Learning begins as sea fog lifts from the west Cork coast

Lakes are abundant in the wetlands of Lower Bohemia in the Czech Republic.

HERE, on the coast, we have sometimes had fog for days, while inland the sun is shining out of china-blue skies. 

Our fog is sea fog, of course, not like the common-or-garden early morning fog one sees on fields (and indeed gardens) all over Ireland after especially warm days.

Sea fog may be good for the skin or, on the other hand, rust one up. So dense is it that one can barely see the world 10 metres beyond the tip of one’s nose. This is, of course, a novelty for children. We have had our 50% Czech grandchildren aged eight and three here in west Cork to visit us.

A very young child, arriving into Dublin airport from Prague at night, sleeping on the long drive south, then carried, still sleeping, to bed, might, upon looking out the window in the morning and seeing the garden enveloped in ghostly mist, truly think he had come to a mysterious world, half seen.

How would he know any better, if it was his first time here? After all, when he sees a bird leave the ground and take wing, he accepts that birds can fly; he may try to fly himself by beating his arms up and down (I seem to remember trying to do this) but accepts, as a fact of the world he lives in, that some creatures are very different from himself.

Equally, he accepts that water is clear, that it is safe to enter if not too deep, that one can submerge in it but not stay long submerged but that, however, there are creatures that can live underwater, and they are called ‘fish’ (or in the case of these grandchildren, also, ‘ryba’, the word in Czech.) So, nothing surprises them — or rather, everything does, but there are so many surprises that, at a very early age, they no longer show surprise, only curiosity, such as eating sand on the beach to see what it tastes like, or biting a pebble, or stirring the breakfast porridge with one’s finger to see if it responds. It’s a learning process; but it is extraordinary how quickly they learn.

On the subject of language, for example, this three-year-old speaks English to us and to his father, and Czech to his mother and Czech grandparents, and both languages to his eight-year-old brother. Yesterday, he told me that “actually” he didn’t want to eat any more of his scrambled egg. The accumulation and retention of language is achieved effortlessly. Any child can do it. These grandchildren are, one assumes, no smarter than we, their progenitors are, or any smarter than their next door neighbours on both sides.

The opportunity is, simply, there: their dad speaks English better than he does Czech, and his mother better Czech than she does English. Father and mother speak English together, and the boys often adopt English between themselves. The older boy speaks Czech to his friends, and at school. In English, he also used the “actually” word at a tender age and, one day, at age four, when passing jack-hammer roadworks outside the family home, surprised his parents by saying: “that noise is doing my head in!” They hoped he hadn’t picked up any of the more colourful phrases used by his dad when annoyed.

The children’s English was precocious because it was acquired from adults (their parents): they did not have the opportunity of learning baby-talk English at nursery school, although they would have learned Czech toddler-talk there and when crawling about with indigenous rug-rabbits at lake resorts in summer.

Lakes are encountered everywhere in the landscape of Lower Bohemia. They are wonderfully clean and very pleasant to swim in, and no lake owner objects if one swims in his lake. In fact, they are commercial units for raising carp, and a feed-hopper stands somewhere on the bank to deliver food to the fish.

Irish monks created many of these lakes in the early medieval period, trekking through the Hunnish and Bohemian forests in their sandals, satchels slung over their shoulders with, perhaps, short-handled shovels attached. Maybe the Firbolg blood has made us natural navvies, and we dig tunnels or lakes where ever we go.

In any case, while the conversion of Bohemia was delayed until the 9th century, some of the eleven companions of Saint Cillian, from Cavan, when schlepping from Gaul to Rome in the summer of 686AD, may have stopped off in the Czech state and started digging. Certainly, Irish monks founded a major industry: carp farming. They are still remembered: our eight-year-old grandson’s best friend is called Kilián, and his parents are both pure Czech.

  • Correction: The image of The Lady of the Woods accompanying last week’s column was reproduced courtesy of Manchester Art Galley, where it hangs, not in Manchester Museum of Art.


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