Butterflies and Wet Pants and Litanies and Novenas

The Education Times, July 4, 1974

It's exam time again. Thousands of boys and girls are suffering it out in neatly-ordered examination centres trying to organise their chaotic masses of facts. It is an awesome occasion.

The examinations branch of the Department of Education rises to it with its notices and warnings, its stationery boxes and its sealed packages, its 'provisional' envelopes and its inspectors. 

Teachers have been drilling their students for the past month with hot tips and questions that must come up.

The students themselves have butterflies and wet pants and recite litanies and novenas. 'Prayer alone without some work is useless. God helps those who help themselves,' a teacher once told us.

But there is another side to it all. I am thinking of the 'treasures' to be discovered in the answer books. 'The Brehon law and the March law were laws written down by two wise men'. I wonder whether his father was a lawyer.

I have got some marvellous replies to a question on coign and livery. Who wants to know anyhow? 'Coign and Livery were the names of two men. They went into business in the 18th century. The business Coign and Livery we have today is descended from them.' I wonder if the boy believed that. Or if I asked a supplementary: What kind of business? what would his fertile brain invent.

A more bloody-minded fellow gave me something different: 'Coign and Livery were methods of executing a person who did anything wrong.' Were they worse than hanging or garrotting? The answer may have been a hangover from one class we devoted to different kinds of killing.

Another fellow was on the right track. 'Coign and Livery was a type of market for cattle and other livestock. Today we would call it Mart and Market.' I suppose that Michael Dillon was bound to surface in the stream of consciousness.

When I get plain bad answers I have no mercy. If the reply shows some wit or originality I am lenient.

What is a Papal bull? 'The papal bull was the Pope.' If the Pope had been an Englishman he would never have called it a bull. 'Laudabiliter was the Papal bull. He was praised by the people.' What a difference there is between a Papal bull and an Irish bull! I remember when Monsignor, now Bishop, Ryan was appointed the Pope's confessor, somebody said the Pope needed a strong Tipperary lad to take care of the Papal bulls!

Why were they called Gallowglasses? It is a somewhat contradictory name for mercenary soldiers, like a bull in a china shop. A couple of lads thought so. 'Gallowglasses were a tribe in early Ireland, who tried to fight off the Normans. They settled in the Cork area.'

Quite close! Now I wonder why the Cork area? Did he consider the Gallowglasses a good crowd to be descended from or was he having a slag at Cork people?

The word 'tribe' is important for your interpretation. A more cultured kind, probably from the Waterford area, wrote: 'Galloglasses were a sort of glass used in the 18th century.;

While in the sunny south-east I would like to report that 'The Strongbow were a tribe which settled in Waterford. They had very strong weapons and were good fighters.'

I thought I had done a good job teaching the Statutes of Kilkenny. Normally it's the kind of subject that sticks in a young person's mind. 'The Statutes of Kilkenny were a set of battles between the Normans and the Gaelic rules.' A fair attempt but he failed to say what kind of war.

The following answer might have been taken from a tourist brochure. 'The Statutes of Kilkenny are famous for their shapes and their situation. They are a great attraction for tourists all the year round. They are very old.' A very positive suggestion for the regional tourism manager at Kilkenny. Get a copy of the Statutes and exhibit them in a public place all the year round. It might start a revival of trews and the Irish cloak.

No answer book is boring when you get answers like these. I get angry no more. Neither do I blame my teaching. Nature will out. 'What is the coccyx, Browne?' a colleague asked. 'It's the bone behind the bum, sir.' Much closer than many a textbook answer, I reckon.