No word of a lie

I’ll tell you a story. This is not a word of a lie.

There was an old man arrived in here one winter evening ten years back. He had a big feathery yellow head on him much like a large mouldy turnip. It was said he came down from the hills behind Knockbrack but it wasn’t said by him. In truth I haven’t the faintest notion where he is from or what kind of man he is.

He settled in to the snuggest chair in the kitchen and gradually inched it up next to the Aga. He has hardly set foot outside since that evening. And why would he? Hasn’t he all of the things a man needs. A warm back, food in his belly, people to listen to him, and a right good pair of boots.

This is the same gentleman who relayed to me this story and so now you know why I can tell you for certain that it is no lie of mine. I’ll tell you it exactly as he told it to me.

‘Begor now,’ said he (he could be a terrible man for begorring when you were trying to get to the kettle), ‘Begor and no good could ever be got out of the same lady. Nothing would do her only to rear up on her back legs and trip out the door the very same as if her tail was on fire. Only it was myself was following the hearse at that time I suppose she’d be going still. I’d be quare well up that way. …. Well I suppose it would be better if I was to start at the beginning.’

‘Hold up there a minute now. Do you not hear that person beating on the door? He had like to never get in. Go and take a gander at him and sure the story will keep….

Kilkenny’s geasa

In 1366 the English attempted to ban hurling in a set of laws called the ‘Statutes of Kilkenny’. Kilkenny continues to give its response. At 10 am today a Garda escort with flashing lights and siren, led a convoy from the city. In the convoy, the finest hurling team that the country has ever known. They have headed to Croke Park for the All Ireland Senior Hurling Final in this manner for 14 of the last 15 years.

The population of the county is at one in the enterprise. In every village the club structures draw support and commitment from people of all ages and talents. Men and women dedicate themselves through every challenge to the year round rainy evening chores that go into developing new waves of young players to compete at every level in the artful game.

The Statutes came about because the Hiberno-Norman land owners were becoming too naturalized. The English Crown felt (correctly) that they could no longer rely on them as they were becoming rather native in their ways – becoming a ‘Nation of the utmost perfidy’.

The man put to sort this problem out was the ‘Duke of Clarence’. Actually, he didn’t ban hurling. He merely banned anyone who wanted to continue owning their lands from playing it. He also banned them from speaking Irish. He declared that they must stop living by the Irish Brehon Laws which most Norman families had adopted. He banned them from marrying ‘native’ Irish. And he ruled that they must cut off their beards! A beard and long hair was a mark of stature in the Brehon system.

So to those who wonder whether Kilkenny will ever tire of winning: I’d have to say the prognosis is poor. In the humble assessment of this blow-in only ten years in Kilkenny (after about four generations some here may regard you as a local), there is a geasa or spell on the inhabitants of this place. Like the famous Sweeney of mythology who was condemned by a geasa to live forever as a bird-like figure flitting in frenzy from tree to tree, the Cats are condemned to go on defying the Statutes.

A spell it is without a doubt. People you thought were normal, develop a mesmerized look when the subject of hurling comes up. You hear them talking with ferocity about a bad refereeing decision back in ’72. Or telling that they had to miss the brother’s wedding because it clashed with training the under 10s. And if you make the mistake of thinking the City clubs are dedicated, they say, ‘this is nothing, in the South of the county the mothers stop feeding them if they’re not hurling by the age of three.’

Clarence left Ireland a year after his failed parliament but the people of Kilkenny are left with the responsibility of forever breaking his law against ‘horling’. (Many of them bear deriviatives of Hiberno-Norman names, attesting also to the breaking of the inter-marriage law.)

As for the law against speaking English, the contravention of that may be entrusted to the people of Galway. It will be a consolation for them after the SHF replay on the 30th of September.

And I suppose we Carlow men could always grow our beards.

I have to admit, it’s hard to remain uncontaminated when you live here. The geasa gets into your head. Up the Cats!

Disturbing fiction

An author has to keep an eye on the reader as the storyteller always did, just with the disadvantage of being a step removed.

You have to keep an eye on them because you have a job to do for them. You have to amuse them and keep them amused. That’s all.

Luckily, there are various ways in which you can do this. Like every storyteller understood, you must always have characters more interesting than anyone present and you must have disturbing things happening to them. You should have excitement, treachery, loyalty, loss and if at all possible, revenge. You have to have a laugh with the characters and another one at them. You should have layers of hidden story for the more alert reader to dig up. 

There must always be love. Nothing moves without it. Every good story is embedded in it, even where it is never spoken, even where it is contorted.

And of course you should disrupt the reader’s afternoon.

I hope Old Friends amused you.

Fellow Travellers

Old Friends touches slightly the relationship between Travellers and the people around them. It’s a subject that many of us largely avoid because the situation of Travellers within the larger Irish community continues to be a highly divisive issue. There is nothing about the situation for any of us to be proud about. 

This was again highlighted when the brilliant John Joe Nevin won a silver medal for Ireland in the London Olympics. The whole country cheered for him. Huge numbers gathered in his home town of Mulingar to watch the final on a big screen. Yet we heard afterwards that his extended family had to go to neighbouring towns to watch the fights – not allowed in the pubs in Mulingar. And many of the same ‘settled’ people who were supporting John Joe while he wore the Irish jersey, also sympathized with the publicans who barred Nevins from facilities in the town. Apparently we still do not see anything wrong with punishing an entire community for the offences of a couple of individuals. The Nevins and John Joe himself were deeply hurt and compared their situation to that of pre-Civil rights era African Americans. Even these conflicts of perspectives and clashes of emotions have not provoked us into bringing the discussion back into the public arena.

