The West's Awake by Cormac MacConnell
The Irish meaning of the word "briar"
Posted on Wednesday, May 05, 2010 at 06:40 PM
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Apple blossom time and cherry blossom time through all the long reaches of Clare and the wider West of Ireland, tadpoles squiggling new life in the pond, the stretching hills somehow pubescent with all their promises of new life, the most subtly beautiful moon at night.
I passed close to the Cliffs of Moher on a working jaunt yesterday early evening, the seas making buttermilk down below with soft hands. Beautiful.
On the way up the twisty road, incidentally, I passed the spot where the summer sign used read "Blueberries for Sale," and that was the pastoral Irish home of poor little Phoebe Prince, the Irish teen who tragically took her own life in Massachusetts back in January.
I said a passing prayer for the child. Most beauty and beautiful places are never too far away from our thorns.
Which brings me to what I want to talk about for a wee minute, and maybe it only makes sense to me. Forgive if that is so.
I went into the garden this morning with a pair of shears to cut back a shrub that has been attempting to strangle one of my apple trees for the past couple of years. The shrub itself offered little resistance but, in a nutshell, the briars in the hedge did their level best to rip me to pieces.
They caught me by the beard, by the long hair, across the shoulders and along the legs. They tore at my hands and wrists.
They occasionally stopped me in my tracks lest I be blinded in one or both eyes. They inflicted considerable pain on me.
They drew blood from any exposed area. They left thorns in me. When I bent down to pursue their roots into the heart of the hedge and cut them down at source, they draped their wickedly fanged corpses on top of my back and stabbed me to the bitter end.
Behind every one of their little white florets there was a dozen lurking thorns, and the most vicious of these were the tiny ones of this season's new growth.
Many of you who are Irish-born and from the country will remember the common allegation against both men and women with sharpish tongues and natures that they were “briars.” It was and still is a frequent male nickname.
In relation to the womenfolk it always related to the serrated edges of their tongues. In relation to men, not just the tonguework but also the physicality and short temper of the individual, "give him a wide berth because he's a briar."
It is a powerfully accurate description of many's the man to this day, and yet another index to the rich way in which the Irish deploy the Queen's original English.
Anyway, when I had subdued the poor, passive thornless shrub I was surrounded by the fiery heap of felled briars, still lethal, snapping at my ankles. I got a garden fork and speared them through the belly, even as they continued their retaliation, and I rammed them into a weak spot in the hedge. No dog or cat will pass through for the next month.
Later they will turn brown and brittle, but by then the next generation will have spurted up from the tap roots and they will bleed me again next year.
But do ye know what I thought as I wiped away the blood? Is it not a great pity that we regard briars as weeds, as the scum of the gardens and hedgerows?
Is it not a great pity that a plant which displays such resilience and life-force and indeed beauty is so hated by gardeners?
Is it not a great shame too that hardy and independent humans who stand up for themselves are called briars by the rest of us? In this harsh world, surely, we all need to be briars of a kind just to survive!
And there is more than that I thought. The briar is not just hardy and fiery. It is also beautiful.
On the poorest of soils, in the darkest corners, in the most unlikely places, it survives, thrives, beautifies even. It weaves itself around hedges and stone walls in an ornamental fashion.
It's white loose flowers, the vulnerable face, last all summer long as the exotic imported flowers come into bloom and out of it in a fortnight or three weeks, then to die away.
And there is much more than that too. Come the autumn, when the rest of most gardens wither away, the briar yields up a heavy crop of the most beautiful wild fruit of all.
Blackberries. The very thought of them makes my mouth water now.
Luscious, lustrous, with their own super-sweet yet somehow wild flavor. Many of you picked them with your mothers and siblings along the hedges of childhood, basins of them, tin cans of them, tons of them, the bounty of nature.
Remember those pots of rich black jam with their elastic-banded greaseproof paper lids? Remember the joy in helping in the making?
Maybe a finger or two was pricked in the garnering of the blackberries, but it was all well worthwhile. And it is a joy to still see families along the roads each autumn continuing the tradition.
We need briars. Nowadays, in harder financial times here, we need more humans who, through their resilience and nature, are called after them with good reason. And we will always relish the blackberries that are so wholesome and good.
Does not about everything to be desired not co-exist with thorns of one kind or another?
The backs of the hands that are writing this are scratched and sore. But I hope it makes a bit of sense to somebody else out there...