Sunday, October 22, 2023

TY House Speech Competition 2023

On Sunday 8th October we held the annual Transition Year House Speech Competition. There was a high standard overall, and the judges awarded equal second place to Rebekah Fitzgerald Hollywood and Safia Walker. A clear first place, however, went to Grace Koch, whose speech about her great-grandmother is now below.

“In one day it all came crashing down— like falling into an abyss, the sudden shock reverberating long afterwards into the years that followed.” 

I’m sure that most people here have learned about, or at least heard of, the Holocaust. It is widely regarded as one of the most important topics in history. However, when we learn about it, I think that we tend to focus on broad details and statistics. Not to say that there is anything wrong with that, but I think it is equally important to listen to personal experiences. Today, I want to share with you my family’s personal experience with the Holocaust.

The quote that I just read is taken from Vienna Revisited, a book written by Freda Ulman Teitalbaum, also called Grandma Freda, my great-grandmother. In it, she talks about her journey of self discovery and reflection in visiting her childhood home with her daughter Marcia. She was born in Vienna in 1924 and grew up in the Judengasse, the Jewish district in Vienna. Freda describes her childhood to be joyous and carefree, albeit sheltered. She enjoyed school, despite her general aversion to math, and was particularly fond of languages and literature. In 1938, the Anschluss, the union between Austria and Nazi Germany, happened and my great-grandmother’s world was shattered. In her book, she writes of the day that she learned about Anschluss. She was walking in the park with her parents and her younger sister Susi when suddenly the sky was filled with planes adorned with Nazi flags that dropped pamphlets. Freda, only thirteen, picked one up only to read the words “Death to the Jews”. She was devastated and taken by surprise, her idyllic bubble popped.

She also tells of a common occurrence for Jewish women in Vienna at this time. Anyone over the age of 15 could be summoned to the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police, and forced to strip naked in front of them. They would then cut off a lock of the woman’s hair. This would be a humiliating and devastating experience for anyone, but especially for a teenager. When Freda was 14, she and her mother got the summons. As a young adult, she felt extremely self-conscious about her body, saying that she was too afraid to even undress in front of her mother, let alone the Gestapo. While they ended up being dismissed because Freda was only fourteen, it was a traumatizing experience nonetheless. The Nazis completely changed her self worth as they constantly degraded her place in society as a Jewish woman.

Fortunately, after months and months of waiting, Freda, her mother and her sister were able to get visas for the United States, but their father, who was Polish by birth, had to wait. He told them to go anyway, and he was able to join them after a few months. Many of Freda’s family members would join them, but her beloved uncle Josef would die in the Buchenwald concentration camp and her paternal grandparents would disappear during the war. They refused to leave their home, saying that God would protect them. Even today, we don’t know what happened to them. Freda went on to graduate from high school in Chicago and begin working almost straight away. In 1982, she fulfilled her lifelong dream of university and graduated from UCLA with a degree in English.

As I was thinking about what I would do for my speech, I felt a pull towards my great-grandmother. I’m still not quite sure why, but I think I have an idea. Grandma Freda passed away last year at the age of 99. It was sad, of course, but not so much personally. To be honest, I barely knew her and rarely saw her. Last spring, I visited my grandparents, my grandmother Ruth being Freda’s daughter. Together, we looked through some of Freda’s old jewellery. Most of it was cheap costume material apart than two sets of pearl necklaces and two small watches, one silver and one gold. My grandmother gifted the two necklaces to me and my sister, as well as Freda’s college diploma from UCLA, which is now in my bedroom.

As we were looking through the collection, my grandmother very gingerly grabbed the watches. They were both broken, but had clearly been taken care of. My grandmother told me how the watches had belonged to her grandmother, Regina Ulman. She had brought them with her when she travelled from Vienna to America. These watches are some of if not the only surviving heirlooms from my family’s time in Vienna. Shortly after the Anschluss, Austrian Jews were forced to give up all valuables to the Gestapo. Before this happened, however, Regina and her husband Bernard were able to smuggle some items out of the country via a Christian friend living in Italy. Most of these items ended up being sold once the Ulmans reached New York.