If there’s anything that a majority of ‘Travellers’ and ‘Settled people’ seem to agree on these days it is that ‘they’ are virtually another race from ‘us’. Each for different reasons wants to put distance. Bad news though. Genetics, culture, and history all tell us that as my Grandmother used to say, we are ‘all the one dirty tribe’

Getting the names right

It is quite confusing for people not from Ireland, to figure out the differences that we Irish see so starkly. A ‘Traveller’ is a person who doesn’t travel very much any more. A ‘settled person’ is someone who is not a Traveller – even if they travel a lot! There, I hope that helps.

Also, there are names that we call each other. Some Travellers’ ancestors were itinerant tinsmiths. A few may have traded in fallen animals. Hence, Travellers were variously called ‘itinerant’ and ‘tinker’ and ‘knacker’ in the past. These terms, especially the latter, have been used in a derogatory way in recent times and Travellers find them offensive.

And then, some Travellers call settled people ‘countrymen’. I’m sure there are a few less flattering names but I haven’t heard them.

It might also be a surprise to outsiders to learn that most settled people have never been in a Traveller estate or halting site, let alone visiting a Traveller home. The divide is wide, the ignorance and suspicion mutual.

And so where do I stand? I’m not very settled so call me countryman.

Why would Travellers disown their Countrymen?

For Traveller groups the main motivation I believe is to get proper recognition for the discrimination suffered. If you are recognized as a person of separate ethnicity, there’s a whole stack of rules and protections already in place and backed up from Europe. These still do not always protect you from nastiness. But at least your plight is formally recognized. It has words like racism to put your tormentor in a shameful box. And there are established channels you can take to look for legal justice if you wish to. 

However, if you are a person of the same Nationality but of a disadvantaged social class, there is less ready legislation to protect you from discrimination or abuse. People can call you names and treat you badly just on the basis of your surname or your accent and usually there’s nothing you can do about it.

For example, if you are called a derogatory name or passed over for a job because you come from Dolphin’s Barn and have an inner city accent, you will get little sympathy and have no easy legal recourse. If you are called a derogatory name or refused a job because you come from Ghana, respectable people will be on your side (rightly) and you have an established case.

And let’s put no tooth in this: Travellers suffer extensive negative discrimination at almost every level in Irish society. The facts around life expectancy, child mortality, and access to education are worse than in many developing countries, a sad and shameful situation in a well-off country. What happened to the Nevins is a common experience for many Travellers. Law-abiding and peacable people are often denied access to services and facilities – or made to feel so unwelcome that they would rather not try. Everyone in the Traveller community is punished for the actions of a few individuals. Everyone knows that is unjust. Yet sympathy levels amongst other Irish people are low and people freely use the derogatory terms such as the k-word without any shame.  

It is quite understandable for advocacy groups to seek the established protections of a separate ethnic group. That doesn’t make it so, however.

There are also arguments about cultural differences. It has been argued that in the way people speak and behave, the difference is as great as between two separate ethnic groups. I think that this argument too has more to do with denial, on both ‘sides’. But the genetics as well as a closer look at where all of Irish culture comes from put us all in ‘the one boat’ whether we like it or not.

Why would settled people disown Travellers?

I just read a discussion thread relating to a group of Travellers who had just arrived in Sweden from the UK. The group was being blamed for tarmac rackets, extortion, and a wave of thefts. Some Irish expats on the site were angrily denying that ‘these people’ are Irish. They were saying that they are hated even more in Ireland; warning of all the terrible things that Swedish people could expect; saying that the Swedish police are too soft on them; claiming that the relationship between Irish people and the Travellers is as between Romanians and the Roma.

Let’s leave aside the festering bigots. Most people are decent and want to do the decent thing. Most people want to be alright with those around them and do not want to be unjust. Yet many settled Irish people have hardened attitudes about Travellers as many Travellers have about settled people.

So why would generally decent settled people disown our Traveller brethern? For some, especially the elderly, it’s plain fear. For some it’s resentment at a misperception of ill gotten wealth being widespread. (The vast majority of Travellers live in poverty but those with the flashy new jeeps and bling are seen more often.) 

For many, there are other factors.

Too close to the bone: Some of the reason Irish people at large react so vehemently against Travellers and their perceived lifestyles has to do with it being so close. We know in our hearts that the way we see ‘them’ is the way our ancestors were seen by others. Travellers as a group preserve elements, some good and some not so good, of a culture that once belonged to all of us. The way that Travellers are outsiders to the established ‘civilized’ society is the same way that all of our ancestors were made to feel uncouth and uncivlized outsiders in their own country not so long ago.  The Travellers’ commonly devout traditional Catholicism and adherence to older beliefs are regarded by most settled people as backward and superstitious – in the way that our own ancestors’ faith was regarded by the ascendency up to a hundred years ago. The inter-family feuding that consumes some Travellers seems surely to be a direct continuation of faction fighting that went on in fairs and villages in every part of the country. Even in recent times many of us have experienced reflections of how we regard the Travellers in how we ourselves are still regarded by some when we work on the buildings in London, when we travel to support the footballers in Poland, or when we go on destructive binges in Australlia. It’s hardly a wonder that settled people tend to have a strong negative reaction to much of Traveller life. It’s uncomfortably close. 

 Subculture clash:  Yet, peoples move on. The Irish people in many ways have moved on culturally. There is great sadness about good things that we have lost as we have assimilated ‘Western’ ways. However there are also many good things in being part of evolving ‘Western’ culture. Things that I, for one, will never apologize for subscibing to.

