Monday, October 30, 2006

How our toddler offered thoughts of an after-life

Let me initially give a little background to a strange experience. My wife's parents died aged in their 50s and it was many years before any of our three children were born. So my own parents were the only grandparents our kids knew. My Dad died suddenly when the girls were each aged 6 years, 3 years and 7 months old. The older two knew their grandad. It saddened them when he died and they then avoided talking about him to anyone. Our youngest, Shona, was far too young to have any recollections of him. She grew up just knowing her granny, who lived until Shona was almost 12. Hence the word Grandad and the concept of what it meant were unknown to her when she was a toddler.

Shona learned to talk very early, she could make sense and have reasonably good conversations by about the age of two years old. One Saturday afternoon, a month before Shona's 2nd birthday, we were all in the kitchen about to eat a meal. We were talking about what might be on the telly and Shona was sitting at the kitchen table just generally humming to herself.

Quite out of context to anything we had been discussing, Shona said...

"Grandad loves me."

I was sitting opposite Shona and it seemed odd to me for her to use that name. She was never even taught such a word at her age as there was no such person in her life.

"You mean Granny loves you", I corrected.

"No, no, Grandad loves me".

This was becoming a little intriguing. I thought I better test her further.

"Is Grandad a man or a woman?" Maybe she was getting the terms granny/grandad mixed up and really meant her granny.

"A man".

Mmmh. I had to think a bit on this and my wife was also now showing some interest. The older two girls also thought it strange for her to mention a grandad.

I wondered if she really did mean one of her actual deceased grandads and if so, which one.

"Where did you see Grandad?" I asked.

"In Granny's house".

"You sure you don't mean you just saw Granny?"

"No, Grandad".

"Where in Granny's house did you see him?"

"Not Granny room, other room."

There followed a tricky bit of conversation to extract from a toddler as to what room she meant. It turned out she meant the front downstairs room of my Mum's house. It was a sitting room but never used much. My Dad had tended to use this room to sit in sometimes as it was cooler for him - my mother liked extra heat.

On digesting this later something else clicked in my mind. It was a minor incident a few weeks earlier when we were over in my Mum's house visiting. Shona had been walking around and had wandered into the front room. When she returned to us in the back room she came over to my wife and I and said gently...

"There's a man in the other room".

My wife and I looked at each other and at my Mum. We knew it couldn't be true what Shona said and shrugged her off. However she repeated that there was a man, so I reluctantly got up from my seat and brought her into the front room.

"See Shona, no man here", I said.

Shona didn't say anything further and that was the end of that. However this little incident came back in my mind after Shona explained to us that this was the room where grandad talked to her.

Still in our own kitchen I asked Shona another question...

"Is Grandad a big man or a small man?"

"A big man".

By Dad was big and heavy for sure, but then I thought that to a toddler every man is big I suppose.

My wife then asked Shona...

"Is grandad happy?"

"Yes. He said he's on his holidays".

Following a few seconds reflection on this answer the hair almost stood up on my head. It seemed to me exactly how a person might explain a concept of Heaven to a small toddler. I tried to subdue my brain from racing away from remaining balanced and objective. But we had never taught her any religion or any such concepts whatsoever at her age.

It was difficult to get much more detail from Shona due to her limited communications skills. She did however give a vague impression that grandad played with her...

"He's like a doggy" she smiled and did little doggy panting sounds with her tongue out to imitate him. At first this didn't make much sense. On further reflection though I do recall my Dad getting on his hands and knees on the floor playing with children when he was a younger man, usually pretending to be a horse actually. He used to give me horse rides on his back when I was a small child.

Over the following days I managed to learn a bit more from Shona. I decided to try a careful experiment. There was no photo of my Dad on display in our house or indeed my Mums, so I knew there was no way on Earth she should relate a photo of my Dad to being her grandad. I reiterate that my Dad died when Shona was a baby of 7 months old, she was now almost 2 years old. Nobody but myself and my wife had access to photo albums with my Dad's picture. I sat on the floor with Shona and opened a photo album in which I knew that in about the 5th page there was a photo of my Dad. I opened each page slowly and just let her talk about who she recognised. There were mainly pictures of myself, my wife and the kids. She smiled and knew each person in her family and pointed them out by name. When I opened the page which contained a photo of my Dad I deliberately said nothing. Shona didn't hesitate though...

