2001: MY UNKNOWN RENAISSANCE.

Originally published in October 2017

As with the study of History, as in life, sometimes we are all so aware of moments that change us and indeed that of the world around us.

People will talk about the day they first mate their beloved partner and recount it as a day that changed them forever; it parallels the world audience who huddled around to watch the historic change and takedown of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Sometimes though, maybe we are not so aware and maybe it’s the benefit of hindsight that serves to let us know later that – in some abstract or obscure way – although we don’t notice at first, we do change. In this regard, it’s comparable to the Renaissance of the 16th and 17th centuries. A mass period of profound and overwhelming change … that nobody really seemed to notice at the time. 

By Jonathan Foley

As a now almost 33-year old who grew up in this town, who spent many years being educated and living away in parts of the North and mostly in Scotland – but now back home at long last – I guess it’s no harm to sit back and reflect on how life is now; what’s brought me to this point and maybe how that will shape the future.

At this time of writing, I’m grateful to hold employment as teacher in St Eunan’s College, a journalist with The Leader and of course, there remains hope to further my careers in both. Yet having walked-the-walk through the lack of steady employment during the recession, pulling pints in bars wherever shifts could be found, it’s now a stock-take time of what was the original turning point. 

In truth, I consider mine to be that of a time in my life when I was about 17/18 years old; in around the 2001-2002 era as the new millennium was finding its feet. Of course, the world around us had changed dramatically back then. The old Punt became the Euro, everyone now communicated via text messaging and Britney Spears became the talk of the planet. 

On a more personal level, I reckon this was when I changed too and as daft as it sounds, I do think moments in time such as Martin O’Neill taking over as the manager of Celtic, the events of September 11th and a newfound love of reading to be that turning point. Sure! There’s been meanders and bumps on the road in between now and then but this time was my new starting grid. 

In the few short years prior, I look back and sometimes think I was not necessarily a bad guy by any means; but more so as a ‘reluctant student’ with just a wee tiny touch of rebellious scallywag about me. A fairly poor Junior Cert was, at the time, very demotivating and although I was still well-received by many as a personality, I was essentially a ‘likeable loser’, I suppose. 

Even around the late 1990s/early 2000s, supporting Celtic – which was one of my only outlets from my then educational doldrums – was a chore. They couldn’t even get close to being successful and looked like a disgruntled and lethargic team themselves. Not great role models to be following when you look back.

And in day-to-day life, the wood was starting to been seen as being different from the trees. My mates all seemed to enjoy and partake in the same amount of boyish divilment as I did, but on the flipside, they were still coming out with great exam results. As rumblings of post-Leaving Cert life outside school wore on, I knew myself something had to give and I’d have to change. 

And then something happened. Martin O’Neill took over as Celtic manager and the Bhoys in green and white began to look fresh, determined and driven for success: emphatic win and hard-fought slogged wins, routs of Rangers, challenges to glam-European sides and above all else, shiny ribboned trophies being presented to them on glorious sunny days to cheering crowds. 

I started to see for myself that not only hard-work, but also well thought-out smart-work, could embiggen the hearts and passions of those who wanted to achieve. Inadvertently, I’d spend hours reading up on the club’s history books and fanzines and in time, my confidence and enjoyment of literacy improved. Suddenly extensive textbook reading at school wasn’t so bad anymore. 

My all-round attitude transformed. I acquired summer work in shops and in pubs – at Letterkenny Golf Club and The Swilly Inn – and would use whatever money I could save to do real things like travel to Celtic Park and Lansdowne Road or hit Slane Castle to see U2 play live. I was paying for these memorable adventures myself, so maturity and a real sense of graft grew.

Despite being respectively advised by a teacher to not undertake the Honours courses a few months earlier, I began to excel in English and History classes at that level. ‘To Hell with the Likeable Loser Tag’ was the internal mantra; albeit with more joyfully expressed expletives and somewhere within, the books I was reading made me become somewhat re-attached to New York. 

Books like ‘Death of A Salesman’ and films such as ‘On the Waterfront’ may have been on the prescribed syllabus, but to me, they were more. They brought me back to when I was a child who was fascinated not only by the gripping storylines and characters, but of the captivating NYC setting in things like Ghostbusters and Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles. Cowabunga, dudes! 

But while stories such as ‘Salesman, Waterfront, the Turtles and the ‘Busters’ were that of fiction and deeply rooted in 1950s and 1980s culture respectively, the year of 2001 was also true eye-opener to life and the world around us. As New York City became the focus of attention for all the wrong reasons as the World Trade Centre collapsed amid chaos on September 11th.

For me, it was symbolic of a life-changing moment. For it was the first time that I saw ordinary people suffer in such devastating circumstances live on afternoon television. No soldiers, no actors, no remote places I knew little to nothing about and nothing that my parents would hide me from watching at my age. 

A city I was emotionally bound to – strengthened by the fact that my auntie Evelyn lived there in The Bronx (and still does) and that my older brother Alan had only recently returned home from with gifts for us after a working-holiday on Long Island. 

Suddenly the harder aspects of life were there in front of me on a TV screen.

For a time after, lunchtime hangout conversations with friends became more politically insightful when contrasted to the ‘who shifted who?’ or ‘how full was he?’ chit-chat that used to take precedence beforehand.

With all things considered, and with many more experiences of both love, emigration, success, failure, travel and even family bereavements since that time; things did change. 

I learned more about the psychology behind confidence – of which I find in writing; the world we live in – both beautiful and terrifying from what I have read about and explored and I look forward to what’s still to come. No matter what that may be but ‘for now I am not bent to know’ (wee paraphrased Shakespearean reference there).

This was my period of profound and overwhelming change. A Renaissance, if you will.

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