For example, I would never want society to go back to where many individuals did not have rights and protections. So I cannot romaticize those elements of Traveller culture that in my view are regressive.

The fact that I see how some of these elements could have evolved from old Irish (rather than alien) customs, is even more reason to say this. For example, I see Traveller children as Irish children. Therefore, they have equal rights to education. This sets me apart from many Travellers who seem to argue that the only reason for lack of education is discrimination in the schools. It is not the only reason. There are many schools that have made special efforts in recent decades to make Traveller children welcome, to bridge the gap, and to keep the children coming. But there are other factors. Like some farmers used to think that if they deprived the chosen son of education, he was sure to stay at home as he had no choice, I believe some Travellers do not make enough effort to give their children education out of fear that they will reject the lifestyle. On this, respect for Traveller culture comes second. Respect for the law of the land and for the rights of the child come first.

The same goes for child marriage, consanguinity, denial of rights to women and girls, indentured labour, and certain other practices that appear to be common in Traveller communities. The laws of Ireland come first. It is wrong that girls are taken out of school even earlier than boys in case they might meet a boy and form an unapproved relationship. It is wrong that because of denied education, people are then trapped in a lifestyle that they might still have chosen if they were educated but that they had no choice about.

And it is wrong that when Irish Travellers were put on trial in the UK for enslaving homeless men, Travellers’ advocacy groups accused prosecutors of racism.

It is wrong to use culture as a shield behind which backward practices may survive.  

There are many ills in the Traveller sub-culture. Yes, there are many ills in most other sub-cultures too. The dominant Westernized settled subcultures too. But there’s no point in fudging or gloosing over this point. There are cultural mores surviving in the Traveller community that are not acceptable in our modern society. This has not to do with politeness or embarassment. It has to do with a modern understanding of basic human rights and obligations.

And it is one of the reasons (not a justification) for settled people hardening into the view that we are fundamentally different.

Predatory crime: there is no point in not saying this. The commonest reason you will find voiced amongst settled people for the feeling of distance and alienation from Travellers is to do with a certain type of crime. In my experience, most Irish people are more tolerant than other Nationalities, of petty crime committed by anyone who is down on their luck, Traveller or settled. However there is very little tolerance of crime that involves preying on elderly, isolated, and weak people. Unfortunately, it is widely perceived in the countryside that crimes against vulnerable people, intimidation, extortion, assault, and robbery is mostly carried out by members of the Traveller community. A ‘salesman’ who visits an old person every day until they buy some shoddy product is not a salesman.  A ‘salesman’ who comes back to a widow every week for more money for a painting or tarmac job that was never asked for, is not a salesman. I can’t say whether that is true that Travellers are mainly responsible for these crimes and/or for attacks and burlaries that often follow. But I can say that you would go a long distance to find a settled person who does not have some experience that they feel confirms this.

It is good to remind ourselves that: 

  • there are criminals and predators in every community;
  • the first victims of most such criminals are in their own community;
  • people who feel cast out have less reason to respect the rules of the powerful.

Nevertheless, in terms of healing the divide, it would also be reassuring to hear Traveller advocacy groups accepting that there is an element in the Traveller communities that is involved in extorting money from vulnerable people through aggressive intimidating and criminal behaviour and condemning these tendencies out of hand. Otherwise, many settled people conclude that the Traveller communities as a whole condone it. It would also be a great step towards mutual understanding to hear Traveller leadership calling for the Gardai to be assisted in rooting out violent and predatory criminals from within the communities. When Traveller advocacy groups appear to downplay this type of crime or to dismiss out of hand the links to sections of the Traveller communities, the divide hardens immeasurably.

Settled Reflections

There is not much that I can do about the divisions stemming from within the Travelling communities themselves. But I do think it will help for us people of the settled and countrymen variety to remind ourselves of a few things:

  • most people in every community just want to live their lives and do nobody any harm
  • most people in the Travelling community did not choose the life they find themselves living
  • Travellers are as confused about the future and nostalgic about the past as we are ourselves
  • Travelling societies have much to remind us of that is good about family and community values
  • Our own ways of life are flawed and lacking in many ways
  • as the people with the power in society there is more responsibility on us to bridge the divide
  • we are not being racist or discriminatory in asking for the law to be uniformly enforced in the protection of the rights of people in any community in our country
  • the negative epithets so readily applied to Travellers are the same ones were applied to our ancestors
  • if we cannot help bridge the divide we must all at least try not to make it any wider, not to disrespect or prejudge any person for their accent or where they come from

Hiberno What?

The Way We Used to Talk

Just had the good luck of chancing in on a talk by Dr. Diarmuid Ó Muirithe. He has given a lifetime of study to the subject that many of us dabble in somewhat blindly – the relationship between the version of English that evolved in Ireland (Hiberno English) and the Irish language that it only gradually replaced. He gave a flavour of several studies from different parts of the country, citing words and phrases that the speakers of Hiberno English were not themselves aware derived from direct translation. He shared glimpses of how Joyce played on this language and cited convincing evidence of the author’s knowledge and love of the original language.

He sadly intimated that all the evidence points to this Hiberno English language disappearing almost entirely over the forty years during which he has been working with it. I am certainly not doing justice to all that Diarmuid covered. I’ll be getting his book to digest more: Words We Don’t Use – tellingly evolved from earlier editions entitled Words We Don’t Use: (Much Anymore).

The talk has stimulated lots of thoughts, some of which I will inflict on you here.

A way of talking reflects a way of being

The sadness that I find in the poor prognosis for Hiberno English is not just for a language no longer used. Linguists might worry about that. The way I see a language is as a reflection of a culture, not as an end in itself. The way we talk reflects the way we come at thinking about things. If the loss of Hiberno English means we are losing older approaches to engaging with each other, to living in fact, as I believe it does, then that makes the loss great.

