young woman whose father invited Strongbow to Ireland, offering her hand in marriage in return for his help in regaining her father’s kingdom. I wondered what it might have been like to be the 13-year-old accompanying her father and mother on a journey across England and France in search of the King whose permission they would need in order to engage his subjects in their quest.
How did she respond to the subsequent events, including the long wait for Strongbow to fulfill his promise? What became of her after his death? My answers to those and many other questions can be found in my novel Strongbow’s Wife. The research I undertook, thanks to the ability to precis the relevant chapters of history books that once earned high marks for school history essays, became the section of this website I call Hereford and Ireland History.
I now believe that history ought to be one of the compulsory subjects tought in every school. Without a knowledge of history how can we begin to understand the events of today? But that belief is clouded by another thought: there are many different versions of history, depending upon whose story is being told. Which, if any, is the one that we should teach our young?
Every summer whilst I was a County Councillor I was part of a group that would meet several times to allocate discretionary education grants. To explain, students enrolled on approved third level courses in registered institutions would automatically receive a government grant to support them whilst they studied. Local authorities were empowered to set aside a portion of their education budget in order to support students who did not meet the government’s criteria. A committee consisting of Councillors, advised by education officials, would assess each of the many applications received for funding under this heading.
Among the claimants would be students who had failed a year and needed support in order to re-take that year. Quite often we would defer such claims, asking the applicant to provide additional information. There might be a good reason for the student having failed to achieve a pass. Illness, injury or family berievement were among the reasons given and these would need supporting medical or other evidence. References might also be sought from the student’s tutors.
Courses that did not automatically qualify for government support, but could be supported by the local authority, included performing arts. It was here that I encountered the same level of prejudice as in discussions of dyslexia. Unlike judges on ‘The X Factor’ or ‘The Voice’, we did not have the advantage of having witnessed the student’s performance. All we had to go on was the opinion of dance, drama or music teachers familiar with the candidate’s ability and potential. For some Councillors anything except the level of genius that merited a scholarship to a prestigious establishment was regarded as frivolous and earned a ‘no’ vote from them. The same was true of such subjects as beauty therapy.
More studying than ever
It was still the case in England in the late 1980s that fewer than 20% of young people continued in full-time education beyond the age of 18. That was an improvement on the participation rate of around 5% when I left school in the late ’50s but still only half the current rate. Statistics about participation rates in higher education in the UK are difficult to unravel because they can be distorted by the presence of overseas students and mature students. My source for the above information is:
Education: Historical statistics, Standard Note: SN/SG/4252
Last updated: 27 November 2012
Author: Paul Bolton, Social & General Statistics
It is this massive increase in participation rates that makes me hesitate to take a position in the debate about tuition fees and grants vs loans. Not only does the vastly increased number of students mean that the cost of provision is much greater, but, in past times, the majority of these young people would be in the workforce. With many more people living well beyond retirement age at the same time as a large proportion of young people are not entering the workforce until their early twenties, those workers have to support an ever increasing cohort of people at each end of life who are not gainfully employed.
The argument in favour of grants rather than repayable loans is that the earning capacity of graduates is greater than that of the majority, so they will pay more in tax over their working life. The problem is that not all graduates take up high-paid employment.
How do you respond to the questions raised in this post?
- Do you favour state funding for all students beyond the age of 18?
- Should such funding be limited to specific courses?
- Would you deny state support for performing arts whilst providing it for, say, science and technology?
- And should the decision as to whether or not a particular student receives a grant be in the hands of politicians?