I told an Irish friend today that I never felt illiterate before I moved to Ireland...
I am constantly struck by the role of language in Irish culture. Spoken language is caressed, played with, teased, spoken trippingly, stretched and re-examined in a mobius love affair. Words are cajoled into song and rhythm and meter. Phrases are plucked so as to hum through the haze of a conversation but are also honed to the sharpest of tips. An Irishman worth the name can somehow make you laugh and cry all at the same moment, perhaps at yourself but even more probably at him. The Irish are that kid at the back of the room that always had that perfect comment at the perfect moment; they are the ones that don't have the most muscles but do have the very best word. The Irish are a bully's worst nightmare.
No matter where I go I am asked if I read this or that and, generally, I haven't. I read. I did take a reasonable number of literature classes with a fairly good level of vigor and even threw in a humanities elective here and there. I can't hold a candle to the Irish. I'm not sure any product of the US school system save an English major could possibly compare. They've read the Russians, the Romantics, the Victorians; they've barreled through Beouwulf and meandered through rather incomprehensible moderns with stopovers in all manner of more pedestrian fiction. Of course, they've read ALL of the great Irish authors. Yeats and Wilde and Joyce quotes are a common currency used as shorthand whenever the moment possibly allows. And, not only have they read them but they'd like to discuss them. Bookstores not only still exist but they actually sell BOOKS rather than the oceans of mugs and bookmarks and stuffed animals you'll find in that rare breed, the American brick and mortar bookstore. There are used bookstores, large bookstores, little bookstores you can get lost in and bookstores where someone will put a book in your hand and tell you how you simply MUST read it. I see mothers at school pick up holding veritable tomes. Most telling, even their engineers are well read.
You won't find the pablum we feed American children's imaginations within the Irish schools. There are witches and giants. There are monsters and magic. There are good fairies and evil fairies and things to wrestle through and with and triumph over. Megan was doing a phonics sheet the other day and asked if something was a gnome or an elf. When was the last time you encountered a gnome in a US children's story?
One of the most striking differences to me about the Irish early childhood curriculum is how very focused it is on literacy. The children spend roughly the first 3 years of their schooling learning not all that much in terms of math. When US children are making 100th day of school everything and have manipulatives coming out their ears, Irish children are still wrestling with the number 10. There is an argument to be made for both strategies but mostly, it crystallizes the idea that the US is a culture that was (at least once) based on building and engineering, and, more recently, out mathing the Russians. The Irish culture predates the space race by millenea and written language by a bit less. Their culture didn't survive by building the best bombs; they survived by telling the best stories.
*before it drives you crazy... The Walrus and The Carpenter by Lewis Carroll who I think must have had a bit more than a drop of Irish in his soul