Irish doublethink and unknown knowns

February 28, 2014

A couple of excerpts from Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger (2009), a fine polemic by the Irish critic and author Fintan O’Toole:

One of the great strengths of Irish culture [is] its capacity for double-think. For a range of reasons – the simultaneous existence of paganism and Christianity, the ambiguous relationship of indigenous society to a colonial power, the long experience of emigration – Irish culture developed a particularly strong capacity for operating simultaneously within different mental frameworks. This is one of the reasons for the rich inventiveness of Irish artistic life and for much of the humour, teasing and wordplay that enliven social interaction. Irish double-think is wonderfully summed up by the old woman in the 1930s who, asked by Sean O’Faolain if she believed in the little people, replied, ‘I do not, sir, but they’re there.’

Much of this is of course unprovable (and unfalsifiable), and you could probably make a case for the same capacity for doublethink in other countries. But O’Toole’s ideas are, as always, food for thought.

Read the rest of this entry »


Climbing Croagh Patrick, the holy mountain of Mayo

July 19, 2013

Photos, for a change. Last weekend three old friends and I climbed Croagh Patrick, a mountain in County Mayo in the mid-west of Ireland. (Croagh is an anglicisation of cruach, Irish for stack.)

The Reek, as it’s also known, has a cone-shaped peak that dominates the surrounding skyline. You can see it in the distance here on the road to Westport town, our home base for the day.

stan carey - croagh patrick mountain climb - road to westport, county mayo

Read the rest of this entry »


Living under a hen

April 22, 2013

Alice Taylor’s Quench the Lamp is a warm and funny memoir of her childhood in rural Cork in the 1940s, full of anecdotes and observations on farm activities, family dramas, eccentric neighbours, and Irish life before and after electrification.

A chapter on thrift and the “art of making do” shows how objects’ versatility was engineered and enhanced. Pot lids warmed beds, goose wings dusted cobwebs, turf dust was deployed when the cat did “what he must where he shouldn’t”. Bags and boxes were strategically repurposed once emptied of their original cargo.

Newspaper served a multitude of roles, some of them still current even in urban lifestyles:

Our newspaper, the Cork Examiner, was a multi-purpose item. It cleaned and polished windows and it covered bare timber floors before the first lino or tarpaulin went down, thus providing underlay and insulation. Placed in layers on top of wire bed-springs, it eased the wear on the horsehair mattress; cut into the right shape, it became insoles in heavy leather boots and shoes and, later, in wellingtons when they became part of our lives. Even though it could never be described as baby soft, it was the forerunner of the multi-million-pound industry that subsequently provided soft solutions in the toilet-paper business. Rolled into balls it was a firelight, its effectiveness improved by a sprinkling of paraffin oil. Ned [a local shop owner] shaped it into funnels and filled it with sweets to make a tóimhsín, as he called it. At home it lined drawers and was considered mothproof and, when nothing else was available, it was used as a dustpan. One of our more industrious neighbours regularly covered her potato stalks with newspaper at night and this protected them from frost.

Taylor says those who excelled in the frugal art ran the risk of being considered thrifty to a fault – it would be said of them that they “could live under a hen”. Or you might say someone “could live in your ear and rent out the other one without you knowing it”.

A tóimhsín or tomhaisín /’t̪oːʃiːn/, by the way, is Irish for a small measure or amount, or in this case a cone-shaped paper bag or poke, often used for holding sweets. It comes from tomhais “measure, weigh”, and is sometimes anglicised as tosheen, to-sheen, or toisheen.


Irish Folk Furniture, a stop-motion documentary

February 12, 2013

Irish Folk Furniture is a stop-motion documentary, 8½ minutes long, that won an award for animation at the Sundance Film Festival last month. Director Tony Donoghue thought it might be too specialist to appeal widely, but it has charmed its way around the festival circuit. I recommend it warmly.

The film celebrates the tradition and use of farmhouse furniture in Ireland, with 16 items restored to a functional state. This is furniture not usually seen as beautiful – or starring in a film – but whose appeal lies in its very ordinariness and utility, and in the history it amasses over generations of use.

