This week I thought I’d do something a wee bit different again and take you on an alphabetical journey through one of my favourite reference books: Brewer’s Dictionary of Irish Phrase and Fable by McMahon and O’Donoghue. I previously brought you a sample thereof previously, and meant to get back to it again but didn’t get the opportunity until now. It is an amazing pot-pouri/corcan of all kinds of everything- straight history, idioms and expressions peculiar to Ireland, notable events or even national illusions and allusions, there’s slang such as hardshaws and cabogs, songs and people that defined an era and what about the effin stories and gombeens acting the maggot! There’s so much under each letter but on this occasion I’m restricting myself to just one entry each.

The Aye’s Have It

From the many entries under A, I selected Asgard. We are all familiar now with Asgard II- the Irish sail training tall ship which took pride of place along with the Jeannie Johnson and the Dunbrody during Tall Ships Week back in 2005. No doubt they will lead the way in again come 2011, ( A friend of mine really enjoyed a stint on board the Jeannie just a month or so ago). But meanwhile back to the this latter Asgard which perpetuates the memory of the original and the part it played in Irish history as it was the boat used for the famous Howth Gunrunning. It was a 28 ton white yacht owned by Erskine Childers, given to him as a wedding present by his father-in-law. It was used to convey 900 rifles, the larger part of the consignment bought by him and Darrell Figgis in Hamburg in May 1914. Childers’s crew consisted of Mary Spring Rice, a British soldier and two Donegal fishermen. The voyage was made through the worst Irish Sea storm in over 30 years. However, owing to his excellent seamanship Childers was able to sail his heavily overloaded yacht into Howth harbour on Sunday the 26st July just as 1000 volunteers mobilized by Bulmer Hobson arrived at the jetty to receive them. The boat was preserved and is now on display in Kilmainham Jail in Dublin. His son, also named Erskine, served as a minister in a number of Fianna Fail governments and was elected President in 1973 but he was to die in office just a few years later. His son and daughter were educated at Newtown School during the 1940’s.

Bomb Alley

By sheer coincidence the B that took my fancy is a reference to the same era – maybe something subliminal is going on here or just that I spent over a half an hour in heavy mid -day traffic traversing its length just a few weeks ago. I speak not of the Dunmore Road but of a sequence of Dublin streets- South Great George’s Street, Aungier Street, Wexford Street ( nearly long enough outside Whelan’s to ‘ear a few tunes!), Camden Street, Richmond Street, Lower Rathmines Road- a route that led effectively from the city centre to Portobello Barracks in Rathmines, which was held by the British Army until 1922. During the Anglo-Irish War the route, with its many side streets was a convenient place for attacking troop carriers – hence the local nickname. It was also known as the Dardanelles, after the First World War campaign in which many Dubliners had been killed in Turkey.

The Cock Crow

Despite the fact that there were many fascinating entries under ‘C’ this wordy bird couldn’t pass by this bit of doodle about the Cock! We are pleased to learn that traditionally in the Irish house and farm, the cock was treated with great respect. This is because he was believed to have the power to dispel the power of the supernatural or the Otherworld with his first crow at dawn, he himself was thought to possess a share of that supernatural power. Cocks were also believed to have the power of prophecy. According to the place or time they crowed (other than at dawn) a visitor would arrive or someone would die in the townland. They were never killed when they had outlived their usefulness, but instead let go in a wood. At that time people who went barefoot during the day used to wash their feet before going to bed at night: the custom was for the youngest male child to wash his feet first, but if there were no sons in the family, the man of the house would take the cock off his perch over the coop (cocks were too valuable to be allowed to sleep out of doors) and wash his feet first. Did I hear someone mention cock and bull? Incidentally Cock is also a Cork slang word for a male boy, used approvingly, as in: “That’s a fine cock you have there”.

Dem Dat Knew – A Pure Gem

My choice of D is short and sweet and in my book a pure gem, as they say it speaks volumes! Dis was the response of a Fianna Fail activist in Cork when asked about the difference between his party and Fine Gael: “Dem dat know don’t need to ask and dem dat don’t know don’t need to know.”

Eire – Apparent

I have been asked over the years where the name Ireland comes from, well the Ire part of it anyhow. That Ire comes from Eire is obvious enough but who or what is/was Eire or indeed Eiru? Well in Irish mythology we learn that Eire but also known as Eiru was a goddess and it was from her that the name is derived. She had two sisters Fodhla and Banba which were frequently used poetically as alternative names for the country. The three sisters are members of the Tuatha De Danaan (Dana being the chief God and they being the old gods of ancient Ireland – pre that name of course!). As the each of three sisters welcome the Milesians invaders ( 350 BC) they each demand, in turn, that the country be named after her. But it is the poet Amergin who finally makes the decision, and Eire remains the Irish name for the country. Its genitive form (usually meaning ‘of’) is Eireann as in Saorstat Eireann ,the Irish Free State. It was inspired incidentally by the title of the newly created Orange Free State in South Africa. The dative of the word/name is Eirinn, a form of the name used in many a ballad, not to mention Erin Soups!! Did you know, by the way, that the song Come back to Eirn – in particular- to Erin was rendered into 2 RN to form the name of the first national radio station established in 1926.

De Valera’s 1937 constitution changed the name from the Irish Free State to ‘Eire’. But then come the Government of Ireland Act of 1948 at the instigation of Taoiseach John A Costello Ireland was declared a Republic and ceasing to be part of the Commonwealth. On Easter Monday 1949 the Republic of Ireland formally came into existence. But constitutionally our official name is Ireland/Eire but in practice especially in sport, business and telecommunications the Republic of Ireland is used to distinguish this state from Northern Ireland. ( Others claim that ROI stands for something else altogether?) The purist will insist that Eire is the island of Ireland and not any subset of it and that’s why for over 60 years all our postage stamps featured but one symbol: that of the map of Ireland (borderless) with the single legend of Eire. Yet it rankles when English commentators refer to us as Eire!! Go figure that one out!

We go Solar, next week, mar sin…

Go Seachtain Eile, Slan.