As I held these artefacts of my family’s history, symbols of their pain, suffering, and grief but also of triumph and promises of hope, I noticed a sense of deep connection to my ancestors that I never truly had before. I felt a responsibility to keep their memories alive not only to commemorate them, but to learn from them and maybe help others to do the same. I know we can all agree that what happened in the Holocaust was disgraceful and despicable, but that is not enough. We have to actively fight against anti-semitism and other forms of bigotry. I think that this sentiment was certainly shared by Freda, and it is made clear in her book that there were still many things she thought needed to change. She ends Vienna Revisited with words that power my own desire to share her story: 

“From time to time the same question arose to haunt us: why were we saved, why were we the lucky ones to survive? The only answer to this enigmatic question could be that we were meant to live so that a new generation could arise from the ashes of the old, with the hope that they would inherit a better world, and that they would never forget.”

Wednesday, June 07, 2023

Senior Poetry Prize 2023

Congratulations to Isabella Treacy, who wins the Peter Dix Memorial Prize for Poetry for the second year, and to Yilong She, who receives a Commendation. First, some of Isabella's winning portfolio.

A Funeral for your Lies 

and an Exhumation of my Truths


You could call this a funeral

for your Lies,

and an exhumation 

of my Truths.


I was buried next to this unseemly secret

six feet deep with the roots.

Lord knows I should still be

pushing daisies.


You took my life 

but it's not the end.


I was put in the ground

and now I'm back from the dead.

You should have known 

that something which was never living

can never really die.


I’m getting tired of crawling all the way.

I've had enough!

Isn’t it obvious?

Holding the pain like I’m holding my breath

Now that I’m on trial.


I won’t be beaten by this,

Not yet.


And it’s my whole heart

Being tried and tested,

But it’s mine!

I won’t be buried or burned this time.


Who’s the equivocator now?

Keres, help me not to forget,

While I’m on trial,

Wait until the beast comes out.


Oh you fool, there are rules,

I’m coming for you.

You can try to outrun this scourger

 but you can’t escape.


Holy water cannot save you now.

Now your reckoning begins

and La Pelona will lead you 

to your yawning grave.

I took a journey to the unknown

And I came back changed, 

I can feel it in my bones.

It feels like I've been away for an era

but nothing changed at all.


Say goodbye to who I was.


You told me to calm down

and asked why my heart had turned rotten?

It still gets my blood boiling.

And now I look at you 

through crimson tinted glasses

 while I stay stuck in the crossfire 

of my own thoughts.


La Pelona and I walk side by side

over your spoiled, evil spirit.

You left a deep scar

which I still try to bleach out.


I’ll dig a grave for your lies

with a beating heart of stone,

and I’ll never spare 

my sympathy

for someone like you.

Kitchen floors and

 Saints at doors


How could I have known

what I was about to trade. 


All I knew was that I saw a way

and you saw the worst in me.


As I reached for the clouds 

you made sure that I 

would return

to your weightless embrace.


I still search for a reason

not to end up in denial,

like those long summer nights

stolen away as the moon falls.


Despite the lies you bound to me

                                                          I still love you.

But, I won't wait anymore,

for the parts of you

that are never on show.


Yet, my heart yearns 

to lay on the kitchen floor

under you’re unfeeling gaze

as moonlight paints your face.


And every morning 

when you wake,

I'll still love those 

mangled bits of you.

Mine Forever


I was there,

When you fell from the clouds.


When I found you,

 I saw a place like paradise in your eyes,

then I knew that my end would come soon.


Those modest saying that meant so much to you,

with me they’ve never quite got through.

I’ve always needed bigger words.


I was so full of love that I could hardly breathe.

There isn’t a language for the things I feel.


It was such a relief and a horror

To be known so perfectly,

So completely. 


You were the one who made me believe,

that I could fly again.


Now we’re a story that I don’t want to read.


