The story goes of an Irish village in which one of the most prominent citizens, the village "character," would sit on a bench outside the post office every day, at least every day that it was not pouring rain. There he would read his daily newspaper from cover to cover, turning the pages with exaggerated precision. The locals would nod and salute to him as they entered the post office, nod and salute as they left. Away from the village character they would smile quietly, content with the way of the man, the village and the world around it. No harm at all that the village character would "read" the paper upside down. No harm at all that he couldn’t read a word, not even the title of the publication, though he could ask for it by name over the counter, again with that exaggerated precision of his.
This little story is of an Ireland past. But it holds true, in different forms, in the Ireland of the present, a place with less time on its hands to tolerate the deficiencies of people, characters or otherwise. The recent United Nations report that has placed Ireland at the low end of the European literacy scale is a timely warning. Though it makes for sober reading, the report raises to due prominence a situation in which citizens are being denied their full role and place in society as a result of their daily difficulties with what most of us see as mere words.
But it is mere words, of course, that guide us through just about every opportunity and hazard in our increasingly complex world. Be it in the cash-clogged Celtic Tiger or the world’s richest economy, the United States, the denial of a fair shake in life due to functional illiteracy remains a daily crisis for millions of people. It doesn’t have to be that way.
In Ireland, much of the problem seems to stem from a time when economic deprivation effectively shunted entire communities and age groups to the sidelines. Such deprivation, while by no means absent today, is currently offset by considerable surplus funds in the hands of the government. It goes without saying that part of any budget surplus, be it at a local or national level, should be set aside to bolster the right to read. No democracy, Irish, American or other, can be said to be truly flourishing when large numbers of citizens are unable to recognize words such as vote, liberty — or even post office and bench.