I flunked exams, but meeting folk is better than any degree

He may have struggled at maths and still uses imperial measures, but John Arnold insists education is a life-long experience
I flunked exams, but meeting folk is better than any degree

A schoolgirl translating English into Irish on a blackboard around 1955. Picture: George Pickow/Three Lions/Getty Images

“YOU can’t add, you can’t subtract, divide nor multiply -there’s no doubt you’ll go far!”

Well, after doing my leaving Cert - or rather after getting the results in 1974 - I half expected a series of job interviews where, after perusing my wafer-thin CV and educational achievements, prospective employers would trot out that sentence... and then follow it with a stock addition: “Don’t ring us, we’ll ring you.”

Over the years, family members and relatives of far and near origin would kind of half rebuke me concerning my massive under- achievement in terms of exam results. “Wisha John, if you’d spent more time on your books instead of reading GAA match programmes, look where you’d be now!”

God knows there’s a nugget of truth in all that alright, but still and all, I was fierce disappointed when Canon Christopher Twohig handed me my Leaving results envelope.

After all, I’d got a great Inter Cert just two years previously. Now, I know that in that ‘pre points era’ of the 1970s the Inter Cert probably wasn’t a good barometer of what was to come. Several lads I knew packed up schooling with a good Inter Cert and got apprenticeships, and many got cushy jobs.

I searched the house high and low, up and down, a few years back, but no sign of my Inter Cert results - I suppose the Department of Education would still have them on file, seeing the way I turned out later on in life!

I’m nearly sure I got Honours in Irish, English, History, Geography, French and possibly Latin. The one certainty that’s set in stone, and there’s no disputing, was that I failed Pass Maths.

My father was a genius with his hands and with calculations of measurements, electrical power generation and water-powered gadgets. Mam was good too and could work out the price of four hundred weights of potatoes if spuds were making £29 a tonne at the time - and she’d need no calculator!

As the President of St Colman’s College, Canon Twohig couldn’t leave me give up Maths after the Inter Cert because the ‘trio’ of Irish, English and Maths were then compulsory for every secondary school student.

People say to me still: “You can’t be good at everything” - lads, that’s a great consolation entirely! Still, my inability to attain any proficiency at any branch of the mathematical family hasn’t caused me any grief so far in life.

OK, there are small things like the metric system of weights, measures and distances. I grew up with pound, stone, hundredweights and tonnes and to this day these kilos mean little to me.

If I was selling a cow or a bullock at home or at the Mart, I’d be asked about the weight and reply: “I’d say about twelve hundredweight,” or suchlike, which is gobbledygook to modern farmers and livestock dealers.

Same with travel - if you said to me last Sunday at 9am ‘Where are ye now?’ I’d answer ‘about 15 miles from Dublin’- haven’t a clue about kilometres.

Some animal trainers say they definitely can teach old dogs new tricks, well I’m a human exception to such acquisition of knowledge!

I’ve gone to UCC over the years doing a few Adult Education and Diploma courses and truly loved it, but that’s no guarantee that as a freckly, foxy-haired 17-year-old, I would have settled in the Halls of Academia.

In fairness, in the spring of that year of the Leaving Cert 48 years ago, thoughts of a university education weren’t top of my ‘bucket list’ for that year! Cork, led by Billy Morgan, had won the Football All Ireland the previous September and a two or three in a row seemed possible. My own hurling club had lost two successive East Cork Finals and hopes were high in the parish that it would be a case of ‘third time lucky’!

Alas, for the best laid plans of mere mice and human men - Cork had to wait a further 16 years for the next Sam and Bride Rovers had to wait 24 years for that elusive East Cork.

With my single Honour in Irish, a Third Level education was not on the horizon. Useless with my hands and numerically illiterate, the prospects didn’t look too enticing. Someone said to me years later, ‘Sure, you were well fit to be a farmer’ - I still haven’t worked out whether that was a compliment or a lightly veiled insult!

So, farming it was to be - having spurned the opportunity to be a door to door World Book Encyclopaedia Salesman! Come to think of it, the interview process for that salesman’s job was the only employment-related interview I’ve ever done. ‘Twas above in the Silvers Springs Hotel and I sailed through it.

I was handy enough at English, so I got a letter a few weeks later offering me the position and telling me arrangements were being put in motion for a months training in Chiswick, London. Sure, I’d ever only been to Dublin twice and feeling no youthful surge of impending adventure in the Bright Lights, I turned down that offer. Going to London in 1974 was like going to the Moon today!

In the meantime, a ‘vacancy’ arose at home on the farm, which I wasn’t over-enthusiastic about. “Look,” Mam said, “stay at home here ’til Christmas anyway and then we’ll see.” That was in the month of September, 1974 - and that ‘Christmas’ hasn’t come yet!

But, as famous French chanteuse Edith Piaf used to say, ‘non, je ne regrette rien’. Anyway, there’s no point in ‘crying over spilt education’ now.

To be honest, I was so lucky with the absolutely fabulous education I’ve had. I’ve often quoted the Latin word ‘educo’, from which comes education - it means ‘to lead’ - and I’ve met some wonderful people over the decades, people who led me to sport and culture and the love of conversation and laughter and song, poetry and story-telling.

In the 1970s, there still lived in this locality, and everywhere around here, many men and women born in the 1880s in an Ireland just a generation removed from the Famine. I knew people who recalled hurling and football games before the GAA was heard of. The people in this district who spoke Irish at a time when it was not taught in the national schools taught me to appreciate and cherish our native tongue.

In the last few years, we’ve had the Decade of Commemorations for the years when our independence was gained. I feel honoured, even humbled, to have met many veterans who never sought any limelight - they just fought for the country they loved.

Just this week, I was back in Badger’s Hill, Glenville, at the house where a widow with a young family agreed to have her home used as headquarters for the Irish Volunteers. I also travelled to Clonbanin Cross Ambush site and relived the stories of over a century ago.

As I was writing these words, there came a knock at the door. It was a neighbour - well, a new neighbour having come from the County Tipperary recently to a new home in the parish. Whilst digging siteworks he discovered an old rusty bayonet. We examined it and we’re not certain of it’s antiquity, but sure, it’s a historic item, a relic from times past.

So, you see, my education still continues even to this day.

They say the longer you live, the more you learn, there were never truer words uttered. I might not be a ‘master’ farmer, but farming has been good to me and I hope I have been good to the ancestral acres. I often think that people one meets in life are better than any degrees, and to tell the truth, I’ve met some of the very best here, there and everywhere.

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