Peace means choosing our words very carefully
Published 29/12/2013 | 02:30
We live and die by words. Words that humour. Words that hurt. Words that heal. So we will miss the reflections of Diarmaid O Muirithe, the scholarly and witty lexicographer who wrote his last Words We Use column for the Irish Times just before Christmas.
Let me pause briefly to tell a story about Diarmaid's sense of pluralism and fair play. In June 1969, the Feach team, with Diarmaid as reporter and myself as producer, covered a dispute about the Irish language in Ahascragh, Co Galway, between a branch of the Language Freedom Movement and the local school principal and famous sean nos singer, the late Sean ac Dhonnacha.
Filming the protagonists, we found a spokesperson for the LFM had a slight speech impediment. Normally this might not have mattered much. But Sean ac Dhonnacha, who spoke for the Irish language side, was liofa in both languages. So his side was going to come across a lot more clearly than the LFM side.
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This should not have bothered us. Regular viewers of TG4 programmes will have noticed that some Irish language producers feel free to fly the green flag regardless. But Diarmaid and myself believed in balance. Although we nearly missed our deadline, we finally found someone in the LFM who could match the screen status of Sean ac Dhonnacha.
Diarmaid has a deadpan sense of humour. So I would like to present him with a small gift in the form of a translated jibe from the Arab Spring. I hope the phrase is new to him, but I am certain it will help him conjure up similar examples of servile behaviour not too far from here. The derisive phrase is "el Jokh wiper".
It comes from "el Jokh" cloth, which is worn by establishment figures in many Arab countries. Like the mohair suits of Charles Haughey's clique, and the Armani silk suits of Gerry Adams's circle, the el Jokh fabric is favoured by the wealthy and the politicians who look after them. But it has one big drawback -- dust clings closely to the cloth.
Hence the phrase "el Jokh wiper". It pins down the sycophantic press and political butterflies who flutter round the rich, metaphorically wiping dust from their shoulders. Good job that kind of gutless fawning and forelock-touching died off when we got rid of the landlord class in Ireland.
I am, of course, being ironic, and I have to signal I'm being ironic given some reactions to my Cork column last week, where, tongue in cheek, I offered two "original" theories: that Roy Keane is a Huguenot, and that the word "langer" came from the langur monkey, which was brought home by Cork soldiers who served in the imperial British Army in Asia.
Let me hasten to assure some Cork critics that I'm aware that Keane is not a Huguenot name, and that langer has long been linked to the langur monkey. Not least because one of my bedside bibles is the late Sean Beecher's Dictionary of Cork Slang, which points out a link with the Munster Fusiliers. The only original part of my theory was to point out that the langur monkey's tail conjures up the flaccid penis implied by the word "langer".
While I'm footnoting, however, let me reject the nonsensical complaint that I should have written "walked out" rather than "walked up" Washington Street. Clearly, these carpers are confusing Washington Street with the Western Road to which it leads. You walk up Washington Street but you walk out the Western Road.
One blogger who innocently recycled that ridiculous criticism was Eric Little, a plant biologist with UCC, who otherwise liked my column. But not as much as I liked Eric's brilliant Communicate Science blog. Unlike many scientists, he has a feel for words and rejects recent suggestions that children should be taught science using only the correct academic terms.
Eric writes: "Sometimes, it is best to expound on a topic and embellish concrete scientific facts with a beautiful turn of phrase or a nicely constructed simile. We shouldn't get too bogged down in the "language" of science; the important thing is to get the message across. However, if we try and teach science in an "academic language" we may end up sucking all the fun out of it."
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Let me now turn to words that hate. One of the most stupid of all adages is the one that says, "Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me". No they won't hurt you. Just get you killed.
Teenage suicides are tragic proof that words are as lethal as weapons. None more so than the hate words of Irish history: "Souper", "Taig", "West Brit", "Fenian bastard", "Black Prod bastard". Any one of these words, shouted on the street, could be the prelude to a bad beating or a mob murder.
That is why I provocatively called a play I wrote about West Cork conversions, Souper Sullivan, "souper" being a term of abuse sometimes hurled at descendants of those who had remained loyal to the Protestant faith. I hoped that by using the word in the context of a heroic story I could help shake off some of its shame.
It worked on one moving occasion. Some years ago, Jim Brick staged Souper Sullivan in Galway. At the end, a woman in the audience stood up and tearfully thanked the cast, saying that long ago in West Cork her family had been cat-called "The Souper Mahoney's".
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Finally, words that heal. Northern Ireland has need of them. That is why I am proud of the phrase I penned in a speech for David Trimble -- which took tremendous courage on his part to deliver -- when he said Northern Ireland had been "a cold house for Catholics".
These words were prompted by healing words from the other side which, once heard, had never left my mind. They were spoken by Gusty Spence, leader of the Combined Loyalist Military Command, which on October 12, 1994 called a ceasefire which would lead to Loyalists joining the peace process under the guidance of Spence's protégé, the late David Ervine.
Spence said: "In all sincerity, we offer to the loved ones of all innocent victims over the past 20 years, abject and true remorse. No words of ours will compensate for the intolerable suffering they have undergone during the conflict."
While we wait the return of Dr Richard Haass, it is good to see that some former Provisional IRA activists are making a similar powerful contribution to peace. Some of them are critics of Adams, but all feel compelled to act with good authority. Using plain words, forged in the furnace of their own past, they have been calling on IRA dissidents to desist from their dead-end campaign of violence.
In recent weeks, Gemma Murray of the Irish Newsletter has carried absorbing interviews with three former senior IRA figures: Richard O'Rawe, Tommy McKearney and Gerard Hodgins. Reflecting on his radical past, Hodgins, a former blanketman, faces up to the futility of armed actions and the task facing real republicans: "You need to persuade unionism by words rather than by actions."