In memory of Robert Welch
I met Bob on our first day at school. He didn’t remember me, and I don’t remember him.
We were both too obsessed with leaving our mothers’ apron strings, and in my case this was literal, as I clung to her bawling outside the school gates, supposing this was the right thing to do. We had exactly the same teachers in every class (with one sideways exception when he was hived off to a notorious scholarship class) until we completed secondary school. That was 14 years with the same teachers, doing the same subjects, enjoying, learning and suffering in unequal measure.
I have to presume that it never dawned on us that we would pursue similar and parallel paths in literary and academic life. There is a sense, however, in which I take this back. I have a suspicion that Bob knew all along what he was going to do. I can’t swear that he knew this in junior infants where Sister Rosario smiled benignly on us all, or in high babies where Mzz Manning’s bob tail nagged us until we went home, or in Sister Benedict’s first communion class, where she wore a garb which hid the horrors of the universe – mainly a leather strap, but it could have been a chain saw primed for massacre.
In retrospect, even on mature reflection, I first took notice of Bob in second class in the primary school. These were classes of between 75 and 80 pupils each. This simple statistic drives the horrors through present day observers, but for us it was normal. Me and my mates, and I have a clear and unsullied membrance of this, made a bee line for the back desks at the end of the room. We did this in order to scratch ourselves in peace, to avoid the teacher’s glare, but most of all to mess. Messing is the greater part of education and many of us done good at it. Not Bob.
Bob headed for the first desk in the front row right in sight of the teacher. I’m certain this was the greater part of unusualness. Not because he was a swot – as a swot was somebody who was likely to arrive home scarred having traversed the barbaric hordes of the school yard – but because he was hungry to learn. This first desk in the front row in the sight of the teacher was his until he did his leaving cert. We never thought there was anything unusual about it.
It was only later on in secondary school that it began to dawn on us that he knew oceans more than the rest. In those final years, brains begin to diverge towards science or the arts or the making of filthy lucre, which some did whore after even before the unfortunate Celtic Tiger was ever pupped. Those of us with a twisted bent towards the arts were fortunate in our teachers. We had teachers who got us to research the background to English poets who had nothing to do with the course, who told us that Irish poets were alive and well and could be seen in Liam Ruiséal’s bookshop in Cork, who prevailed upon us that the best education was to read outside the curriculum.
There was never any need to tell this to Bob. He had been doing it before the rest of had woken up. It may have been in Inter Cert, or more likely in Fifth Year, when he returned an essay entitled “Thus Spake Zara MotorCar”. We were gobsmacked, or even struck dumb. We hadn’t the least clue what it was about, as the teacher read it to us, and as he was equally smitten by wonder.
We knew that Bob read widely and wildly. He rattled on about Jazz when we didn’t know what it was; he spoke about classical music when we knew it was something that was only listened to in Montenotte. Charlie Parker is still a mystery to me, but the anarchy of Tchaicovsky still shudders my members. But books were something else.
We were lucky in having those teachers who thought that education was not just about exams. So we could talk about writers we had read under blankets by the light of torches in the darkness of rooms. I remember hearing about DH Lawrence’s verse behind a boiler in the corner of a yard where most of the literary critics were smoking. Bob declaimed Walt Whitman in the same place, and mouths were a-gawp.
I remember nights out beyond the Snotty Bridge (so-called because of the stalactites which dripped from its roof) where he argued about Dostoievski with his good friend Tom Murphy (and about whom he has written most eloquently in his memoir Japhy Ryder ar Shleasaibh na Mangartan) while the rest of us gawped on.
Our mutual colleague through these years, Pat Butler, put it simply in saying he was away ahead of us; or as Seán Ó Ríordáin said about Corkery, “do mhúin sé an tslí”.
His scholarship will stand, but his friendship resonates.