Friday, 30 August 2013

Travels with Ulick

Travels with Ulick by Ulick O’Connor. Mercier Press, Cork, 1996. SB, pp 96.

This review was written on August 18, 2005.

I was out walking with Ulick on the 12 August and afterwards during our talk in his house he gave me a copy of this short account of his first lecture tour in America in 1967. I had finished the book before I went to bed that evening. I enjoyed reading it. It was light-hearted and amusing in parts and was absorbing because of his references to the various social and political disturbances which prevailed in the United States at the time - Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King, widespread student disturbances and the residue of McCarthyism.

Like all good diary writers, Ulick is vain enough to stimulate one's interest in his own personality and the many people he met. He relates his account with the honesty and frankness which I have always found during my long friendship with him. His concise and effective writing, and particularly his use of short sentences make for easy reading and gives a description of the American scene in the 1960s which accords closely to my own experience when I first went there in 1962. I met a different class of American - academics, hospital consultants, public health specialists and epidemiologists. Most would have been European in their outlook and international in their interests. I would have had less contact with the American political scene and with the 'typical' American. Ulick's contacts were mostly with media, literary people, academics, students and university staff. They apparently made up the great bulk of his listeners. They may have included what we then called the blue rinse brigade. Their ignorance of Irish affairs was balanced by intense interest in Ulick's talks on Ireland and it's literature, politics and history of the early 20th century.

His frequent allusions to the Civil Rights 
Movement, the Vietnam War and other contemporary problems then existing in America are evocative of these turbulent times. He refers to the extraordinary link between religious fundamentalism and the pursuit of wealth, a feature of the United States which had its origin in the pragmatic attitude of the early settlers. Other references to the American scene bring back memories of these times. He describes the unacceptable level of violence in the country, including his own brushes with violent people, and the Americans’ denial of the massacres and near extermination of the indigenous people of the continent. The widespread personal violence and corporate corruption we associate with America must have its origins in the degree of personal freedom enshrined in its constitution and its history, and the absence of an effective system of law and order in the early days, particularly among those who pioneered the exodus to the plains and the West. The increase in personal violence and corporate corruption in Ireland and other European countries is evidence of the Americanisation of Europe and the world, of their materialism and waste of the planet’s natural resources, their limitless urge to enhance their standard of living which is a chimera in pursuit of happiness.
Loyola University circa 1950

Ulick refers to Loyola University where he had been a student for a year about 1952. It was
 sad to read his account of the University on his later visit there. He described the  destruction of many of the sporting and exercise facilities which existed during his student year. No doubt this was evidence of the American drift towards the sedentary life and the obesity syndrome, why they have become couch potatoes and television viewers of the sporting elite.

Can we anticipate the same fate for sport and exercise for the non-elitist students at University College at Belfield where there has been a continuous and increasing invasion of the sports fields by new buildings and, from my observations as a frequent walker on the campus, decreasing student activity on the sports fields in recent years? And will this trend continue into the future with an ambitious administration putting such emphasis on research and technology, and encouraging a closer association with industry and creation of wealth? I do not think Newman would approve.

I wonder if competing in the industrial and commercial world is more important for our third level students, our future leaders, than having a rounded general education, being concerned about civics and the care of the planet, being caring citizens, and learning the value of good physical and mental health.

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