Sunday, January 3, 2010

Stammering Hugh, sundry antagonizers and a really important scutcher

My son Liam was born and is being raised in America. His mother was very understanding of my wish to give him an Irish forename, and set just one condition: it had to be capable of pronunciation by los gringos. This reduced the available choices to an amazing extent. It put paid to Muirchertach and nearly everything else. Fortunately, thanks in part to the fame of the Ballymena man Neeson, Liam has proved to be a manageable name for Yankee friends and family. My own command of Irish names is nothing special, mind: having been diasporized before my early promise in Irish bore full fruit, I've had to rely on a few basic rules. The most important is: virtually no consonant is pronounced as it is written. Second, and related to the first is: if you don't know how a consonant is meant to be pronounced, try "v", "w" or leave it silent. The third, and maybe most practical rule is: when in doubt, ask a gaelgoir, since you're never going to work it out for yourself.

In the DIB, I've just reached the Áeds, which illustrates the challenge. Áed is cognate with the English name Hugh (although that doesn't help you speak it at all). It's prounounced "ay" as in "day".(Remember what I said about the silent consonant?) There are 11 pages of them in the DIB, followed by two of their close cousins Áedán (Ay-dawn).  And they're all ancient, dating from pre-surname times, so finding themselves positioned alphabetically in volume 1, although some of them have descriptive second names such as "dub" (dove), for "black [haired]" and "menn" for "stammering". Stammering Hugh is a good person to start with, since his entry gives you a good sense of how ancient lives, drawn from ancient chronicles, always end up sounding like 1066 and All That:
 ... son of Colcu, king of south Leinster and contender for overkingship of the province, was a member of the Sil Cormaic lienage of Uí Chennselaig. His father Colcu (d. 722) had held the relatively minor kinship of Ard Ladrann, the caput of which was located at a site identified as the 'moat of Ardamine' (townland of Middletown, parish of Aramine, Co Wexford) ...
What you don't learn about is his stammer, which, once again showing my shallowness, is what I really to get to grips with. It must have been quite something to rate inclusion as part of his permanent name.

I think my problem with the Áeds is that they fall into two categories of people I'm not very interested in: ancient Irish kings and early Christian clergy. The chronicles from which the DIB entries are mainly constructed generally relate the stories of incessant battles with some downtime in between. The kings appear never to have stopped fighting, which may be why the country was periodically invaded by outsiders (Danes, Normans, etc.) since the local forces were too busy to notice until it was too late. The early Christians weren't too different, arguing vigorously among themselves, with Rome, with the English church, etc., on such essential topics as the correct date of Easter. Then one day they looked up from their disputes to find that the Pope had given Ireland to Henry II. In pointing this out, I realize that I may have appeared intolerant of the early presbyterians in yesterday's post. Well, I was, but I want to point out that they're not alone. The classic tropes of modern Irish life - begrudgery, the split and their ilk - seem to ooze from the ancient sap of our tribe. All those Áeds - the warlike, the light-grey, the undutiful, the seal-like (the animal, not the wax impression), of the eyelid, of the spiked helm - for me, at least, add up to much the same thing.

But then you turn a corner - or a page of the DIB - and everything changes. Pausing briefly to encounter Affraic the dominatrix - in this context, a medieval Latin word for abbess, alas - we start to connect once more with some flesh and blood. James Agar, a feisty eighteenth-century Kilkenny politician, feuded openly with a more talented rival, Henry Flood, finally challenging him to a duel. Having fired the first shot and missed, Agar's last words in life were "Fire, you scoundrel!" Agar's better-natured nephew, also James, followed in the family tradition and was elected to parliament from Kilkenny. A contemporary pronounced him the "best of all the Agars, who had not the best of characters."


Don Juan del Águila commanded the Spanish contingent that surrendered at Kinsale, Co. Cork in 1601, signalling the complete military defeat of the native Irish against the forces of the English Queen Elizabeth - possibly the key date in Irish history. Âguila was not at all incompetent and gave the English a hard time during a long siege. But it turns out that the reason he went to Ireland was because the alternative was to stay in prison for having coruptly managed Spanish crown funds during a previous campaign. Following the comprehensive defeat of the Irish forces, Don Juan negotiated the surrender of his army, which was allowed to return to Spain unharmed. Thanks.

Tim Ahearne and his younger brother Dan Ahearn were astonishing athletes in the early 20th century. They were from Dirreen, near Athea in Co. Limerick which is where Patricia's mother's family - Aherns - come from. Tim won the triple jump (then hop, step and jump) gold medal at the 1908 Olympics, setting an Olympic record that stood for 16 years. Because of the First World War, Dan didn't get to compete in the Olympics until he was too old, but held the world triple jump record (surpassing his brother's mark) for 13 years. The Ahearnes - spellings vary - seem to be to the DIB's sporting coverage what the Áeds are to kingship and religion: Balty and Gah Ahern figure as champion hurlers, while another Limerick man, Bud Ahern, played soccer for both the Republic and Northern Ireland.


The first really substantial entry in the DIB - four-and-a-half double-columned pages by the historian Ronan Fanning - is on the politican Frank Aiken, mainly forgotten today, but an absolutely pivotal figure in the country for 65 years until his death in 1983. Chief of staff of the IRA, cabinet minister and the engine of Irish foreign policy from the time the country joined the UN where he strongly supported decolonization and the dismemberment of the European empires and was invited to be the first to sign the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in recognition of his ten-year effort to bring it into effect. Imperious, stubborn and infuriating - much like his political patron Éamon de Valera - and with a penchant (fortunately largely contained by his civil servants) for crackpot theories such as Social Credit, Aiken nevertheless towered over his time. And he spotted - but sadly could not obstruct - one of the most baleful directions taken by his own political party, Fianna Fáil in the second half of the twentieth century:  the nexus of money and cronyism between it and business, particularly the construction industry, that corrupted the entire fabric of the party, and still does. He spotted early on the true character of the future Taoiseach and Fianna Fáil leader Charles Haughey, the most talented and corrupt of them all, but was unable to stop him. Fanning makes an elegant and convincing case for Aiken's importace, and rightly laments the absence of a decent biography of the man. Aiken was also keen on something called flax scutching and held patents for a beehive and a sprung heel for a shoe: fabulous details of no significance that I hope will continue to be plentiful. Better than Stammering Hugh any day.

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