The reason that Hiberno English emerged to me seems obvious. The imported language had to be taken on for survival. But it lacked many of the words to describe people and things as they were seen here. It also did not allow people to speak to each other in the ways that their culture required them to. Therefore, the best that people could do without entirely adopting an alien way of looking at the world, was to learn the Engish words, supplement them with Irish words, and forge them together into Irish language structures, causing bemusement to the custodians of ‘correct’ English.

Hiberno Being – good manners?

A  way of talking tells of a way of being with each other a way of communing. It is central to the civilization, in the broad sense of that word. A language does not have much meaningful existence in isolation of a culture. Hence, where a single language is used by different cultures, it is inevitable that each will fashion the language to suit the ways of the culture. The vernacular Portuguese spoken in Brazil uses different words, uses some common words differently, and is considered highly ungrammatical by the Portuguese. English as spoken in Lagos is quite unrecognizable to a person from London, but no doubt is very well suited to the way that Nigerians engage with each other.

At the time of mass imposition of English in Ireland, surely the ways people interacted with each other were very different than the ways of people in England, the custodians of some imagined pure version of the English language. Very different too, than the ways of interaction of those who saw themselves as the bastions of English civilzation in Ireland – the people variously known as the ‘Protestant ascendency’, the ‘Anglo Irish’, and to themselves as ‘the Irish’. (In their world view, it was the majority who had no right to be referred to simply as Irish – they were Gaelic Irish, Irish servants, Irish tenants, Irish catholics, simply peasants, and sometimes sub-human. The battle for the right to call oneself Irish is another day’s work – and also cannot be looked at in isolation of other colonial projects.) Most of those delineations have thankfully long since gone. Nobody worth talking to these days cares whether your ancestors were born into a Big House, a Glebe, or a mud hut. But during the early life of Hiberno Irish, these were important distinctions for all concerned. 

In the culture of which Hiberno Irish was born, great attention was placed on the other person’s point of view. Directness was considered rudeness (as it still is in many parts of the country). You did not lead with your own view on any matter but solicited the views and feelings of the person you were communing with. To do otherwise would be disrespectful. Any look at the Irish language reflects this. There is what an English speaker might consider, a lot of cushioning and lack of directness in everything from greetings, to expressing views, to communicating important information, to conducting commercial transactions. The same was therefore reflected in Hiberno English.  I regard this as a lovely aspect of life in Ireland and not being a linguist, the erosion that I feel sorry about is less that of the language for its own sake, but of the way of being that it reflected.

Damnable duplicity….

Of course, this way of being was not everyone’s cup of tea! And one can put oneself in the shoes of our closest and probably most critical observers: the Anglo Irish, the ascendancy of the 19th and early 20th century. The keenness of their criticisms have to be seen in the context of fear. No doubt, many from the 1860’s onwards saw that the only life they knew was disintegrating. A mild punishment for their collective behaviour during and after the Famine one might say, but a human feeling nonetheless. In part, they defined themselves by contrast to the majority of their countrymen and like colonists elsewhere, tried to emulate English ‘virtues’ even while England itself was moving on. The very same feature that I see as respect for the other person’s point of view, they saw as  duplicity, untrustworthiness, lack of forthrightness. Again, there are many parallels with the convenient subordinating lenses through which other colonized people were viewed. Oppression, like violence, is easiest to sleep with when you manage to think of your victims are sub-human.

But there was also something unique in the stand-off between the Anglo Irish and the majority of their compatriots. For interesting insights on how ‘their’ peasantry appeared in the eyes of the Anglo Irish ascendancy, I would suggest the fascinating writing of Molly Keane or Elizabeth Bowen. The sometimes conscious parody and more often unintentional asides, reveal a view of the Irish Irish as duplicitous and unfathomable. Depending on the time and the mood, the ascendecy view of this could be patronizing and romanticized varying right through to regarding it with the barely masked ‘scientific’ racism prevalent amongst colonialists from the mid nineteenth century onwards. 

The language of power

Dr. Ó Muirithe made mention of how the balance of power, having shifted so dramatically in the mid-nineteenth century, forced most communities to either abandon Irish altogether or to maintain it in parallel with the Hiberno flavour of English that had emerged. This is very well illustrated in the fact of there being a pocket in the South of County Carlow where Irish continued to be spoken much longer than it survived for in any of the surrounding areas. This of course was the domain of the MacMorrogh Kavanaghs, the one old Irish family that survived as landowners in that region after many episodes of rebellion against the English. The language was not quashed in that area in the ways it was in much of the rest of Leinster. This quashing was not so much by decrees. It was the simple economics of survival. If the landlords of your area insisted that all transactions be through English, then practicalities overruled sentimentality.

The same is true today in a different way. The power behind the gloablization of the English language could be said to be fuelled by the human quest to broaden ones knowledge and interests, by desire to be entertained, by sheer possibility, and more, but underlying all is economics. The economics are not just in the advertizing and global marketing forces that drive the internet – when China determines that the second language for all of its population will be English, it is not for love of England or English culture. It is a pragmatic economic decision.  

Global English

I don’t see all this as gloomy or terrible, by the way. There is much that is good happening but that is a separate subject from the feelings people have of loss of language and dilution of culture.  It should be said that the brand of English that is emerging as ‘Global English’, is not forced on anyone. In fact you could say it is emerging in a collaborative way with all participating countries conributing elements to it. For sure, US English is over-represented in there – but then it would be, given that the US has a lead in both technology, business, and in numbers of people speaking a version of English.

