The Last of the Name by Charles McGlinchey (1861–1954) is an account of life in rural Ireland generations ago: customs, beliefs, practicalities, peculiarities. Published in 1986 with Brian Friel as editor, it is acclaimed as a ‘minor classic’ by Seamus Heaney. It’s also linguistically rich; in this and the next post I’ll note two words that caught my eye.
I always heard you should never strike a cow with a holly stick. Holly and hazel are two trees that are gentle [enchanted]. The people used to have a rhyme ‘Holly and hazel went to the wood, holly took hazel home by the lug.’ That meant that holly was the master of the hazel.
[Lug means ‘ear’. The parenthetical gloss for gentle is Friel’s.]
Holly and hazel recur in folk belief and have been credited with protective powers since ancient times. Niall Mac Coitir, in his book Irish Trees: Myths, Legends & Folklore, writes that in Ireland holly is a crann uasal, a ‘gentle’ or ‘noble’ tree, and that ‘you annoy the fairies when you misuse it, for example by sweeping the chimney with it’.
Later in McGlinchey’s book is an illuminating use of this dialectal gentle:
The present house in Binnion was built in 1816. When the building was going on, Michael had a ganger from Co. Derry quarrying stones. Whatever quarry the men were sent to, they thought it was gentle and refused to lift a sledge. So the ganger took off a red scarf he had round his neck, tied a knot on it and threw it on top of the rock. He told the men to be back next morning and that they’d see if it was gentle or not. Next morning the scarf was the same way as it was left the day before, so the men fell to the sledging, and there was no more word of the fairies.
Kevin Barry’s novel Night Boat to Tangier describes a similar conflict:
Gentle has several common senses in standardized English, and a bunch more that have lapsed from use since its arrival into English from Old French gentil ‘courteous, noble, high-born’ (hence gentleman), from Latin gentīlis ‘of the same clan’.
The gentle in The Last of the Name is defined in the OED as ‘enchanted or visited by fairies; associated with fairies’ and is labelled chiefly Irish English. The gentle folk and gentle people are among many euphemisms used in Ireland to refer to them. Here are some gentle citations from the OED and Bernard Share’s Slanguage:
The large hawthorns growing singly in fields, are deemed sacred to fairies, and are hence called gentle thorns. (Samuel McSkimin, The history and antiquities of the county of the town of Carrickfergus, 1823)
Woe betide the foolhardy person who ventures to raise an axe against one of these ‘gentle bushes’, as they are called. (The Cornhill Magazine, Feb. 1877)
‘Aw, Paddy,’ he said, ‘this part of Ireland is a gentle spot . . . The Wee Fellas be about.’ (Patrick Kavanagh, The Green Fool, 1938)
Mrs. Cartin’s father held Cloghnagalla to be a ‘gentle spot’, to be avoided, especially at Halloweve. (Ulster Journal of Archaeology, 3(42), 1940)
Local views about our wood being somehow a fairy one: not in the sense of winged tinsel fairies, but as a ‘gentle place’ with some kind of special continuity with the past. (Folklore, 105(3/1), 1994)
And finally an enchanting passage from W. B. Yeats’s The Celtic Twilight (1893):
A little north of the town of Sligo, on the southern side of Ben Bulben, some hundreds of feet above the plain, is a small white square in the limestone. No mortal has ever touched it with his hand; no sheep or goat has ever browsed grass beside it. There is no more inaccessible place upon the earth, and few more encircled by awe to the deep considering. It is the door of faery-land. In the middle of night it swings open, and the unearthly troop rushes out. All night the gay rabble sweep to and fro across the land, invisible to all, unless perhaps where, in some more than commonly ‘gentle’ place – Drumcliff or Drum-a-hair – the nightcapped heads of faery-doctors may be thrust from their doors to see what mischief the ‘gentry’ are doing.