An Irishman's Diary
I was running a cross-country race last weekend, the latest form of masochism self-imposed as part of a mid-life crisis. But immediately beforehand, I had an appointment in Mount Jerome Cemetery. Which made for a disturbing juxtaposition of events.
At the best of times, running brings out your inner hypochondriac. Thus the start-line of a road-race can be like a hospital emergency department, with people complaining about tummy bugs and respiratory illnesses, or feeling their hamstrings, or diagnosing a return of the plantar fasciitis which has previously sidelined them for months.
Mostly, this is just about getting excuses in early. But since the onset of middle age, I’ve found that the starting line also inspires genuine intimations of mortality. At this stage of life, you find yourself wondering, are you not pushing your luck with such violent exercise? Shouldn’t you just swallow your pride, like many men before you, and take up golf? The feelings of fragility had started even earlier than usual last weekend because, as I say, I had to stop off beforehand at Mount Jerome. And yet, as it happened, the experience proved strangely uplifting.
The cause of the stop-off was Ludwig Hopf, who as readers may recall (Irishman’s Diary December 20th) was a German scientist, resident in Dublin at the time of his death in 1939. Hopf is now best remembered for collaborations with Albert Einstein, particularly on something called the Einstein-Hopf Drag – a velocity-dependant drag force acting on charged particles bathed in thermal radiation.
I write that last sentence as if I know what it means. The truth is, I’m clueless. And really, what I like most about the Einstein-Hopf partnership is that they also played music together. But the Nazis put an end to that. Being Jewish, Hopf had to flee Germany. He eventually secured a professorship in Trinity College, on the eve of war, before premature death made his stay in Dublin permanent.
He was all-but forgotten in the city of his burial, until a chain of events that began in far-away Africa. Wartime fate had decreed that, while the rest of the Hopfs headed for Ireland, a son Arnold had fled in a different direction, to Kenya. And when he died there, in the 1990s, his wife – a Kenyan Catholic – had asked a missionary priest to conduct the service.
That priest was Willie Walshe, from Wicklow, who became curious about the Irish connection and set his family here to searching for Ludwig’s grave. It was Willie – home for Christmas – and his sister Kay I was meeting in Mount Jerome. They had already tidied up the plot, neglected for decades. Now they wanted photographs for the Hopfs in Kenya.
So we took some pictures at the graveside. And we also discussed the possibility of fixing the headstone, which had been broken and knocked over at some point (an undertaker friend of the Walshes has since agreed to do a proper restoration).
But even as we stood among graves, inevitably, conversation turned to the living. I had mentioned my impending race. And, of course, they know a bit in Kenya about running. Willie reminded me that one of his former students is Wesley Korir, a 2.06 marathon man with several big-city wins behind him, including Boston 2012.
For more reasons than running, however, Korir gives you hope for Africa. The son of a poor farmer, he used to need help with school fees, happily paid by Willie, his family, and friends. Now he’s repaying, spectacularly.
With his prize-money and a US university degree behind him, Korir has set up an educational foundation for Kenyan children. He’s helping build a hospital too. And his running may not end with athletics. He talks about becoming Kenya’s president one day, a prospect his admirers don’t dismiss.
So, having paid my respects to Ludwig Hopf, I was also thinking of Wesley Korir as I left Mount Jerome. And I was still thinking of him at the start of the cross-country. Inspired, could I produce a Kenyan-style performance? Eh, no. Unfortunately, a slight bronchial condition held me back early on. Then my hamstrings tightened. After that, the plantar fasciitis threatened again. And when I finally got into my stride – what were the chances? – I ran into a field of thermal radiation, resulting in a severe case of Einstein-Hopf Drag.
My velocity was badly affected. So in short, I finished nowhere.
But on the plus side – and it’s always a bonus these days – I did finish.