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The Power of Words

It was a fine autumn afternoon in 1969, the schoolyard was full of whooping children enjoying the two o-clock break. I should have been with them, but I was still in the classroom where yellow shafts of autumn sunshine beamed through the tall windows illuminating a galaxy of swirling dust particles.


I sat there trying to figure out why the Master had told me to stay behind. What had I done wrong? I was perplexed as I watched the tall, gaunt teacher walk down between the rows of desks carrying a big dictionary. He perched himself on the upper section of the desk in front of mine and opened the dictionary on his lap, “Now James,” he said “you are good with words, always have a dictionary close at hand and, every day, learn a new word and its meaning.”


While I can’t say I followed his advice to the letter, his words and actions sank a deep well for me, a well I go back to again and again for reassurance and sustenance. More than fifty years later, words are still making a difference to me; stringing them together gives my life a sense of purpose and helps provide me and mine with food, heat and shelter.


Words make a difference and have certainly made a difference to me. I am privileged to work with them, to experience their power and their beauty.


In 2017 I had occasion to meet a group of Americans at a small tourist event I was involved in. Afterwards I found myself at table with a couple who, as soon as the conversation turned to politics, told me they were Trump supporters. We chatted about his election and how America was since he came to power. When I asked them about some of the more unsavoury things he said about people, about certain countries and about various situations around the world one of them responded, “Those are only words, just words, I wouldn’t let them bother me, let’s see what he does.”


Actions might speak louder than words but words matter and words make a difference. In fact words can transform reality. During the UK referendum on EU membership one of the breakthrough moments for the Leave campaign came about when they hit on the winning slogan, ‘let’s take back control.’ In fact, ‘let’s take control’ was their working slogan but the insertion of the word ‘back’ transformed it and, one could say, transformed British and European history.


Before I get too global let me to return to a place bordering my own locality, to North Kerry. I have great regard for the wordsmiths of this particular haven of Hiberno-English where Bryan McMahon, John B Keane, Brendan Kennelly and Con Houlihan caught much of its beauty and whisked it into a delight.


A number of years ago, in the course of a television documentary about Con Houlihan, Brendan Kennelly recalled sending a draft of his first collection of poems to Con asking for advice, a comment and maybe even a blessing. He got a one-line response telling him, “You’re making the right mistakes.”


It reminds me of a north Kerry musician I knew, a man who could turn his hand to any instrument. Among his myriad of musical tools was a steel guitar imported from Memphis Tennessee. One of my friends asked him how long it would take someone to master it, the musician stared at the instrument, thought for a minute and said, “After six months you’d be awkward” - awkwardness being an improvement on uselessness.


Another man I knew from that neck of the woods was a born storyteller whose normal conversation would weave its way in and out among a series of interconnected stories. Hi stories were delivered in the gorgeously cavernous vowels and cliff-edge consonants of the North Kerry vernacular. Listening to him talk was like listening to a master chef describe every delicious morsel of a gourmet meal. He had a weakness for tangents, but always returned to his main thread.


I hadn’t seen the man for years and on the phone one day to a mutual friend from Tralee I asked about him, “Oh he’s fine,” my contact said, “age is doing no harm to his vocal chords. He’s a great man of words. I’ll tell you something else, he’s the only man I know who can interrupt himself.”


Words are powerful conveyors of levity, hilarity, beauty, truth and elegance. They can also be powerful agents of nastiness and destruction driving men and women to the edge of foolishness and beyond.


Last Wednesday, standing in her yellow radiance in front of the imposing Capitol building in Washington, Amanda Gorman, a princess of poetry, spoke words of beauty, truth, elegance and power, sending waves of redemption cascading over the balustrades and down the steps that had lately witnessed so much hate.


First published in the Farming Independent, Tuesday, January 27th 2021

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