There is also a sense of new communities forming even while we are losing others. International communities. And new sub-languages springing up and dying away – some to the extreme horror of purists. Bring it on, I say! It’s fun. If new words and expressions work, they live. Naturally, bloggers situated in Korea, Australia, Canada and South Africa, communicating and arguing about which of the Batman movies is most true to the original comic book, will end up passing on some elements of language to each other. While we bemoan the loss of various dialects of English, what is currently happening to language is not without its own excitement, in my view. 

The Gormachs of Europe

And while I’m rambling: someone at the talk asked why Black people are referred to in Irish as ‘Gormach’ (blues). Since answers from the floor are not the thing in these sessions and since Diarmuid did not have any ready answer, let me venture an opinion now: the first question is not why people were called ‘blue’ in Irish but why they would be called ‘black’ in English. I’ve never met a black person any more than I’ve met a blue or a white one for that matter. If skin description was intendted, brown might have been used. The fact is that in that period of ‘scientific’ racism (where a misunderstanding of evolution led to justifications for colonial excess and later for eugenics), ‘black’ came to be used by the colonial powers including England as referring to ‘inferior’ or sub-human peoples. In Europe, the Germans used deriviatives of the term in relation to Slavs and others. There are English references to the Irish and others as Blacks and ample evidence that amongst the subjugated peoples, we were regarded as ethnically inferior in the same way as Africans and Indians were. According to L.P. Curtis, words used by the English and some of the Anglo Irish in relation to the Irish, into the early twentieth century, included: childish, emotionally unstable, ignorant, indolent, superstitious, primitive, dirty, vengeful, and violent. (Other than that we remain pretty much faultless!)

I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw [in Ireland] . . . I don’t believe they are our fault. . . . But to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black, one would not feel it so much. . . .” (Charles Kingsley in a letter to his wife, quoted in L.P. Curtis).

There has been much written on this subject. It too is part of a bigger subject and one that leads to a better understanding of the pseudo-science that, unchecked, led to eugenics and genocide in the twentieth century. White Britain and Black Ireland as well as The Irish Through British Eyes are interesting on the subject.  

Perhaps the Irish speakers who first coined the word ‘Gormach’ had encountered this perception of themselves? Or maybe that first use came from a colourblind elaborative yarn teller, returned from a stint with the British Army?

It very comfortable to condemn nineteenth century English racist perceptions and actions against our people. It is only useful though if these reflections inform not a reaction against modern English people, but against those of our own people who purvey negative stereotypes of recent immigrants to Ireland. There is no place for those attitudes in our country and thinking people should not remain quiet when they hear ignorance and prejudice creeping into modern Irish discourse.  

Great book

Incidentally, my father produced a book a couple of years ago which is a window into ways of living that he has seen fade during his life time. Some he was sad to see go and others not so. In it he includes some of the idioms and terms that he believed came directly from Irish and he made the point that I heard Dr. Ó Muirithe make yesterday – that many people in our area who thought they knew no Irish, spoke in terms and words that reflected a wealth of the old language. The book is called, A Social History.

Similarity to African languages

Dr. Ó Muirithe mentioned an expression ‘Fan óg’ that he came across on a visit to the South of Carlow. It was what an old man said to him as he was leaving.

It reminds me of how many ways in which the modes of communing reflected by the Irish language are similar to the ways of communing reflected in those few African languages with which I am slightly familiar. In common, there is a consideration of the other person’s point of view. Directness is considered an affront in rural Ireland as it is in rural KwaZulu and any other part of Africa as far as I’ve heard. There is a delicate social process to addressing any contentious subject, whether the issue is wandering livestock or an impending marriage. There is much that is about showing respect for the other person. There is a recognition that when you talk to another person, you are not just talking to an individual. You are talking to her family, to those who went before her and those who will come after. There are many ways of asking about the well-being of the other’s family and many ways of responding. The Irish language had no need for ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. You would never answer a question so bluntly. Similarly with isiZulu and seTswana. There are no short words for Hi or Bye. In both Irish and the African languages the nearest equivalents are merely abbreviations of lengthy greeting and parting blessings and wishes for your welfare.

This brings me back to the expression that caught the ear of Dr. Ó Muirithe. ‘Fan óg!’ literally means stay young!. It was a commonly used parting expression in Kilkenny and Carlow. How similar to the Southern African parting expression, ‘Sala Gahle!’ which mean stay well!

This is a big subject and one that theses could be written on. All I have here is a tentative observation. But is it not nice to sometimes let thoughts flow? Isn’t it nice to think that perhaps the ways of speaking, reflecting very sophisticated and civilzed modes of human interaction, have been preserved in our culture for not just millenia, but for tens of millenia – all the way back to that migration from Africa?

Of course it’s dying out

Circling back to the main question of the day: of course, Dr. Ó Muirithe is right. Hiberno Irish is dying out. Without doing any studies, I would guess that the rate of disappearance has accelerated over the past five years. That is not only true of Hiberno English but probably of all versions of English – including the Queen’s which has gone from being the standard to hovering somewhere in popular culture between quaint and ridiculous: every bit as much a throwback as Hiberno English. So if you find consolation in the discomfort of others, there’s plenty to go around. The internet is causing a lot of bother in many households!

 While many of the Hiberno English words have disappeared, I suspect that other aspects of Hiberno English will prove more resillient. Accents and cadences are surprisingly stubborn. Yes, there is a Calafornianization in some intonations. In pockets where there used to be a West Brit accent you might now find a US West Coast intonation. And there is some bland uniformity creeping through across the board. Yet despite forty years of TV and 10 years of internet, you’ll still know a North Kerry accent from a South Kilkenny one, not to speak of a Donegal one from a Dublin one. Some elements of the way our ancestors talk will remain for a long time to come. I do understand though that this is but a ghost of what Hiberno English was, that most of the words and much of the richness is gone.

