We heard about the Hungarian Uprising when the two refugees came to the school. The dean gave a speech in the refectory about how the rebels who had died on the streets of Budapest were martyrs for the Catholic Faith. They were glorious in defeat.
In my third year, I was beginning to get a bit cynical about this glory-in-defeat business. In those days, the Irish rugby team was nearly always glorious in defeat. This was a great comfort for the defeated players, and it probably meant that they didn't train any harder for the next game. Why should they, when they could be glorious in defeat again? 'Gallant Ireland go down bravely' was the kind of headline you'd read in the Sunday sports pages.
It was gallant and valiant when the small took on the great for a noble principle like freedom, and died for their courage. Or even when a youngster like David took on a giant like Goliath and actually killed him because of some trick he had up his sleeve - in this case a sling. But somehow, it was considered better to die for your beliefs than to outwit your mighty enemy by a trick the enemy didn't know about. It was better to stick to the rules of war, and if you hadn't any tanks, you had to take on the tanks with whatever you had, a rifle or revolver, and die gloriously. That was a magnificent gesture, and would live in the memory of your people, a source of comfort and pride.
When my father gave a history lesson in primary school, the Irish always fought gallantly, outnumbered and with inferior arms. Everything conspired against them, including the weather. Their own internal squabbles didn't help either; it seemed that they succeeded in settling their differences only at the last minute, in order to put up a great fight and die gloriously. I learned later that the Irish had actually outnumbered the English at the Battle of Kinsale in 1601.
'But the Irish were exhausted because of their long trek from the North in the middle of the harshest winter of the time,' my father replied when I mentioned this fact. 'The Spaniards couldn't have landed at a worse place than Kinsale.'
The Irish always knew how to die gloriously. The Irish rugby team knew how to go down bravely. So did the college's senior hurlers and footballers. But apparently there was a limit to glory in defeat, because one evening the rector came into the refectory at supper-time and gave a speech about the poor performances of the college teams, saying that they were not trying hard enough and that poor Father Bosco's heart was broken after all his time and effort with them.
Besides being the sports trainer, Father Bosco also taught history. Although he gave the same kind of patriotic, religiously biased versions of events as my father, the monk had a way of making the subject interesting: he presented the greats of history as ordinary lads with names such as Theo (Wolfe Tone), Bobbie (Robert Emmet) and Boney (Napoleon), who all spoke in a very colloquial way.
'Ah sure, we'll give it a go anyway, lads, said Bobbie when he saw that his rebellion hadn't a chance.'
'I'll tell you what we'll do, lads, said Boney. We'll cross the Alps. They won't be bargaining for that.'
Boney was also credited with saying that an army marches on its stomach. The boys could understand that very well.
Such stories the two refugees might have told us of the Uprising! But all we could relate to was the Hungarian for cheese.
From memoir in progress, 'The Hungarian for Cheese', © Ciaran O'Driscoll 2011