Tony Donoghue - Irish Folk Furniture - mouse

It’s a quiet gem in both form and content: as if Jan Švankmajer had rambled down a boreen in Tipperary. Dressers and flour bins wheel around the countryside while their owners chat away. The film is gently funny, beautifully shot, and features some lovely rural Irish accents and syntax, e.g. done as preterite in “we done a good bit on ’em”.

I wanted to link to the original on Donoghue’s YouTube page, but that video has since been set to private, so here it is from another page:

Edit: I’ve removed the video after seeing a comment on YouTube from Tony Donoghue saying his film was only meant to be online for the two weeks of Sundance, and that its continued online presence may undermine its film festival run.

If it reappears legitimately, I’ll reinstate it here.


Ancient people names in Ireland

October 30, 2012

Gearóid Mac Niocaill’s book Ireland before the Vikings (Gill and Macmillan, 1972) has an interesting passage on the names adopted on the island during the 4th, 5th and early 6th centuries. He refers to “a mosaic of peoples” who are “dimly perceptible” amid the settlements and political changes he has been discussing, and whose names appear in various forms:

ending in -raige (‘the people of’), or as Dál (‘the share of’) or Corco (perhaps ‘seed’) plus a second element, or as a collective noun ending in -ne. Some contain animal names, such as Artraige ‘bear-people’, Osraige ‘deer-people’, Grecraige ‘horse-people’, Dartraige ‘calf-people’, Sordraige ‘boar-people’; others, such as the Ciarraige, the Dubraige and Odraige, have a colour (ciar ‘black’, dub also ‘black’, odor ‘dun’) as the first element; others, such as the Cerdraige, seem to have an occupational term as the first element.

Read the rest of this entry »


Gogarty’s Liffey swans

December 17, 2011

Irish writer Oliver St. John Gogarty was kidnapped at gunpoint by the IRA on a cold winter night in 1923, during the country’s Civil War. His escape is the stuff of modern romantic legend. W. B. Yeats — who thought Gogarty “one of the great lyric poets of his age” — gives the following account of events:

Oliver Gogarty was captured by his enemies, imprisoned in a deserted house on the edge of the Liffey with every prospect of death. Pleading a natural necessity he got into the garden, plunged under a shower of revolver bullets and as he swam the ice-cold December stream promised it, should it land him in safety, two swans. I was present when he fulfilled that vow.

[from the Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes]

George Moore called Gogarty “author of all the jokes that enable us to live in Dublin”. Even during the abduction his tongue was unstill: on arrival at the house, he is said to have asked his captors whether he should tip the driver. Conduct was for Gogarty “a series of larks”, in Ellmann’s phrase; little wonder there was soon a popular ballad celebrating his Liffey adventure.

But the gift of swans is what I like most about the story, the gesture showing both Gogarty’s poetic sensibility and his talent for myth-making. The Liffey was not just a means of escape but an entity to be honoured with a ceremonial offering of further life (though the swans seemingly took some persuasion to make the river their home).

Who knows, maybe they’re ancestors of the one that nibbled my hand on the other side of the Shannon some decades later.


Bookmarking the pope’s visit

August 3, 2010

This improvised bookmark was left in a second-hand paperback I picked up recently. It’s a Córas Iompair Éireann (CIÉ) rail ticket to see Pope John Paul II on his visit to the Phoenix Park in Dublin in autumn 1979.

Whoever owned the ticket probably kept it as a memento of what became a milestone in modern Irish history — in some ways a turning point in our sense of ourselves. More than half of Ireland’s population attended a papal appearance during the historic three-day tour; it’s estimated that over a third went to see the pope in the Phoenix Park. Some places, such as Knock, came to a temporary standstill.

Such reverence is unimaginable today for many reasons. One stands out. A great many children in the care of the Catholic church were not exactly given return tickets to the park. Systematic abuse, its subsequent denial, and the reneging of responsibility, accountability, and basic humanity, revealed to the previously unaware a deep dark void where the moral centre of the institution ought to be.

Ireland’s complex relationship with the church is, for better and worse, part of our cultural and psychological heritage. In the midst of evil acts perpetrated by the powerful on the vulnerable, silence was ever complicit. Ours is a nation famed for its talkativeness, but we have a lesser known talent for leaving things unsaid. The pope’s last words before boarding at Shannon Airport were: “Ireland — semper fidelis, always faithful.” I think that was part of the problem.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 6,271 other followers