The endearing Anglo Irish

Another minor diversion: Diarmuid appeared to use the term Anglo Irish interchangably with Hiberno English. I might make a suggestion that ‘Anglo Irish’ needs to be reserved for another purpose.  Almost the converse of the original Hiberno Irish where Irish speakers directly translated some words into English without sacrificing any other aspect of the original Irish language, is the situation now common where struggling Irish speakers translate English words to Irish but retain entirely English grammar, sentence structure etc. That’s Anglo Irish – the mirror image of Hiberno English! Yet another language unique to Ireland though one our next Joyce will hardly bother celebrating. 

And by the way while it is easy to mock the Anglo Irish (language I mean of course) we should go easy on that. For many of us it is a brave first step, showing willing; and for some, with encouragement, it will lead to a navigation back to a proper grasp of the language.

The end of a colourful life

Diarmuid addressed this question with some despondency, understandably. To me, if the issue is how to save Hiberno Irish, there is no solution. It still exists in pockets, more now in idiom than in words. But it will continue to fade ever more quickly. Hiberno English lived a colourful life from its glory days in the mid nineteenth century to fade away in the late twentieth century leaving only accents, essences, and pockets behind. In the light of many other dialects of English being globalized out of existence, to think we could save this beautiful language is unrealistic. 

But it’s not all bad news though. At least we have re-growth in the original language these days. Through the rise of the Gael Scoileanna and the resurgence of interest amongst people outside of the traditional Gaeltacht areas, the Irish language itself is gaining a new lease. So even if the hybrid is no longer present to remind us of the refined ways of our ancestors, the language itself has a much better chance of preserving that.

Seeking a publisher

By the way, Dr. Ó Muirithe mentioned that he is needing a publisher for a study of Hiberno Irish words and idiom gathered in the Westmeath area over thirty years. I can’t imagine but there are a few Mulinagar moguls who would be delighted to help with this?

Mysterious monuments

The most common kind of field monument in Ireland is one that most people have never heard of. They’re called fulachta fiadh (or fian, singular).

Maybe monument is too grand a word for them. But there is more that is mysterious about the fulachta fiadh than the name. Despite being so plentiful, the experts are not absolutely sure of what their function was. This of course leaves the door slightly open for amateurs like ourselves to propose their own fancy theories!

Giant cooking pots?

All that appears of the fulactha fiadh today is roughly circular indents. The ones I’ve seen are under three metres in diameter. Originally most were lined with stone or probably with impermeable clay. The most widely accepted theory is that they were communal cooking places. They would be filled with water and a large fire lit nearby. Stones were reddened in the fire and then rolled into the water to bring it to the boil. Meat was placed in the water to cook, probably wrapped in leaves. Strong evidence for this theory is provided by the burnt stones usually found in the vicinity. It’s also pointed out that most fulachta fiadh are near rivers or streams – and assumed that this is for easy access to water for the pit. Furthermore, people have in recent times recreated similar structures to show that this system of cooking would have worked.

Or an African legacy?

OK, so this amateur’s uninformed theory: I recently had a moment of doubt about the water boiling explanation on seeing pictures of strikingly similar structures in Africa. And even if it was forty thousand years earlier, it’s worth remembering that our forebears did bring some technologies with them. In Africa, the usage is much more straight forward.

The submerged pit simply provides a stable (wind sheltered) place in which to manage a fire consistently for roasting meat over. Having a contrarian bent, I rather fancy this theory. It seems a less laborious method of cooking – though of course we are not renowned for always doing things the easiest way. It removes the problem of hot water seeping away.

But what about them all being near rivers? Well let’s remember that the rivers were the main arteries through the country, much of which was wooded. Many of the early settlements stemmed out from river banks. One could imagine that for a communal event, people would move along the rivers to meet, rather than navigating through woodlands.

And the charred stones? Well the stones around any open fire would be charred.

I have the kevlar suit on in anticipation of being corrected by some sensible archaeologist.

Uncanny Mythology

The history of the people of Ireland has come full circle. Well, almost.

First we were Spaniards

First there was an account written in the ancient book, the Labor Gabala, or the Book of Invasions. It claimed to be a record taken from oral historians, of the peoples who settled in Ireland. In summary it suggested that the current population is mainly descended from the ‘Milesians’, who displaced earlier peoples – the fearsome Firbolgs and the noble Tuatha Dé Danann. It claimed the Milesians, our ancestors, came from Spain.

Then we were Central Europeans

For most of the twentieth century this transcribed folklore was largely dismissed. It had a value as mythology but none as history. Furthermore, it was averred by some, the book appeared to be nothing more than a local version of certain classical Greek scripts, inventing a glorious past. The view became established that the ‘Celts’ in fact came from central Europe. This was based mainly on a trail of ‘Celtic’ artefacts across Germany, France, Britain and then Ireland. Interestingly,  even in the mid twentieth century some voices dissented. Linguists protested that neither branches of the Celtic languages bore any clues of so recent a migration from central Europe.

Cold wet Spaniards again

Since the mid 1990’s it has become increasingly easy to map the genetics of people in each region. Genetics removes a lot of the guesswork. In summary, there is a kind of DNA (mitochondrial DNA) that is passed unchanged on the maternal line, allowing you to trace people back to individual women who existed thousands of years ago. Similarly, there is male DNA that is passed accurately from father to son (on the Y chromosome), allowing each man to be tracked back to progenitors thousands of years ago.

