John Arnold: Memories of my alma mater... I just wish I had kept up Latin

John Arnold remembers falling in love with the study of Latin during his school days.
John Arnold: Memories of my alma mater... I just wish I had kept up Latin

KEEPING LATIN ALIVE: Priests, Popes and doctors are among the few people who use Latin on a daily basis.

SALVE novus annus, et omnibus legentibus — well, nearly 50 years ago ’twould be no bother at all for me to translate that for ye.

What’s more, at the time ego vere probaverunt discendi Latinae.

Ah yes, back in 1972, the year I did the Intermediate Certificate Examination — or Inter Cert as we used to call it. I was in my third year in St Colman’s College in Fermoy.

Going in there in the autumn of 1969 was a wonderful experience as we were starting our secondary schooling in a new, bright and airy building. After years of planning, designing and eventually construction, the new block, built on the side of Kevin Barry Hill in the town, was a stunning structure.

Going down the hill with the slope, it went from a single storey structure at the corner to two storeys above a huge assembly hall at the other end.

Coming from a humble national School in Bartlemy with the toilets ‘out the back’, St Colman’s seemed like a university or some massive college in Dublin or London. 

Going in to Colman’s that autumn of 1969, I was an innocent 12-and-a-half year old. Innocent though I was, I already knew a few things.

St Colman’s was a great educational institution and there were high hopes for me academically. My late father had gone to the Brothers in the town for some few years before staying at home farming. I presume his father before him had left school after fifth or sixth class in the National School and the remaining study he got was in the university of life. My three Twomey uncles and an older brother had all gone to St Colman’s.

One of the facts I was aware of going to start off school in Fermoy was that Colman’s was a great hurling college and that I’d never make the Harty team!

Even as a first year, my lack of either prowess or potential on the hurling pitch was well known. I tried playing a few games of moppers in the Colman’s alleys — a ‘cross’ between handball and hurling — but lack of hand to eye coordination put paid at an early stage to my moppers future.

I also knew I loved Irish, history and English and was fairly good at all three. As far as I was concerned in 1969, ‘the facts of life’ to me meant I was poor at sport but bright enough academically.

Secondary school meant exciting new subjects like French, music, science and Latin. They called Latin a ‘dead language’ ’cause by 1969 it wasn’t being spoken on a widespread basis anywhere in the world — well, not anywhere in Ireland anyway. Straight away, cecidi in caritate — I really fell in love with the study of Latin.

Because it’s such an ancient language, it provides ‘roots’ and ‘stems’ for so many other tongues, especially English. 

Because St Colman’s was the Diocesan Seminary for Cloyne Diocese and a knowledge of Latin was prerequisite for the priesthood, it was still taught in the college.

I think to become a Medical Doctor also it was important to be able to write and understand Latin. Long ago, if one got a prescription from a doctor for the chemist you couldn’t made any sense at all of what the medical man wrote — I think they were still using Latin medical terms.

Anyhow, I was simply mad about the language. I realised that in nearly every sentence I spoke there was at least a word or two that had Latin ‘ancestry’ and learning Latin made English way more understandable. 

It’s amazing really that though the language ceased to be widely spoken about 1,500 years ago, we still use it widely without even knowing it!

The de facto reason Cork is called the Rebel County is because the phrase is taken verbatim from a document of the 18th century. As an extra bonus, to preserve the status quo et cetera and to provide an alibi per se for Kerrymen with egos, de facto Rebels in the Kingdom, it was agreed to give extra and bonus football kicking skills to bona fide Gaelic players as a quid pro quo on an ad hoc basis!

Now there’s a quare statement for ye, littered with Latin nonsense and vice versa common sense!

So coming up to the Christmas before we sat for the Inter Cert, my ‘house exam’ results in Colman’s took a dramatic turn for the worse. Latin is what is termed one of the ‘Romance’ languages and while I never spoke Latin to any of the nearby Loreto girls, my mind did tend to wander — not as the song says ‘Down Mexico Way’ but in other directions.

My head might have been turned away from the books, but the President of the College, Canon William Christopher Twohig, soon straightened it for me. In the Christmas exams I got 70% in Irish, 69% in English, an amazing 58% in science — which I hadn’t a clue about — and 54% in Christian Doctrine.

History and Geography were the ‘one’ subject and in this and in Music I got 49%, Latin was 46% , French 42%, and last and very least for a numerically challenged teenager, Maths came in at 27%.

In his ‘Remarks’, the Canon’ wrote: “Will have to make a special effort in Mathematics. It is the opinion of the Teaching Staff that John is capable of a very good result in the June Examination if he works hard.”

It might have been the opinion of the Teaching Staff but when the Inter Cert results came out the following August, they were nearly a mirror image of the Christmas tests — I failed Pass Maths, getting NG, No Grade, less than 13%.

When we went into 4th year, I begged Canon Twohig to leave me give up Maths altogether — I couldn’t add, subtract, divide or multiply without the use of a calculator! My request, of course, was refused because, as he pointed out, Maths, along with Irish and English, were the three ‘Compulsory’ subjects one had to do for State Examinations.

Well, I kept on the Latin for one more year and then, along with French, I gave it up. 

By now I was going on 15 and the Teaching Staff must have decided amongst themselves that I had little prospects of being either a priest or a doctor and that Latin wasn’t vital to my future prospects or prosperity!

At the time, it didn’t cost me a thought, but in hindsight I’m sorry I didn’t keep it on. To this day — half a century later — if I’m doing a crossword or some other mental test, the grounding I got in the Latin stands well to me. No good crying ‘over spilt milk’ as they say.

There’s an oft used phrase in that lovely language, carpe diem, which literally means ‘seize the day’ — take the chance when you get it. Well, I didn’t get honours in anything in the Leaving, only Irish, but viros non paenitet, or as Edith Piaf might sing ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’, or in the words of Doris Day, que sera, sera.

People often ask me since ‘would the Latin have come in handy on the farm over the years?’ I suppose it’s hardly a sine qua non for calving cows or spreading fertiliser, but then they say a little education is a dangerous thing. I wont worry on that score, sure I’m still learning something new every day! Longiorem me discere magis habito — the longer I live, the more I learn.

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