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Friday 20 July 2018

Home sweet home and our forty shades of blue

There are times that words need to be salty as well as sweet, as Joseph O'Connor is reminded on his return from America

YOU know, one thing I've really noticed since returning to live in Ireland after five months in America is that we swear. We curse. We profane.

Walk the streets of Dublin, or any other Irish town, and you're likely to witness unusual climactic occurrences as the air is turned blue by the perpetual hurricane of low-level but toe-curling Father Jackism. Curt, harsh words machine-gun the land, activities that would be impossible for anyone who is not a contortionist are recommended, and the name of the Bethlehem baby is uttered so often that you'd swear we spent most of our time praying.

I am reluctant to cite examples, since certain vivid words of an Anglo-Saxon nature may not be repeated in a family newspaper without fairly compelling reason. But I am free to say that one of the most amusing hypocrisies of American television is that they don't bleep out the offending focal dana when it is spoken in a movie. Instead, they overdub it so that the actor is heard to say the word "forget" in its place, his voice miraculously producing the innocent duosyllabic verb despite his lips being seen to move only once. As in, "Go forget yourself, Buddy," or, "I drank so much last night I got totally forgotten wasted," or, to paraphrase a saying recently uttered in the Kildare Street Chuckle Factory, "With all due respect, forget you, Deputy Stagg. Forget you!" For the purposes of this column, "forget" will have to do, linguistic stand-in, the star of the profanity subs' bench.

One of the things revealed by the Paul Gogarty TD pre-Christmas outburst of goodwill to all men is our capacity to have our sensitivities inflamed by a word. But, given that you hear it every day of the week in Ireland, it's a wonder we're not all perpetually crying. The forget word seems to have become a kind of emotional comma, a pausing for breath, a reminder that the speaker has not fallen asleep, a means of keeping the conversational taxi-meter still running when the vehicle isn't actually going anywhere.

My grandmother had a number of handy stock phrases she used on these occasions: "God between us and all harm"; "Merciful Hour"; "That Beats Banagher"; "Sure God is good"; and my own personal favourite, that lovely phrase from the primordial Irish past, "Stop the lights".

"Stop the lights, but that's a beautiful evening altogether," she'd say, or, "Stop the lights, would you look at that child's manners."

I have very happy memories of one occasion when I used this phrase in a short story that was eventually to be published in France, and the French translator rang me up in a state of blissful wonderment saying, "What a beautiful sentence. Stop ze lights. Is eet from ze works of William Butler Yeats?" I had to explain that it was actually from a Seventies quiz show presented by a man named Bunny Carr. "Ah, Bunny Carr," he exclaimed. "In my language, he would be called Monsieur Lapin Voiture."

But back to this business of non-stop Irish swearing. In my view, we can be a little prissy about this, since words are only words, the playthings of the everyday, and there are times when we need them to be salty as well as sweet, something we've always understood in Ireland. That said, my time in America had temporarily erased the memory of quite how non-stop Irish vulgarity is, to the extent that to reproduce in print many Irish conversations would result in such a plethora of censoring asterisks that the effect would be looking like a map of the Milky Way.

Nothing prepared me for the conversation I overheard on my first day back in Dublin, when one man in the pub turned to his newly arrived friend and delightedly exclaimed: "Ah forget you, yeh fat forgetter, how are yeh forgettin keeping, and how did you get over the forgetting Christmas?" To which the answer was given: "Ah, it was fairly forgetting quiet to be honest." The former conversationalist came chiming back in: "Forget me, I wish mine was quiet, it was non-stop noise, with the forgetting kids and the forgetting dog and the forgetting mother-in-law up on a visit up from Borris-in-forgettin-Ossory. She was laid on like the forgetting gas she was, the forgetting auld wanderly wagon."

Well, the affairs of the nation were then gone over for a while. "Sure the country is rightly forgotten, and them forgetters in Dail Eireann, Fianna forgetting Fail and Fine forgetting Gael, one shower of the forgetters as bad as the other, and the Labour Party, don't be talking, don't get me forgetting started, oh Jem Larkin is back in the saddle right enough, and your other men, the Greens, the biggest forgetters of all, sure it's no wonder the place is forgot. And the forgetting builders and the forgetting bankers and they down in the forgetting tent at the Galway forgetting races and Bertie the forgetting king of them. Well, we won't be forgettingwell forgetting them when it comes to the election, we'll be forgettingwell remembering them, won't we?"

It was like being in a wind tunnel of happy-hearted profanity. And it continued, unabated, for at least two hours, until with a final fanfare of forgetfulness, they fecked off.

What does it mean? Are we linguistically lazy in Ireland? Given our mastery of the byways of the beautiful English language, a tongue that has a word for pretty much any situation imaginable, is it just that we can't be bothered to learn? I used to know the answer but I'm not sure I remember it any more. Yes, you might say, I've forgotten.

Joseph O'Connor's Wednesday radio diary is commissioned by RTE One's 'Drivetime with Mary Wilson'

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