What the studies have shown in short, is that the ‘Celtic’ peoples of the islands of Britain and Ireland, largely migrated from what is now the Iberian peninsula. Our closest relatives are in the Basque and Catalan territories of Northern Spain. There were small pockets of hunter gatherers on the islands from over 9,000 years ago. The main ‘invasions’ of farming people came from what is Northern Spain, between 5,000 and 7,000 years ago. The small existing population appears to have been assimilated rather than wiped out. Thus, it turns out that they ‘mythology’ was not quite right about a series of invasions but was much closer to the truth than the archaeology. It is now understood that the ‘celtic design’ artefacts did not indicate a large movement of people across Europe so much as a movement of fashion and styles in tools and ornaments – much as happens to this day.

The ‘Celtic’ art of mainland Europe was not produced by the people known as Celts – i.e. the predominant populations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Brittany. The word ‘Celt’, by the way, is only a recent invention, really taking hold in the nineteenth century in association with studies of the two main branches of ‘Celtic’ languages – the Welsh/Breton branch and the Irish/Scottish branch. One was called P-Celtic and the other, Q-Celtic.

Plants and Horses tell their own stories

There is other evidence of this migration from Northern Spain. There are species of plants in the Irish midlands that were thought to be unique and only recently discovered to exist in Spain. The Irish Draught Horse, very different from the English Shire horse or the other large draughts from France and Germany, turns out to be most closely related to a Spanish horse. Pure speculation on my part, but I’m going to guess that it will be shown that our indigenous cattle breeds, the Kerry, Maol and Dexter are related to old Spanish breeds. Just look at how similar the Kerry is to the bulls used (and abused) in Pamplona.   

How did they bring horses on Ryanair?

You might wonder who such a large migrantion could have happened, but remember, towards the end of the last mini ice age, the seas were 50 metres lower and the ancestors only had to walk.

Mythology trumps the rest

We might think that the accuracy of the Milesian ‘myth’ is just a coincidence. However, genetic studies in other parts of Europe and Asia have also caused great surprise by showing the mythology in many cases to be closer to the truth than any of the other theories.

Maybe this should not have been such a surprise. We assume that much meaning and accuracy was lost in the oral tradition – where information as well as stories were passed down by word of mouth. However, we forget that the bards and scholars who were given the responsibility, spent up to twenty years learning accurately the verses and cants in which the accounts were relayed. There is every reason to think that they were transmitted very accurately from generation to generation. The geneticists have proved this I believe.

What’s the story with raths?

About a rath

Anyone who grew up in rural Ireland and many who grew up in the towns and cities know something of our raths. Some are quite large like the one in Dunmore you see in the picture above. You may have heard of them called fairy forts, ring forts, or fairy raths. They vary quite a bit in structure from small innocuous looking clumps of trees up to large moated rings with underground channels or souterrains. The experts classify them as ring forts, hill forts, enclosures and general raths. They are amongst the most common field monuments in Ireland. A clue is provided in the fact that so many placenames begin with Rath… Others, such as Laragh, where I come from, also refer. Laragh was originally Leath Rath or half rath.

Over sixty thousand of them survive. Many others have been levelled.

On my own farm in Kilkenny a very large rath was levelled by a previous owner in the 1960′s. All that remains of it is the circular ring of different growth betraying where the enclosure ditch was filled in. Only one of three raths that were marked on an 1860′s ordinance survey map of our area, still exists. It was on top of a small hill and is similar in proportions to a hill fort in South Kilkenny that was excavated by archeologists and deemed to be an enclosure from the Bronze age.

This is typical of the situation around the country. Even in recent times when people ought to have known better, raths have been levelled.

Who lived in the raths?

It depends on who you ask.

What the archaeologists say

The archaeologists and historians tell us that most raths were enclosures in which a fine (extended family or sub-clan) lived. The perimeter in many cases would have been a moat, a stone wall or a thorny fence, depending on whether your land grew hedges or grew stones! Inside the perimeter the homes of the families were built. There were also shelters for animals, kilns for drying grain, religious and burial structures and in some there were ‘souterrains’ or underground chambers. Some animals would have been brought in for milking or to protect at night from wolves and robbers. Most building in Ireland back then was of timber so little evidence survives of these homesteads other than traces of poles in the ground. Outside the perimeter were fields that were allocated to various members of the fine to use. The allocation of such land was done according to very ancient and complex Brehon law (more on that soon).

What the people say

The people of the country however had a different explanation than the archaeologists. They believed that the rath is the home of the little people or the good people. I never heard them referred to directly as fairies – and wonder whether this name was imported in recent centuries. And people were always afraid of offending the little people because they could do a lot of unpleasant things when riled. More on this another day.

What the ancient books say

One possible explanation for the belief that the rath belongs to people with magical powers and who are quick to take a grudge, is found in the Labor Gabala or the book of invasions. This is one of several manuscripts written by monks many centuries ago. The books are generally regarded as containing the first written recordings of the knowledge passed down by countless generations of poets and scholars – though the monks naturally may have put their own spin on some of the material. This particular book sets out a history of a wave of invasions of Ireland. I will come back to this. What is relevant here from the Labor Gabala is that it says that one of the previous peoples of Ireland were the Tuatha Dé Danann. The Dé Danann were defeated by our ancestors, the Milesians. (Scientists have a different take on this. But just as interesting. Oh dear, another thing I have to come back to later.) In the truce that followed, the Dé Danann were relegated to the underworld and the big people took most of the visible countryside. The raths are the only visible portals to the magical world of the Tuatha Dé Danann, who became known to us as the little people or the fairies. You can imagine why such a people, truce or no truce, might take umbrage at any intrusion on a rath!

