An appreciation by his brother Joe Foyle on a language teaching career from Masai Mara to Inis Oirr
Under the heading “A language teaching career from Masai Mara to Inis Oirr” the Meath Chronicle recently published an appreciation of my brother Kevin.
He departed to his next life on April 2 last. He was my eight brother to do so. No 11 brother Louis is keen that I do something similar for the newspaper of the place of his Thurles birth in 1933.
Though I have composed many “Star” appreciations over the decades, I’m slow about doing so for a family member. It’s partly too I know that we Foyles began as Thurles “blow-ins” in 1919 (No 1 was born 100 years ago) who have become “blown-outs”.
They are now unknown to most Thurles people.
Yet, I’ll do so, as Quarry-born Kevin’s story has, I think, interesting lessons.
He being No 8 and my being No 9 meant that Kevin is the brother to whom I have been closest since my birth 17 months after his.
Virtually twins, we shared the same bed and activities during our pre-teen years. Yet, from about 1945 (when, in effect, I became a farm apprentice for five years), our paths diverged enormously. As I think about him now, I’m full of admiration for what most unexpectedly he achieved.
It was unexpected because, for 30 years he struggled in silence with stuttering, while I got the notice of being a student “high flyer” and a public commentator.
Unwittingly, his family and teachers were unhelpful, because unaware of his situation. Yet, he achieved what, I suspect, no other Thurles person has ever achieved.
He became a happy sharer, and self-trained to share with a working knowledge of eight languages – English, Irish, Latin, Spanish, Italian, French, Kiswahili and Swahili.
Everything changed for him in 1963. Before I talk about the lessons of his 30 years of struggling, I’ll summarise the doings of his subsequent 47 years.
The take-off began in 1963 when he married June McCabe of Wolfe Tone Place. A qualified nurse and a statuesque good-looker, June and he seemed to me to be poles apart. He was already a stickler for accuracy in use of words, whereas mischievous June let words flow rather freely.
But they gelled marvellously until our Maker separated them 52 years later. Thinking about her served him greatly during his final five months as he quietly let medics try in vain to eradicate a sepsis infection got via a minor procedure.
The pair immediately moved to teach and nurse alongside Irish Catholic missionaries in the relatively primitive conditions of that time in Umbwe, Tanzania where he taught English. Their three children were born there. The twin girls now serve as nurses, one in Navan, the other in Ankara, Turkey. The boy became one of the few Irish people who got top qualifications as a fish and animal specialist. He now plies his trade as a professor in Australia.
In 1970 the family moved across the border into Kenya. There Kevin occupied posts as teacher-trainer in Neyeri and Kericho.
He polished his grasp of Swahili, the inter-tribe language of East and Middle Africa. After returning to Ireland in the late 1970s, he went to Navan to work alongside our No 5 brother, Dermot, in his main Ford dealership.
A teaching opportunity arose when our No 6 brother Paul (aka Pol O’Foighil) asked him to be the príomhoide at Meánscoil Ghobnait on the Aran Island of Inis Oirr. He switched from speaking Swahili daily among Masai tribes to speaking Irish daily among native Irish speakers. For 15 years Caoimhin commuted, via car and plane, from Navan with monthly visits home. He also lived a rather monkish life in a small house, through Atlantic winter storms after nearly two decades of East Africa heat.
When the ever-active (his nightly sleep was usually for about four hours) Caoimhin retired from Inis Oirr teaching in the mid-1990s he soon became active again. He volunteered to teach English (through Kiswahili) among his beloved Tanzanians. Leaving June and Louise in Navan, he spent four very fruitful years in Lushoto with the Irish Rosminian Fathers.
His work rate didn’t diminish on his return to Navan. By now proficient with the Internet, he kept in touch with a Lushoto journalist who had his education-related material published. During his late 70s and early 80s, he completed and had published a unique “Phrasal Verbs” book that compared Swahili and English Idioms, and contributed to “Kamusi Gold”, the Global Online Living Dictionary.
All the foregoing was a long way from Kevin as the pre-1963 Thurles stutterer. His condition didn’t interest self-centred younger me as I glided past him in school to achieve as he struggled. With hindsight I can see now how he quietly concealed his discomfort.
In his 20s, we discussed much why he alone in the family stuttered. Maybe it began when a large rock, that one of our father’s helpers let slip from a scaffolding, nearly broke his skull. When I was probably about two, I saw my mother bathing his head in a blood-coloured pan of water. He survived and the mark of the wound stayed on top of his head thereafter.
More than likely the stuttering began - possibly via put-downs at home, locally or at school – when he anticipated put-downs. His tongue and jaws couldn’t always move quickly enough to sound words. Yet, words came freely as he sang and talked to children and animals. On those occasions he didn’t anticipate put-downs. He was also, much more than me, an excellent silent sounder of words as he read fiction books avidly. That was the set-up as he embarked on schooling that lasted for most of 30 years.