"There's grandad", she pointed with glee.

My heart missed a beat, I was floored. It seemed impossible. I stake my life that none of us had ever discussed or shown photos of my Dad to Shona. I later quizzed the other girls separately and I'm quite certain they never discussed nor had access to a photo of grandad to show her. They didn't even talk about grandad to us and they only did baby talk to Shona to make her laugh.

After Shona had recognised my Dad in the photo I felt reluctantly like asking her another question. I was reluctant for a few reasons - firstly it was a selfish question, coming from me being an only child perhaps, and also because I didn't expect her to be able to answer it. After a reflective pause I found I couldn't let it pass and I asked Shona if grandad had ever mentioned myself to her. What happened next from a child of this age was strange, both in what she said and how she said it.

Shona turned her head up from the photo album to me and looked me in the eyes with a purpose which surprised me.

"Grandad said he will mind you."

This was rather overwhelming as you can imagine.

As the weeks and months passed Shona's memory of these incidents faded and she reverted to not knowing who grandad was. The phase had lasted maybe 2 weeks.

I've little idea how to explain any of this logically. Was she reading our own minds, was she psychic? If you ask Shona today aged 17, she has no memory of grandad, except what we told her she had said.

My views on potential afterlife tend to be rather openminded, coloured by what I know of matter and energy and the physical universe. I could accept that there is no afterlife if it happens to be true, but I also realise that there are many things that we cannot yet grasp. It's unwise to be closed minded in this area. I can't explain how Shona came to communicate to us as she did for a few short weeks as a toddler. But any time I'm feeling that death is final, I think of what Shona had told us fifteen years ago. How strange that a tiny child still in nappies could offer us such depth of thought and even hope.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Bertie-Gate and latest opinion polls

I wrote about Bertie-Gate earlier this month before the latest opinion polls which now show major increase in support for Fianna Fail.

The dichotomy contained in the recent public opinion poll results is that people thought Bertie was wrong BUT that he shouldn't resign and also support for Fianna Fail surged and support for opposition declined. Many columnists (including Irish Times editorial) are interpreting this as that the people just don't care about dodgy dealings in politics. I believe this view is close to being an insult to the people.

A logical interpretation on the poll finding that Bertie was wrong but shouldn't resign is that the people feel the Opposition chose too strong an attack on a relatively modest bad practise. Also the leek was not allowed and the Tribunal was the right place to work on this. The people believe Bertie was wrong but I think many believe the level of attack and its method was disproportionate to the deed and it backfired really badly. I think Bertie's relatively modest lifestyle and the circumstances also helped reduce his sins to a venial level. If the same level of intensity of attack was directed at something more serious it might have helped the Opposition. Instead they looked like whingers trying to hurt a man whose private financial divorce settlements were made public in a completely wrong way. The people disliked their intense use of valuable Dáil time on this matter and in my opinion punished the Opposition for it in the opinion polls.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Good Teacher

In my last few years of primary school in Dublin we had a most inspiring young teacher. It's worth naming him because I'm only going to say good things. He was Seán P. Ó Hógain, from Limerick I recall, and I'd guess he might today be aged in his sixties.

Seán P was first introduced to the class by the school Headmaster who also treated Seán P to a lengthy dissertation on how our class had many temporary teachers in the last year and how we were way behind in what needed to be covered etc. When the Headmaster departed there followed our usual nervous silence with a new teacher in the room. Would he be tough, loud, threatening? Our bodies were rigid and our senses were on stalks like small animals studying a larger potential predator.

But something strange started to emerge. Seán P. was talking to us as if we were friends, even threw in some humour. It was not childish though, it was as if he respected us as almost young adults. We didn't quite know how to react, was it a trick, would he suddenly turn nasty? This was 1966, as 11 year old lads we were not used to teacher's being nice. Our reaction to a teacher being soft would be to go a bit out of control, be unruly. But this was different. He was being very direct with us, probing us, challenging us, it demanded thought. Seán P seemed to be able to think a bit like us. But he also turned out to be radically better at teaching than anyone we had before.

Seán P helped the class appreciate complex parts of Shakespeare's plays such as Julius Caesar, Hamlet, big poems like Tennyson's Ulysses, complex literature etc. Lord of the Flies was a book he read to us in class and encouraged us all to read it, which we did. Everyone I spoke to could relate to it and think deeper - it was based on school boys our own age. He also did a brilliant analysis of the "Friends, Romans, Countrymen..." speech in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and how Mark Anthony gradually aroused the crowd to the opposite view.