That is, the raths became the homes of the fairies, people who did nobody any harm as long as you left them alone; people who on the other hand could do you a great deal of harm if you interfered with one of them or did damage to their homes, the raths or fairy forts.

There are many people in the country who have heard music or seen lights at night coming from a rath. There are many young people as well as old who will not ever harm even a branch of a tree in a rath because they do not want to upset the balance.

How old are raths?

The common view is that most raths were constructed between the 5th and the 9th century. However, relatively few have been excavated by archeologists and this is therefore not an established fact. Some ring forts that have been excavated have revealed Bronze Age as well as Iron Age and stone artefacts. From this and from the fact that raths vary considerably in size, shape, and layout, it is possible they were created in various eras and some may have been adapted and changed over several eras. It’s conceivable that some were first formed not long after people first came here about nine thousand years ago. The truth is that there are probably as many answers are there are raths. The very fine ring fort in the picture below is also in County Kilkenny and is a credit to the land owners as there is no evidence of any interference over recent decades.

What protection is there for raths?

In times past no protection was needed other than that bestowed by fairies and púcas. Many people still fear that if they went too near a rath with an excavator or cut branches from a rath, they would be followed to an early grave by bad luck.

There is something else – another protection that the raths secretly enjoyed. They were unofficial burial grounds of babies. Until recently, a rule of the Catholic Church was that an unbaptized person could not be buried in ‘consecrated ground’. What this meant was that babies who died before they could be baptized could not be buried in their family plots in the local graveyard. This cruel law meant that many silently grieving families had to find some other place to bury the beloved child. Some sneaked into the graveyard at night and buried their children in the family plot regardless of what the priests had said. Others buried babies in old church grounds. Many however went to the nearest rath. If the modern God would not accept their little ones, the ancient Gods would accept them. Babies buried in raths were thought to be protected by the fairies. And it was assumed that nobody would ever disturb the graves of these little people.

I think that farmers who level raths probably do so in ignorance rather than simply out of greed for more land. If younger farmers were reminded about the heritage and history, not to speak of the bodies of babies, few would dream of damaging a rath. Of course you can’t always rely on good will. You need laws too.

In recent years the raths have finally gained legal protection. County by county, inventories of archaeological sites have been taken in the past ten years. You can see these catalogued in an interactive map that details the monuments in every townland in the country. This is a brilliant tool and well worth a look. You’ll find it at 

Raths are listed in these inventories (along with other precious heritage sites such as fulachta fiadh, souterrains, and megalithic sites). That means they are now protected under the Monuments Act of 1930. It is now a serious criminal offence to damage a rath. Only last week the first prosecution under this legislation saw a Kerry farmer heavily fined for destroying a ring fort.

In the image above you see the circular outline of what may have been a fulacht fian. Also interesting in this image of bogland is the ridges. They are often called famine ridges. Before the great famine the land was so densely populated that even poor bogland like this was tilled for growing potatoes. Because the land is so poor, it has never been ploughed since – with the consequence of providing us a sad reminder of a population almost wiped off the face of the earth.

Farmers who own the land on which a rath is situated must come to see themselves as their ancestors did – not as owners of the rath but as privileged custodians and protectors of these monuments. They must be guardians of the peace, and ensue that we keep the truce with Tuatha Dé Danann.

Listen to Auld Nonsense

There are storytelling circles meeting regularly all over Ireland these days. There, people listen to each other singing, telling stories, and reciting verses. Just like people did before we had electronics delivering entertainment to suit all tastes into every home. Why could that be? By pressing a button on a remote we can choose a chat show, a world class comedian, a great movie, or a fascinating insight into the the insects of the Amazon jungle. Yet people come out of their houses on wet windy evenings to attend storytelling circles.

Let’s be honest. It’s not that the stories are all gems, more polished than anything you will find on the Web or the TV. That’s not it. And while some of the music singing that is part of the fare in some circles, can be impressive, some is not. In fact, thanks to the story telling circles I’ve finally come to understand my grandmother’s phrase, ‘the tune (chewin’) the old cow died of’. But that doesn’t matter either. It still beats the most professional production you can hear on an iPod.

So what exactly is it that brings people out to sit for hours in church halls listening to ráméis, ‘rattrick’ and assorted ‘auld nonsense’?

My suggestion: it is that the storytelling circles fill a need that is not met by any of the modern media. It connects us with each other. It connects us with our ancestors. Through the story voice we hear echoes of people long gone. When we listen and when we contribute we are doing what people before us did for tens of thousands of years, sitting around a fire or on a river bank. We are absorbing and adding to the story of our existence. we are finding our belonging. We are rediscovering a part of being human that is not catered for on the web or TV.

Meeting at the Crossroads

Funny how you can wake up one day and realize that you have been staring at various bits of evidence without having ever noticed them. I’m not talking about evidence of a crime in this case. But all around us is evidence of ancestors not far gone. You suddenly realize that it’s all been staring you in the face – evidence of the lives and ways so clear that you can almost feel their presence.

You can see the remnants of dwellings, mounds, stones, raths, sacred trees and yet have looked through them for so long. You can listen to the talk, to the turn of phrase that is directly transposed through the generations, the stories and attitudes that reflect ancient morality. You can read what the archeologists have to say about the epochs and what the dendrologists have to say about decades when there was no sun and when famine, war, and calamity stalked the land. And yet, in my case, it took another age for all this to meet up. For years I failed to notice this. Now it all seems so obvious.