Loving you was easy when I balanced on a knife's edge.

Now your spirit follows me wherever I go,

and I still hear your melody from those days
as you haunt me in the night.


When the sun comes up and I go blind,

For a moment, I can blot out the memory of your face

and forget every line, every wrinkle.


But, if forever gets too lonely

I’ll meet you where our souls

Meet our bones,

Because in my mind

You’re mine forever.

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Transition Year English evening, 2023


On the evening of Tuesday 30th May we had the 28th annual Transition Year English evening in the BSR (and so, with two years out for pandemic reasons, this event started 30 years ago). The formula has remained little changed: pupils read out interesting work they have written during the year, and a guest speaker associated with English comments on this, and speaks on wider issues. There is no competitive element: this is a pure celebration of writing. At the end of the evening the pupils receive their year’s grades.

This year our guest (who had also come several years ago) was Mr Toirleac O’Brien, former English teacher at Blackrock College (his comments are in brackets after each speaker). The evening was compèred by Mr Jameson.

The first reader was Ava Fagan, with a special memory this year about a scuba-diving trip (so richly descriptive - wonderful). She was followed by Melina Paulsen, who wrote about her first Irish train journey (a delightful piece, with entrancing dialogue). Clodagh Walsh was third, with a short story including the sentence ‘Suddenly there was no noise’ (it opened effectively in the middle). Amaya Street wrote about her memories of her early homes (this looked at how your life might have turned out differently). Jamie Casey then read Alba Perich’s story of first love (very bravely!), followed by a very different piece, Manuela Nassief’s ‘Waterfall’ (with incredible observation, a remarkable piece of writing). Aeladh Bradley-Brady next read her highly ‘imaginative’ piece about losing one sense - hearing. Finally, Iona McCausland wrote on a long-time favourite personal topic, ‘The Oldest Person I Know’, in her case her complicated grandmother (it was deliciously eccentric, with a lovely way of seeing things).

Mr O’Brien then gave us some heart-felt sentiments on the future of writing and reading, particularly given the new AI world we have moved into so recently. His passionate advocacy for books was striking. He finished by commending all the readers on their bravery in reading so personally and intimately in front of their peers.

Finally, congratulations to the Premier Award winners: Aeladh Bradley-Brady, Cajetan Cardona, Carlotta Castagna, Amber Cotton, Ava Fagan, Emilia Hager, Manuela Nassief, Melina Paulsen, Shannon Walker Kinsella, Clodagh Walsh, Alison Wang and Johanna zu Solms.