It was all light years off the curriculum stuff and I recall once a school inspector admonishing Seán P in the class for covering material which was far too difficult for our age group. But our teacher had a great bond with the class and patiently deciphered complex material to help us both understand and - more importantly - enjoy it.

As his name suggests, Seán P also had a strong interest in the Irish language. He tried to make Irish cool I suppose - in the way TG4 are doing today. It didn't fully work for me, I was always very cosmopolitan and felt Irish was a drag. However I did learn Irish better via Seán P. He also went through a phase of teaching us history through Irish. Very democratically, he actually got the class to vote on this - amazingly we agreed, a sign of his credibility in class. After about 6 months of learning history though Irish he gave up on it as we were not grasping history enough through our limited powers in Irish language. But he was never afraid of trying new ideas.

A notable feature of Seán P was his sense of humour. He was so funny at times. He could help you remember anything by seeing the funny side of it. Even various Irish battles in the middle ages he could give a wickedly funny insight into how the factions might be thinking.

In religion Seán P covered a famous book called "God is for real, man". It was a book published to help modern American inner city dudes understand the message of Christianity. It was hilarious - especially in the way Seán P amplified it - but we remembered every single parable!

I remember a sobering debate Seán P brought up regarding proof for God existing. He claimed to our mild shock at the time that there was no proof at all. This created an interesting tail-wagging-the-dog spectacle of many in the class putting together arguments to prove to the teacher that God did exist. He was playing devils advocate so well that he had everyone's active attention. Seán P was able refute all of our feeble attempts at proof. He ended it all by saying that he believed in God himself but that we should realise it's not provable. In those times if the headmaster or the priests had been fully aware of this debate he would have been in trouble.

Other things Seán P covered were appreciation of modern art, encouraging us at stamp collecting, science experiments in class etc. It was stuff never covered in primary school in the 1960s, he was way before his time.

Seán P helped me in many ways. He taught me to think for myself and question things. He gave me an initial appreciation of the arts and literature which I never lost in spite of moving in a more science and technology career direction (which he also helped with through his good handling of science). Seán P. was also the teacher who got our class going on learning Chess - see my blog of same - and I've described how that had both a direct and indirect groundbreaking affect on me.

If Seán P is still on the planet - a big thanks from me - and I'm sure I speak for the entire class, we all liked him!

Sunday, October 08, 2006


It's a messy spectacle for sure and the affair is being made to look embarrassing for Ireland and for Bertie.

In the past there have been so many genuinely evil wrongdoings and corruptions by the likes of Haughey and others. Hence many are mentally programmed to equating Bertie's situation to the same level. Although perhaps wrong by today's ethics, Bertie's aired mistakes are lightweight in comparison. He lives very humbly compared to Haughey's extravaganza. The donations/loans were from the time of his separation and it seems blatantly clear that friends and others were just trying to help him out in his separation difficulties. Marital separation is awful and also not an easy time financially for people of even respectable income. We agree it was ill advised but everyone tries to be tax efficient and clinically Bertie didn't break any law. On a scale of 1-10 of sharp practice and ethics it registers as a 2. I know we want our leaders to be spotless and to have a crystal clear vision of how future generations will view past practices, but I'm afraid there is no such person.

The main ugliness in my opinion has been the disrespect and sidestepping of the Tribunal as the correct place for analysis of Bertie's payment transactions. Bertie has been accomodating in handling the unallowed leaks in a public fashion - but in respect to his own privacy and the Tribunal he has been trying to stick to the most summary facts. This of course leads on to the media and the Opposition probing further and acting like a kangaroo court in public. This is no way to handle matters and is an innefficient and embarrasing mess as a result. It's highly unfair to the Taoiseach and not a scientific way to get answers. His willingness to make comments in public while attending functions is well intended but ill advised for proper clarity. A case of damned if you do and damned if you don't.

In any event one could argue that Bertie has now had a thorough personal investigation of his past very publicly via the media. His bill of health is probably better that the majority in political life. I wonder how many others would come up this well? Bertie has lost some of his teflon image but I believe he is still up there with the best there is in politics - and latest opinion polls still show him in a good light.