The Moving Finger Writes………Vere Foster

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A man from Collon came to my door. He carried a clip board and a high-altitude-writing-stick. A clip board conveys authority. The high-altitude-writing-stick was invented by Lazlo Biro for use in aeroplanes. It seems that fountain pens become high-altitude-ink-bombs in unpressurised cockpits, as if fighter pilots hadn’t enough to contend with. He was conducting a survey for a joinery firm. I’m not a great joiner, in any sense of the word, so we fell to talking about lighthouses, as you do. There is a lighthouse in his part of the world, many miles from the sea. It was built as a folly by a member of the landed gentry with more money than sense. He could have invested his wealth in something more productive than lighthouses, as many of his class did, like say, opulent houses, majestic gardens, drink, gambling, mistresses and most of all, horses. It is a very fine lighthouse all the same.

A re-branded Eircom van went past. Look at that handwriting. That’s not an r. Write it out correctly, fifty times. Don’t get me started.

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He spoke enthusiastically about another near neighbour, Vere Foster, a great Irishman, whose name has been almost forgotten amid the crowd of political and revolutionary figures of his time. He used his inherited wealth to improve the lot of his poorer fellow Irishmen and women, funding and supervising the needs of emigrants to America in the years following the Great Famine. He travelled frequently on the Famine ships and campaigned tirelessly for better conditions on board and in employment in the destination countries. He entreated those he helped always to value freedom and fairness to others, regardless of gender, race or creed.  His influence on education was immense. He funded more than two thousand rural schools, stipulating that every school should have a roof and a wooden floor, a major advance on the hedge schools of the time. To Foster, education was the only way out of poverty. You probably learned to write ‘joined writing’ from the Vere Foster system of headline copies. So did your great grandparents. We copied proverbs and maxims on pages lined in red and blue: Procrastination is the thief of time. I didn’t know what it meant at the time, but I have proven the veracity of the statement many times over the years. My handwriting is still the writing I learned to do, tongue moving in synchronicity to the J or Waverley nib, in Mr. Doyle’s class. There were occasional blobs, when I blotted my copybook, a heinous crime. There were bursts of flak when the nib snagged in the coarse post-war paper.  I took care to dot my s, cross my t s and mind my p s and q s. It was much more satisfactory than writing on slate with screechy chalk’ as the poor ‘sucks’ in the junior classes had to do. Fountain pens were not allowed. Biros, when they arrived on the scene, were anathema. The ball-point wanders about, giving no shape to the letters. Ball-points were and are, bad for handwriting. Moreover, they were quite capable of bursting at ground level. We scratched away like the ancient scribes, with not quite the same success, but with a sense of achievement.  I have enjoyed the process ever since.

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Vere Foster was like a lighthouse in a very dark time in Ireland’s history. He never went to war or blew anyone, or anything, up. His name is not pre-eminent among the ranks of Irish patriots. One hundred and fifteen years after his death, in a mean lodging house in Belfast, he is almost forgotten. Spare a thought for him, the next time you take pen in hand and no slovenly writing, if you please.

As for lighthouses, I prefer mine with water.

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Skerries lifeboat, Altruism, Philanthropy, Above and beyond the call of Duty, 9/11

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“A man who dies rich, dies disgraced.” So said Andrew Carnegie, setting a pattern for philanthropy that many have emulated down the years. It is by definition, an activity largely confined to people of means. While many of us like to think that we would disburse our theoretical Lotto winnings for the benefit of others, it is not likely that we will have to consider such a situation too seriously. Neither, by and large, have we the entrepreneurial spirit or genius, to amass great wealth. We accept the benefits of long-standing philanthropy with gratitude mingled with complacency. Carnegie’s decision to spread literacy as widely as possible, had a major transformative impact on society, which continues to this day.

We look in admiration at Bill Gates’s drive to provide clean water to everyone in the world. It is something we take for granted. It is a basic requirement for an acceptable standard of health and well-being but to provide it to the many millions who suffer and die for the lack of clean water, is a task beyond the ability of ordinary people. That is where the extraordinary people come in. People like Chuck Feeney, see it as their bounden duty to use their wealth to improve the lot of others. There are many like him. Philanthropists act out of “love for their fellow human beings”. They shine out like beacons to the world.

Personal altruism, (‘selfless actions for the benefit of others’,) on the other hand, is not confined to people of means. Look around at your community. Notice all the people who volunteer to assist others, without demanding any return for their efforts. Never mind bleak psychologists who see ulterior motives in everything. Never mind Dawkins, who sees everything as a ploy by our selfish genes. Altruism springs from generous instincts (Okay, define ‘instinct’. You have me there, Professor Dawkins) and from personal decisions as to what is right. By the time we define it, the moment may have passed.

The Roman Emperor imposed a duty on all citizens to act as guides to travellers on the roads. Particular praise was given to those who ‘went the extra mile.’ We remember particularly those who exceeded their duty, who took the extra bit of trouble to do things properly, who gave of their time. When you count the number of times in the day that people give a little extra, a smile, a helping hand, an encouraging word, you will conclude that the world is not so bad after all. There is a button on the radio that can limit the amount of gloom and bad news emanating from the experts. Avoid the snarling soap-operas. Life could not be so consistently miserable all the time.

In the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, philanthropy and altruism come together in a perfect fusion, to assist all in peril on the sea. The flag transcends nationality, race, creed, language, political division. It streams proudly, but never arrogantly, in the wind. The members are volunteers, prepared without question or hesitation, to risk their own safety for that of others.

Charlotte McMaster married Louis Simson in 1882. One hundred and thirty one years later, a promise she made, came to fruition on a blustery September afternoon in Skerries, when a lifeboat, bought with her legacy, was named in honour of her husband. It is housed in a specially built house, substantially financed by Joseph Bogdanovich, of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania and The Ireland Fund. Generations as yet unborn, will honour them for their generosity and foresight. They may also have good reason to thank the men and women of the RNLI.

On 9/11 is is fitting to think of the all people in the emergency services who put their own lives at risk for the benefit of others. How often do they go above and beyond the notion of duty without counting the cost?