Memory is marvellous but it needs to be fed and fuelled...

What worries me about the generations growing up is their dependence, maybe even over-dependence on all kinds of electronic media, so says John Arnold in his weekly column
Memory is marvellous but it needs to be fed and fuelled...

CHANGING TIMES: As devices are improved, modified and made cheaper, will the human brain become redundant?

WHENEVER I’m travelling to or around Gleann an Fraochán (Glenville) or Carraig na bhFear I’m minded to think of the great tradition of Bardic schools of Gaelic poetry and storytelling that existed in this area. It is said that the fortress of the McCarthys was one of the last to fall to the forces of Oliver Cromwell. Incidentally ‘tis said that after Cromwell’s son-in-law Henry Ireton died from the plague in Limerick in November 1651 that a Captain John Arnold took over his duties — was he related to me? Leave me alone about it, as they say sin scéal eile altogether.

On Monday afternoon last I traversed that part of the country. Bhí an grian ag taitneamh agus Bhí an thrathnona go gheal. Teampall Geal, Whitechurch, was my destination and there was gliondar agus athais and pure joy in the air. Just 24 hours earlier the Junior Hurlers of the local Whitechurch club had become All Ireland champions. Having beaten all before them in Cork they defeated Upperchurch of Tipperary in the final played in Kileedy, Co. Limerick. The flags and buntings fluttered proudly and loudly from trees and poles, gates and rooftops.

Monday afternoon was what we might call ‘a pet day’ still in March but with temperatures akin to June. My friend John Spillane had a great series on TG4 last year ‘Spillane an Fanaì’ — Spillane the Wanderer, well sometimes I feel like Arnold an Fanaì as I bowl in to different places to tell a few stories and sing a few songs. Over the autumn and winter and now into the Spring I’ve been to maybe ten or a dozen places on the same caper. People love yarns and poems and if and when I master the concertina (a big IF) sure I’d be a holy show altogether!

In fairness everywhere I go there’s always a generous donation forthcoming for some charity or another. You know when you’d be travelling around to places and oft times I meet people who are unwell with one ailment or another, well I can tell you truly then you’d agree that one’s health is one’s wealth. I remember about ten years ago at a match in Croke Park, an All Ireland semi-final I think, I got chatting to a man from Wexford. He stunned me when he revealed he was nearly 90 years old. Well, says I to him, what are the biggest changes you’ve seen in your long life? Without batting an eyelid he replied; “When I was young if you wanted to go to the toilet you went outside in the yard and if you wanted a smoke you’d stay inside, today ‘tis the reverse; if you want a smoke out you go and if you want d’other thing you stay inside” — wise words well spoken. I’ve often thought about that man since and the accumulated wisdom of old age. I worry about it sometimes though, about wisdom I mean and how it’s accumulated and preserved and reused.

A fortnight ago back in Kanturk I sang ‘The Croppy Boy’ for one hundred year old Ned Hartnett. My version starts:

Twas early, early all in the spring,

The birds did whistle, aye, and sweetly sing’.

Well I hadn’t the last note sang when off he started reciting another version:

Good men and true in this house who dwell,

To a stranger bouchal I pray you tell:

Is the priest at home, or may he be seen?

I would speak a word with Father Green.

“The Priest’s at home, boy, and may be seen; ‘Tis easy speaking with Father Green. But you must wait till I go and see If the Holy Father alone may be.”

Ned had learned that poem maybe 90 years ago in Knockaclarig National School and there it was ingrained in the dark recess of his brain, ready to be recalled.

From my own National schooldays half a century ago Sean O Riordàin’s ‘Cúl an Tí’ and Aubrey de Vere’s ‘The Ballad of Athlone’ come rolling off the tongue as learned all those years ago. Nowadays learning poems and the like ‘off by heart’ is frowned upon. I suppose the education system and educators of today are more enlightened but does the present day system fully develop the mind and especially the memory? Of course not being an expert in anything I cannot provide an answer to that question.

Memory is marvellous but in my humble opinion it has to fed and fuelled. What worries me about the generations growing up is their dependence, maybe even over-dependence on all kinds of electronic media to provide information, answers and solutions to nearly every conundrum life throws up. Don’t get me wrong computers and laptops and smart phones are wonderful, amazing yokes. They have revolutionised business and communications throughout the universe. My worry is that as these devices are improved and modified and become dirt-cheap will they make the human brain, including memory, redundant in a generation or two? The amount of people working in shops who can’t add two and three and twenty together without some device is startling.

I notice it myself even in storytelling. Older people will listen attentively to a scéal that goes on for five or six minutes whereas the attention span of younger people is much shorter. They are so used to clicking and flicking and chopping and changing that concentrating on a single subject for very long seems old fashioned.

The human brain by all accounts is an absolutely fascinating organ and our memory is just one tiny facet of that complex structure. I think that we need to think of the brain as a library, which needs to be filled. You may say you know heaps of people who are full of useless information, fair enough but if we don’t stimulate memory and imagination in years to come will we simply have robotic, functional brains with no place for humour, laughter, emotion, craic and creativity? I hope I’m wrong.

In Whitechurch on Monday we had a mighty session. After they winning the All Ireland everyone was truly on top of the world. I spoke about thoughts of times past and remembering days of yore.

I asked all present to close their eyes for a minute. From my bag of tricks I produced a pot — the white enamel vessel that was kept under the bed before the ‘flush’ toilet came in. When they opened their eyes I poured the amber coloured contents of the vessel into a glass and held it to my lips. There were oohs and aahs and gulps and gasps as they anticipated my next action! When I drank the stuff, well there was consternation — it was only a soft drink but everyone in the audience reeled their thoughts back 50, 60, 70 or 80 years to an era when the contents were dispatched either out the door or the window at first light. They remembered, they presumed the worst and were disgusted at the very thought of it. Nothing wrong with their grey matter.

We had a great evening and then the tay and before I departed we sang Happy Birthday to Mrs. Aggie O Sullivan on the eve of her 93rd birthday. There was a huge crowd of youngsters from Whitechurch at the match in Kileedy on Sunday by all accounts. In 2087 or 2097 I hope they’ll be recalling with their grandchildren: “I was there the day the lads won the All Ireland”.

Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí.

Try to remember when life was so tender

That no one wept except the willow.

Try to remember when life was so tender

That dreams were kept beside your pillow.

Try to remember when life was so tender

That love was an ember about to billow.

Try to remember, and if you remember, then follow.

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