A GOOD teacher can have a profoundly positive effect on pupils, sometimes sowing the seeds of a career.
That’s what happened to Catherine O’Brien, who took up her first academic post teaching Italian at UCC decades ago.
She went on to become Professor of Italian at NUI Galway, retiring a little early from that post ten years ago.
Catherine, who lives in Shanakiel, is president of the Dante Alighieri Society in Cork. Celebrating 60 years, it’s a society that has branches all over the world, with the Cork one being the only one in Ireland.
When Catherine first came to Cork in 1969, she thought the city was very small and provincial, compared to Dublin and Milan.
“The people in Cork are lovely and friendly. I was lucky to have very nice colleagues. And then I discovered all the things that were happening here.”
Catherine had attended the Loreto school on Dublin’s Stephen’s Green.
“In my second last year there, the Italian government provided the school with a native Italian speaker free of charge. At the time, we had a very poor teacher of history. And this gorgeous looking Italian woman spoke English with a lisp. About 24 of us out of a class of 30 exited the history class to do Italian with this woman. She was a very inspiring teacher.
“When I went to UCD, I decided to do Italian and French. I loved both but the people who taught Italian were the more encouraging ones. I did an exchange for six weeks with a girl from Sardinia. After that, I decided on a career in Italian.”
Is the language difficult to learn?
“Not particularly. I had done French which, like Italian, is a romance language. I had also done Latin. Italian is close to Latin. I love Italian and it all started because of a good teacher.”
After her Masters in Italian at UCD, Catherine went to Milan where she pursued a doctorate. Her thesis was on the first Italian translation of the poems of Ossian (the son of Finn MacCumhail).
“At that stage, I wasn’t fluent but my Italian would have been good. It improved hugely while I lived in Italy. Fluency is a work in progress. You need to work on it all the time. When I finished in Milan, an absolutely beautiful city that I recommend to people, I got the job in UCC. That’s how I met Professor Piero Cali (late of UCC). He formed the Dante Alighieri Society. We went on to work together for 30 years in UCC.”
Three weeks after Catherine got the post in Galway, her historian husband, John O’Brien, of UCC, who was very supportive of his wife’s new job, died suddenly from a brain haemorrhage.
“So I found things very difficult initially. I had never lived alone. But the job was very good for me because a lot of work needed to be done in the department and I had nothing to distract me. Work is great therapy. I specialised in 18th and 19th century Italian poetry but when you’re teaching in Italian departments, which tend to be small, you teach everything.”
Italian isn’t as popular as French, Spanish and German in schools in Ireland.
“It’s because there is a crowded curriculum. French is taught in secondary schools because the schools were set up by the religious originally and many of them had been trained in France. The State continued to give it pre-eminence over other languages.”
Catherine says that she and her colleagues always liked to teach college students who hadn’t studied Italian before.
“We were able to teach them well because we didn’t have to eradicate mistakes they might have made for years (if they had done the language at school.)”
Catherine, who is the mother of five grown-up children, married again ten years ago. “That’s why I retired early.”
Her second husband, Gerard O’Callaghan, is the retired county Cork architect. Catherine’s children have all studied Italian and some have gone on to study it at third level. She likes to visit Italy and when working, used go there five or six times a year.
Now, life is less hectic, giving Catherine time to focus on her presidency of the Dante Alighieri Society. She says, however, that she has been in that role “for too long” and that “it’s time to move on.”
When Professor Cali came to Ireland, he worked in the Italian Institute in Dublin. After a year or two, the institute and the Italian ministry for foreign affairs sent him to Cork to set up an Italian society and to create interest in the language and culture.
“He was in the department of romance languages. Initially, he offered evening classes in Italian. There was huge interest in it with eighty people signing up. He was a very handsome entertaining and nice man. People just flocked to him. He used to give talks on Italy and slide shows.”
When the Dante Alighieri Society was set up, its remit, which is the same today, is to promote Italian as a language and to generate interest in Italian culture.
To celebrate its sixtieth anniversary recently, the society was addressed by Professor Cormac Ó Cuilleanain, who lectured at Trinity until his retirement in 2016. The well-attended talk was on Dante and his attitude towards the Popes.
“Dante was critical of the Popes. At the time, his main enemy was Pope Boniface VIII. He was the Pope who, in 1300, created the Jubilee Year. That was set up to bring in money because the papal coffers were running low. Dante was against Boniface because he interfered in politics and was responsible for the poet going into exile.
“Dante spent twenty-one years wandering around Italy outside the State of Florence. He would have been executed if he had gone back there. He was unjustly accused of bribery. Boniface supported Dante’s opponents. When he went into exile, Dante began to write The Divine Comedy which was published in instalments.”
Dante got his revenge on Pope Boniface by placing him in hell in the poem. With Boniface still alive at the time, Dante got around the difficult matter of including him in the inferno by writing about someone mistakenly taken as Boniface. He was nominally put in a burning circle with all the Popes who sold papal favours for money.
The Dante Alighieri Society meets regularly in the former Ursuline Secondary School in Blackrock. It doesn’t meet during the summer months but welcomes new members.
Anyone wishing to join in September can email the society: firstname.lastname@example.org.