Bryn Mawr Classical Review 02.05.19

John O'Meara, The Singing-Masters. Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 1990. Pp. viii, 115. $20.00. ISBN 0-946640-68-8.

Reviewed by William M. Calder III, The University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign.

This is an honest, beautiful and elevating book, not epithets lightly applied by me. The book makes me proud to be a classicist because I can call its author a colleague. John O'Meara, born 1915 in County Galway, is emeritus Professor of Latin at University College, Dublin, that is the Catholic College in contrast to Trinity College, the Anglican one. His scholarly publications concern St. Augustine and the Irish writers of Latin, especially Johannes Scottus Eriugena. These memoirs concern his education from village school to the Oxford doctorate. They end with his marriage to Odile de Barthes de Montfort in 1947. He had intended to become a Jesuit but doubt later caused him to withdraw without bitterness on either side. This means that he can speak of his Jesuit education from the inside but not as a party-member. He became a classicist at his college instead. His book is largely a narrative set between two world wars and after the freeing of Ireland from the English yoke in 1922. He writes as one of a secluded and remote people oppressed both by the English and the Anglo-Irish and as a devout Catholic who studies profane authors. The book deserves to be read by more than Irishmen. Several reasons occur to me why it rewards the attention of classicists. The Konstanz School with their discovery of Rezeption have demonstrated that the texts are not a constant, only the varying reaction of successive generations is. O'Meara presents a thoroughly Catholic reception of antiquity that exists still perhaps only in Ireland and Poland and is threatened there. He summarizes the blessing of what many today would dismiss as atavistic superstition (22):

Of course when one believed that God, in the visible form of the Eucharistic wafer in the tabernacle on the altar in the chapel, was really present, one was sensitized powerfully towards the perception of a world other than this one pervading every moment of one's existence... The true enduring reality was the unseen. What we saw and did was changeable. And so fantasy was born.

He perceptively connects this with the attraction for Irish scholars of Plato, the Neoplatonists, Orphism and Plotinus (8, 61, 73). One thinks of Dillon, Dodds and MacKenna. It is the antithesis to the Schulpforte of Nietzsche and Wilamowitz, both products of the enlightenment. One need only recall Wilamowitz' disgust with his enforced confirmation, his outrage at confession and his later disparagement of Neoplatonism and the Gnostics along with people who work on them. With a candour rare in the history of classical scholarship O'Meara confesses the pouring of his own blood into the shades of the past (68):1

In The Young Augustine I have written of 'those who have tasted the joys of an intellectual life lived in the close companionship of friends, all bent on the same ultimate goal, all contributing in some way to the delight of discovery, all responsive to a feeling of sympathy and affection.'
I had experienced this. The reference is to his years as a Jesuit novice. One sees the innere Affinität that drew him to his subject. There was no need to censor the obscenities of Horace, as the English and Americans did. He writes (30):
The Odes did not have in my adolescence the troubling effect I now think they might have had. Lines such as 'while burning love and passion [libido], such as goad mares, shall rage around your wounded liver [jecur]", apart from some heightened curiosity as to what phrases as 'my liver swells' really meant, were strengthened against the defences of indoctrination. The world intangible anaesthetized my heart.

One sees also how Catholicism created in the youth what Wilamowitz called "die Sehnsucht und die Emfänglichkeit für das Echte und Grosse" (Reden I.4, 261.), which for him derived from Plato and Goethe. O'Meara's conviction of the world intangible drew him to great literature, ultimately the classics, and to music and song. He writes with excessive modesty (54):

I probably have failed to conjure up for worldly eyes anything of the 'vision splendid' which sustained us. It was a special kind of happiness which one was fortunate to have had, even if some might judge it damaging or just a waste of time.

The dangers of Hibernian Catholicism are unexpectedly similar to Communism. Absolute obedience created uniformity. A system of spying and informing was encouraged. The flesh is weak and requires policing. With Lenin "Vertrauen ist gut, Kontrolle ist besser." The freeing of Ireland in 1922 meant the dictatorship of the Church which in turn spawned opportunities (33):

Whereas before the period 1916-22 a Catholic might ignore or defy his Church and yet get preferment by the British Protestant administration, after 1922 he had to keep his eye on the Church or, even worse, the righteous, sometimes hypocritical, lay people who were more Catholic than the bishops. There is an unenviable affinity between the DDR and the Catholic Ireland.

The book describes a system of education where Classics were central. Indeed, during his years as a novice he was allowed to speak only Latin. The politically correct are warned to make every effort to forbid the purchase of this book by their libraries. If already purchased, it must be removed quickly from the shelves. For the introspective American young who survey the wreckage of secondary education in their own past will ask themselves: "What have we lost? Who took it from us?" Answers that must not be permitted discussion are implicit in this book. 1. Boys learn more and better when they are educated apart from girls. 2. Fear of public humiliation and physical punishment is the best inducement for the young to study. 3. Enforced memorizing of great literary texts at an early age only does good although causing momentary pain (36): Day after day a poem from Palgrave, or several stanzas of one, had to be memorized and repeated in class. Often last minute frenzied endeavor to get this task done was irksome, if also exciting. Those concentrated efforts developed in an uncanny way one's ability to memorize, and so to enjoy, also subconsciously, a body of literature. What patterns of thought, what patterns of style, what stimulus to self-discipline, what development of the sensibility resulted from this use of memory must be significant, even if never to be assessed. 4. The rigorous forbidding of frivolous distractions (newspapers, movies, radio, sex, vulgar literature) concentrates the youthful mind on what is ennobling and enduring (48-49). 5. The young do not know what is good for them but they must be told. 6. Their parents should have no say in their education.

The last chapter on Oxford in 1942-45 is valuable for its glimpses of the great refugees, especially Richard Walzer (93-96) and Eduard Fraenkel (100-101). It also documents the utter incompetence of the doctoral program there, epitomized in the preposterous figure of Claude Jenkins (96-98). It took a generation for Fraenkel even to begin to change Oxford dilettantism.


1. For Americans the great parallel is the admission of Gildersleeve that he read his own experience into Pindar: see Basil L. Gildersleeve, The Creed of the Old South 1865-1915 (Baltimore, 1915), 119. Northern colleagues in 1885 advised him to suppress or modify the passage "as savoring of disloyalty".