Monday, May 29, 2023

Voices of Poetry 2023

Voices of Poetry has been going for many years: a unique event, it provides a punctuation point at a particular part of the school year: Sixth Form have finished classes, the Sports Day is over, and ahead are the St Columba’s Day weekend, the public exams, the excitement of trips week, and finally the school exams. For 45 minutes we pause in the middle of all this activity and listen in the BSR to voices in different languages, both pupils and staff speaking in a darkened hushed auditorium lit by a single spotlight. The event celebrates the great diversity of the College population, and, appropriately, this year it was Pentecost, with its associations with speaking in many tongues.
On Sunday evening, a group of three foreign languages started us off, linked tenuously by their first letter. Chinese (Mandarin) was spoken musically by Coco Xu, and she was followed by Czech - Phoebe Landseer, with a piece by 1984 Nobel winner Jaroslav Seifert - and Catalan (Tomas Rosa Echevarria). The rhythm of the evening was that then we reverted to English for three poems: Mr Kirwan was at the event for the first time, reading Thomas Hardy, followed by two Second Formers: Lexi Hunter with 'Prayer' by Carol Ann Duffy and Elizabeth Coffey with ‘The Great Blasket Island’ by Julie O’Callaghan, which you can hear the poet herself read here.
Romance languages formed the next cluster: French from Hugo Laurenceau and Ebah Assebian, Spanish from Eugenia Garcia and Olivia Valderrama, and Italian from Anna Luisa Sanminiatelli. Back to English: Mr Swift read the ever-excellent and amusing Billy Collins's ‘Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House’, followed by two more Second Formers, with both Jack-Francis McKeon (‘Earth Summit’ by Oliver Tearle) and James Breatnach (the famous ‘Lake Isle of Innisfree by W.B. Yeats) reading confidently.
An extremely eclectic group came next: Yoruba from Bibiire Oke-Osanyintolu, Irish from Naoise Murray, Ancient Greek from Edvard Zujest and Arabic from Anna-Cecilia Corti. You could hardly find languages with less in common, but all of them marked by a very different and beautiful music.
A First Former and the Warden followed: Harry Casey read his own work ‘Farewell’ and then the Warden recited one of the poems he learned years ago, Walter de la Mare’s dramatic and evocative ‘The Travellers’.
The final foreign-language group was from countries close to each other: German (Hannah Bergmann), Danish (Melina Paulsen), Ukrainian (Anhelina Khliebnykova) and Polish (Aleksander Kierski). The last of these was ‘Clouds’ by the 1996 Nobel Laureate, Wisława Szymborska, and Mr Girdham read out the English translation first.
The evening came to a close with Nikolai Foster representing Sixth Form and leavers with Berton Braley’s ‘The Will to Win’, some advice for those whose time at the school is not yet coming to an end. Then Mr McCarthy, whose time is, recited Langston Hughes’s ‘Life is Fine’.
We ended with Junior Poetry Prize winner Giacomo Borillo’s touching ‘The Beautiful Beach’, thinking of his grandfather who died a year ago. That reflective note was the right one on which to end, a recognition of how poetry can console us and express what truly matters to us.

Junior Poetry Prize 2023

Congratulations to First Former Giacomo Borillo, who won this year's Junior Poetry Prize, remembering his grandfather, who died a year ago.

The sun shines brightly on that beautiful beach.
The sand sweeps softly through the wind.
Its beauty spans as far as the eye can reach,
And all my woeful worries are left behind.

My grandfather’s hand is clutched in mine,
As we watch the whales pass us both.
I want that memory frozen in time,
But they say loss is just a part of growth.

How I wish I could that memory forever,
But I’m a world away from my wish.
And how I’d wish that world away,
Just to be back on that beautiful beach.

Wednesday, March 01, 2023

Senior Poetry Prize 2023

Entries for this year's Peter Dix Memorial Prize for Poetry are due by May 26th, handed in to Mr Canning. Entries should contain a portfolio of between two and five poems based on or inspired by the idea of one of - formative experiences / formative people / formative places. Full details are posted on a special notice around the school.

Monday, February 20, 2023

20 'Macbeth' video/audio annotations


Here's a renewal of the ShowMe analyses of key moments in Macbeth, now moved to a new location. Each is short (2/3 minutes).

Thursday, February 09, 2023

Swiss Army Knife quotations


A simple, low-preparation revision technique in classes.

Pupils should know quotations which have multiple uses, just like the famous knife. A good way to emphasise this in class is to choose one, and spend time ‘exploding’ it, getting as much out of it as possible, and interrogating every word. This is part of the process of thinking deeply about a text. It could be done in just 15 minutes.

Give out A3 sheets of blank paper (or if it’s a last minute decision just use the board, with pupils jotting down bullet points). Put the quotation in the middle (volunteered by a pupil, or chosen by the teacher). Then in pairs (ideally, but works with individuals) ‘interrogate’ the statement in a limited amount of time: say, 10 minutes.

Then come together as a class to share ideas, and get yet more out of the statement: put these ideas on the board/screen.

Above, an example from Lady Macbeth (PDF): the murder scene, Act II scene ii. A very simple and apparently banal statement which can reveal a lot. You can have a very rich discussion about the play based on it.

Questions could be asked in advance/afterwards, such as:

  • If you had to highlight one word only, what, and why?
  • Why does the character say this?
  • Does she believe it?
  • How is she similar or different to other characters?
  • How does this echo anything that has already been said/happened?
  • Can you connect anything later in the play to this?