First Lesson

On school daze, great teachers, and making sense of the past.

WHY DO POETS WRITE so much about the past? Surely there’s enough going on now to occupy us?
I’ll come right out and say it at the start: I have little time for nostalgia, for the idea that the past was a better place than the present, etc. It might have been, to some of us, but to a lot of people the past was a living hell and they’re more than happy to have done with it, thank you very much.
And even if, like me, you had a pretty happy childhood, in the main, constantly looking back at it and sending it the equivalent of love notes, is only going to make the present feel inadequate and unloved. We all know how his yearning for Tír-na-nÓg ended up for Oisín.
The real attraction of the past is that its meaning is not fixed, and certainly not fixed by what we knew, or thought we knew, when we lived there. As you move ever farther away from it, the past continues to grow and morph and evolve. Sometimes you need to escape its shadow. And sometimes, like a cathedral in a rear-view mirror, you can see it clear in all its glory only as you shift up into second or third gear as you drive away.
‘First Lesson’ is a new poem, dedicated to my former teacher (and, I hope, friend) Declan Cashen, a larger-than-life character in my days as a secondary school pupil in the late 1970s and early ’80s in St Mary’s CBS, Portlaoise.
Back then we saw him as a ‘great laugh’ (which he was), a welcome distraction from the often dull and sometimes repressive regime of the place, a kind of mad scientist trapped (as we felt ourselves to be trapped) in Tower Hill’s famine-era gloom.
These days, in maybe a more reflective mood than was my norm back then, though much is already blurred and faded, I see him, and his importance to me, more clearly than ever. And that’s why it’s worth remembering, that’s why the past can be good for more than disappointing nostalgia: if our own earlier years have anything to teach us, it is that we only ever see part of the wider picture while we’re still there.
Now, I have to say, you’re missing something if you don’t know Declan Cashen, and missing even more if you never got to see him in full flight back then, mesmerising a gang of 30-odd teenaged males with little more than a blackboard, a hastily drawn sketch of his latest mental challenge (the paradox of the captive twins remains a favourite) and, like us, one eye on the clock.
But, of course, we all have people like Declan Cashen in our lives, positioned here and there along the road, almost casually directing the traffic of our future thoughts and actions.
And with the world on its head again (inverted in some alien lens, no doubt!) it feels like a good time to offer thanks and praise.
So, cheers, Declan! Thanks for everything. And enjoy the Easter holidays — Sir!

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