Alan Titley Bob Welch
This is the first Memorial Lecture for Prof Bob Welch, who taught at Ulster University (Coleraine) for many years. Alan Titley is himself a distinguished academic and writer from Cork. He also, in his late teens, sat in college in Dublin alongside our own mighty Perkin. You may spot the occasional echo of our wordmeister… Jude.
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) until we completed secondary school. That was fourteen 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 hidden in her breast – primed for massacre.
In retrospect, even on mature reflection, I first took notice of Bob as a ‘scholar’ in second class in the primary school. He said that I had tried to persuade him to join my ‘gang’ in senior infants, but I have no recollection of this. He even showed me the spot where I tried to entice him, so there may be some truth in it. It must have been that other gangs thrived a lot more than mine did.
In primary school we had classes of between 70 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 so 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.
He did escape from us one year which was our final one in the primary school. At the time there was no free secondary education, and thus, a scholarship scheme was devised where the brightest and the best were shunted off to a special class where they were drilled by the indomitable Brother Dermot in order to gain the precious free places in the secondary level. I had the good fortune of begging my father to pretend he earned more money than he did so that I could escape the rigours of this infamous class which never ceased. While we sweated at horse play and football (often the same thing) in the yard, those scholarship boys perspired at shapes of geometry and grammatical mysteries of which we knew nought. They did this also on Saturdays while we mucked around elsewhere, and on holidays, and sometimes on Sundays, if that was required. Some of them cracked. Many never recovered even though they might have got the coveted scholarship. Not Bob. He thrived on it, and arrived in secondary school ahead of the rest of us by miles out of mind.
But it was only later on in that secondary school at Coláiste Chríost Rí, Capwell Road, Cork, that it began to dawn on us that he knew oceans more than anybody else. Stupid psychologists – and it may be asked are there any other kinds? – say that the first five years of life are the most important, but don’t believe a word of it. Those last few years of the teens decide what you are going to do. In those last years of schooling, 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 mentors. 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. In fact, there was one particular little gutty scut in the class who moaned endlessly about our teachers wasting time on stuff that was not on the course, and thus, irrelevant to our exams. Bob was one of a gang of four of us who took this particular thicko aside to a dark corner of the yard, and gently persuaded him to desist from his reductionist rantings. We didn’t quite put it like that, of course, but the point was driven home.
There was never any need to tell Bob to read outside the course. 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 Motor Car’. We were gobsmacked, or even struck dumb. We hadn’t the least fucking clue what it was about, as the teacher read it to us, as he was equally smitten by wonder.
I was part of a debating team in both Irish and English consisting of four young smart-assed know-alls. The other two were Dermot Crowley who became a successful professional actor in England, and Sean Murphy who did medicine and emigrated to the US. We were shocked when we were defeated in any debate, as we knew we were the best, thought we were robbed, as we undoubtedly were. The problem the other three of us on the team had was to rein Bob in. We didn’t want him to introduce concepts and ideas which would bamboozle the judges.
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 Tchaikovsky still shudders my members. Our enlightened teachers occasionally asked us to bring in music we loved, or to talk about books that meant something to us. When Bob spoke about Jazz and played it for us both on his records and by himself, we simply stayed dumb. We had no point of departure from which we could criticise him.
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. Health and Safety regulations today would blow us away. Bob declaimed Walt Whitman in the same place, and mouths were a-gawp.
I remember other 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 muttered inanities and wished for a dose of hurling. This wasn’t so much hedge school education, or back yard education, as wandering rambling nocturnal gabblings which taught many of us how little we had learned within the walls. Perhaps the best education any of us ever got was from our peers and contemporaries, although we were always beholden to the best of our wonderful teachers, whom the most influential for the purposes of both of us was Roibeárd Ó hÚrdail, a lover of words and of literature who inspired by example. While we had others later along the our untrodden ways, I think that Bob would agree that without him we would scarce have followed the paths that we did.
Our mutual colleague through these years, Pat Butler, who later went on to make groundbreaking documentary films for RTÉ, put it simply in saying he was away ahead of us; or as Seán Ó Ríordáin said about Corkery, ‘do mhúin sé an tslí.’ / ‘He showed us the way.’
For some years after leaving school I lost contact with Bob. He went to UCC and I studied in Dublin. I always had the impression that he was watching me, much more than I was following him. This was because I never had any doubt but that he would go to the highest reaches of scholarship, something that was written on the slates, and later in scratchy pens and biros since we joined up in junior infants. We reconnected properly when I invited him to give a plenary lecture at a Merriman Summer School which I directed, but this was small recompense for his sponsorship of me.
I always felt he was at my shoulder encouraging me as a kindly presence, almost as an elder guider, even though we were the same age and traversed those separate and parallel paths. He cajoled me to write a goodly number of entries for his Oxford Companion to Irish Literature, and he invited me to speak at conferences at the University of Ulster and to be one of the editors of the Oxford University Press’s History of the Irish Book. He also proposed and sponsored me for membership of Royal Irish Academy, an honour I would not have gained without him. As they say in Cork, ‘come on, like’ what more could he do?
He was one of a very few scholars who was able to marry the literatures of Ireland, in Irish and in English, and to make cogent sense of them. His sensitivity reached into both of them and he illuminated their paths.
His scholarship will stand for all, but his friendship resonates for me.