Neither our parents, older brothers, nor his teachers saw the significance of Kevin’s stuttering during his post-1937 Presentation up-to-First-Communion years and his CBS primary and secondary years. He did poorly in exams and kept falling behind. I know now that that is not unusual for avid fiction readers. Such readers enjoy not recalling everything and not being quizzed about what they read, so they tend to recall poorly when quizzed about what’s in school textbooks.
Kevin also enjoyed a little-noticed spin-off of stuttering. Teachers tend not to ask stutterers questions. Seeing young lads (and stutterers are almost entirely males) struggling is painful and time-consuming for questioners and others around. It is easier to choose the ‘sticking plaster’ of not asking, rather use time to help, after working out how to do so. Kevin was content to enjoy not being asked. Thereby, he avoided doing much the No 1 thing to do to be an efficient learner at all life stages. It is: watch out for likely questions, and work out and memorise what would answer them.
It was clear to Kevin early in Secondary that he was heading for Intermediate exam failure as I got a Primary-Secondary Scholarship (with my picture in the ”Tipperary Star”) just behind him.
Around that time, he detoured (as wasn’t unusual then for poor exam performers) into the priesthood or lay-brotherhood. The nearby Pallotine Fathers welcomed him.
They tried to sort out his stuttering. They made the usual mistake of seeing it as a physical issue instead of it being due to anticipation of put-downs.
However, instead of steering the young fellow towards the usual Leaving Cert and Saint Patrick’s College path, or along the lay-brother path, they gambled on sending him to Rome. He was only 15 or 16 at that stage.
The Pallotines clearly saw potential in him. They enrolled him at the illustrious Gregorian University to study theology. At that late 1940s time, the professors lectured in Latin, and with books that used Latin. The students were obliged to understand, memorise, write and talk in Latin.
Kevin had a smattering of Latin from his CBS time. But the Gregorian was in a different league. Yet, despite the stuttering, he adjusted quickly. Seeing a purpose for memorising, he achieved. After four years, it was decided by him and the Pallotines that the priesthood wasn’t for him.
Maybe the Pallotine Fathers saw that stutterers stumble mainly with words in the language. of their upbringing. They often speak freely in Irish, as the words are different from English, and speed in sounding isn’t expected. They may have seen that he wouldn’t stutter in daily use of Latin. It seems that it worked out that way.
An even more exciting thing happened. Kevin saw that fluency in Latin facilitated acquisition of fluency in Italian, as the latter is, at root, based on Latin. So, he played around with using Italian as well as Latin, English and Irish words. He was on his way to having a ‘handle’ on four languages.
It extended to five when he became friendly with Argentine Pallotine fellow-students who spoke in Spanish. It too is, at root, based on Latin. The count went to six when he conversed with French fellow-students as that language is also rooted in Latin.
He came home in the early 1950s with a huge curiosity for words in six languages. He also had the problem – as was usual for ex-seminarians of the time - that he hadn’t a Leaving Cert. Also, too, the stuttering came back as his daily speaking was only in English and he met with put-downs. That seemed to rule out his being the languages teacher that he would like to be.
Fortunately, No 3 brother, civil engineer Brendon, had come back from London to work locally.
That practical Christian did what our parents couldn’t do. He got Kevin to focus first on being a qualified teacher via reading and written exams that stuttering couldn’t affect. As Brendon had done ten years earlier (to do the Matriculation exam to gain entry into University College Cork), he enrolled with Kilroy’s College, Dublin, to do the Matric subjects by post.
To help pay his way, he got Kevin a job as a general ‘gofor’ and driver with Walsh Printing in Roscrea. He duly got the Matric and a BA degree and a Teaching Diploma at University College Dublin by 1960. He nearly fell at the last hurdle. A fussy female monitor aggravated his stuttering during teaching practice.
There remained the matter of his stuttering and being a teacher in an Ireland that was over-supplied with secondary teachers. Many newly-qualified were glad to teach in Africa Mission schools.
I suspect that he and June had by then figured out that he would stutter less when confronted with respectful Africans. She could also work there as a nurse. It would be 1963 before they had completed arrangements.
In the meantime, Kevin did various things. They included painting and papering an investment property in which I had an interest. He sang classical Italian arias as he worked.
In August 1963 he and June married and headed off to Africa. In due course, he realised that stuttering doesn’t arise when put-downers are pitied and treated kindly. The witty, stutter-free Kevin blossomed.
He was forever grateful for what the Pallotine Fathers unwittingly did for him. Nothing in his family background indicated that languages would be his forte.
They also helped him to be, for the rest of his days, a conscientious Mass-goer with a depth of interest in the theology of Christianity.
He shared views respectfully with priests, including Meath’s Bishop Smith.