by Mattie Lennon
Look what we’ve done to the old mother tongue
It’s a crime the way we’ve misused it
It’s been totally disgobbled
Pulverised and gollywobbled,
We’ve strangled, mangled, fandangled
And abused it.
So the song says. But did we do it any damage? John Dryden said that a thing well said will be wit in all languages. In my part of Wicklow the transposition of vowels seemed to be almost as popular a pastime as locking referees in car boots. And did it do any damage? No..I’m not asking about depriving the GAA arbitrator of his liberty on a winter’s day in Rathnew, I’m referring to a bit of re-adjustment of the A, E, I, O and U’s.
In my part of the world the language of Synge survived into the final decades of the twentieth century and beyond. Only recently a neighbour with a somewhat defective ticker told me that he had been fitted with a “Peace-maker”. I know of a case where a lady with notions asked an apprentice carpenter to make a “Mate-Seaf”. Nowadays, incredulous gazes meet the disclosure that it used to take a lot of courage, in Kylebeg, to say tea instead of “tay”; and to refer to unpolluted H2O as anything other than “clane wather” meant you were getting above your station. You’d soon be reminded that it wasn’t long since you didn’t have an arse in your “brutches”.
The “hins” were fed off the “led” of a pot; when it was necessary to communicate with absent relatives the “pin an’ ink” were taken down; and that reviled member of the rodent species was called a “rot”. It would be said of the less-than-honest they’d “stale the milk oua yer tay”. A welcome visitor would be invited to “take a sate an’ give yerself a hate” and if you weren’t “plazed” by a frank comment, you were said to be “aisy effinded” – you were sure to be “med game of”. The single arch spanning a “strame” was a “brudge”; those who through hard work or a windfall would progress from thatch to a “toiled” or ” ganvalized” roof on their dwelling, and every County Council cottage had an outside “labatery”.
A “dacent little girl” was an unmarried female, of any age, who wouldn’t let a male in a mile of her. Whatever about the Catechism definition of Grace, in our part of the world it was “the juice o’ fat mate”. And if you were of an argumentative dispossession it would be said that you “would rise a row about the kay o’ the dure”. Songwriting was easier here than elsewhere because floor rhymed with sure and bowl rhymed with howl. A snob might have “a collar an’ tie on his nick an’ a watch on his wrust” but no male would go so far as to sport a “gould” ring. Nobody would admit to having “flays” themselves but would comment that a certain neighbour’s house was “walkin wud thim”.
You could expect a “could day whin the win’ was from the aist”. Ewes “yaned”, you ploughed “lay” and you “bilt the “kittle”- unless it “laked”. You “gothered” the sheep, “muxed” the pig-feeding and you could “bate” the living daylights out of someone “whin timpers ed be ruz”. But in such “is-there-no-one to-hould-me-coat” situations there was usually someone to make “pace”. The piece of binder twine used to restrict the movements of the canine was a “lade”. Beyond was “beyant” and an old neighbour of mine went so far as to do a bit of consonant-juggling resulting in “belant”.
The clothes were held on the line by “pigs” and a brave man – or maybe one who didn’t have the courage to run away – was described as a “hairo”. Looking back on it now I reckon that the hillbillies of the old black-and-white Westerns with their “varmint” and “critters” would have fitted in perfectly in the Lacken of my youth. And I’m sure they would have adapted very quickly to describing the economy-conscious as “mane” and making stirabout from “yalla male”.
If you are not from my neck of the woods perhaps like D.H. Lawrence you will marvel: “That such trivial people should muse and thunder in such a lovely language”. If, on the other hand, you were reared anywhere between Knockatillane and Shillealagh you will recognise “…..that dear language which I spake like thee”.