Wednesday 19 June 2019

David Robbins: Everything you wanted to know about hyphens but were afraid to ask

David Robbins

I have just come up with a great idea for an academic thesis -- or perhaps even a book. Ready? Well, the title I have in mind is The Role of the Hyphen in Irish History. Catchy, eh?

The hyphen has been around a long time. I mean, where would the Greco-Romans have been without it? Or the Anglo-Normans, come to think of it. Not to mention the Anglo-Saxons.

It has played quite a part in the history of our own little corner of the world. Would we be where we are today without the Sheehy-Skeffingtons, for instance?

Most recently, it has featured in the terms "dig-out" and, of course, "bail-out".

Our political history is strewn with great men who sounded like they should have had a hyphen but didn't. Would Conor Cruise O'Brien have reached even greater heights if he hadn't dropped the hyphen?

Then there was the famous rugby match between Ireland and England at Lansdowne Road in the 1950s. The England team was strewn with hyphens, but the dominant punctuation mark belonged to out-half Phil Horrocks-Taylor.

The story has been claimed by many a raconteur and involves a hapless Irish defender as the only thing standing between a lightning-fast Horrocks-Taylor and the try line.

The Irish player, brave to a fault, launched himself into the tackle. "The Horrocks went one way, the Taylor went the other and I was left tackling the bloody hyphen," our hero complained.

Last week, it even cropped up in the Dáil chamber. Like the Cruiser, Richard Boyd Barrett eschews the hyphen in his name, but that didn't stop the loquacious Pat Rabbitte telling Boyd Barrett that just because he had a double-barrelled name, he couldn't ask two parliamentary questions at once.

Joe Higgins leapt to his confrére's defence. "Just because you have a double chin . . ." he began, before being drowned out by hecklers. Good to see that Socratic standards of rhetoric are still being upheld in Kildare Street.

But never can the humble hyphen have been used to bring together two more emotionally loaded words as in the phrase Anglo-Irish. (Or maybe it's keeping them apart.)

Maurice O'Keeffe, a social historian and antique dealer from Co Kerry, comes from a hallowed GAA family. His brother John is a legend in the Kingdom.

He got to know some of the local Anglo-Irish families through his antiques business and became fascinated by their stories. The Kerry Gael and the last of the landed gentry made an unusual alliance.

Maurice interviewed 100 families and found a group of people with an almost plaintive desire to be accepted as Irish -- a particular brand of Irish, but Irish nonetheless.

Take Tom Somerville, who came up to Dublin last week with his wife and children for the launch of Maurice's audio archive of Anglo-Irish family history.

Tom, who hails from the same Somervilles who produced half of the Somerville and Ross literary combo, is Anglo-Irish.

Really, all that means is that his forebears came from England centuries ago, and that he speaks with a rather posh English accent.

There are other, more variable, markers too: possession of a grand house; a tendency to send the children to private schools in England; and a determination to hand on house and contents intact to the next generation.

Tom owns Drishane House in Castletownshend, west Cork. He is a barrister on the northern circuit in the UK, commuting back and forth at weekends.

He eats in the kitchen, doesn't keep staff and hasn't got central heating. He plans to school his children locally. And he has views about that hyphen. With families like his, he says, identity "depends on which side of the hyphen the emphasis is placed". Some tend towards the Anglo, but he leans towards the Irish.

Then there's Charles Stanhope, 12th Earl of Harrington, who says that, no matter how long a family like his has been here, or what they have done locally, they are never accepted as fully Irish.

Yet strangely, the Anglo-Irish find themselves more accepted than ever -- because of another hyphenated word: multi-culturalism.

If we can embrace immigrants from Africa and eastern Europe, then we can hardly hold a grudge against an English family who've lived up the hill for 400 years.

I rest my case. My work on our hyphenated history is sure to be a best-seller.

drobbins@independent.ie

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