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The O'Davorens of Cahermacnaughten, Burren, Co. Clare by Dr. George U. Macnamara

Part I: Historical: Tradition of Learning in Ireland

Whatever faults the Irish people may be charged with, it can never be said that they despised learning. All our history bears out this statement, and strangers who from time to time have come amongst us - often bitter and prejudiced enemies - have reluctantly to admit that a passionate love of learning for its own sake, and a genuine respect for the man of great literary attainments, are inherent characteristics of the race. Go as far back into the past as history will allow, even to the introduction of Christianity, and this trait in the National character becomes apparent. It is very probable, indeed I might say certain, that this intense love of knowledge had its roots in a purely pagan civilisation which long preceded the coming of Patrick, for otherwise it is quite impossible to account for the sudden birth of the many noted schools which reliable history tells us sprang up like mushrooms all over the land in the years immediately succeeding the conversion of the Irish. So great, indeed, was the reputation of the schools of Ireland in those early days, that men of other nations flocked in great numbers to our shores, to sit at the feet of the learned men of Eire, and, not only did they receive instruction free, but they were actually housed, fed, and supplied with books gratis and for nothing; an example of free education never seen before in any country under the sun, and which probably will never be seen again.

While most of Europe was fast sinking into a second barbarism owing to the decay of Roman government and civilization, the lamp of learning so brightly burned in the schools of Ireland that its generous light was carried far away, to Britain and the Continent, by shoals of enthusiastic missionaries, who not only brought with them the Gospel but all the secular learning that survived the fall of the Roman Empire.

It would be beyond my powers and the scope of this paper to attempt to trace, even superficially, the history of those early schools to their final extinction. This task has been fairly well fulfilled by others; I only wish so far here to emphasize certain facts which, indeed, cannot be denied, but I fear too often are lost sight of by Irishmen: that for two or three centuries before the Danish invasion, Ireland was the hub of the world's learning, and that through good and ill - at times when letters were fostered, as well as when a price was put on the unfortunate schoolmaster's head, the Irish people, whether Gaels, Normans, or assimilated Britons, loved learning and honoured the learned. When education was denied them at home, many sought it in the schools of France, Spain, Germany, and the Netherlands, and made the greatest sacrifices to obtain it. What better proof of this old spirit could one wish to have than the ‘Poor Scholar,’ a survival of early Christian times, who was frequently to be met with late in the last century? A veritable knight errant, he left his father's humble roof with a few books in his satchel and next to nothing in his pocket, in quest, not of wealth and beauty, but of learning and fame. Poor fellow! full of enthusiasm he moved about from teacher to teacher, seeking what he could never get, and, strange persistence of ancient custom, depended altogether for his maintenance on the hospitality of the peasantry, who always had, and have still, a fundamental awe of the deep-read man of books.

 

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