In his wonderful book, The Speckled People, Hugo Hamilton writes about being sent to the Galway Gaeltacht by his father who is a fearsome proponent of Irish language revival. Hugo is lodged in a rural cottage and describes, very perceptively, the minutiae of the daily program. Like every other rural community, nothing much ever happened, and what did was plucked time and time again, until every morsel of detail was sucked clean. The lady of the house watches from the window facing the road, and if someone passes by, every fragment of that movement is communicated to those within. Usually, the passer-by is going to see a neighbor, and will return, in due course, passing by in the other direction. That same snippet is duly recorded. All is expressed in the Irish idiom, “ag dul siar,” “ag teach aniar” – going west or coming from the west, along the road.
When I read Hugo Hamilton’s book it reminded me of my time in rural Ireland. I lived there for the greater part of 25 years, from boy to young man, through the forties and into middle sixties, at a time when much of the old community way of life was still going strong. The language we spoke was mostly based on what was prevalent in England in the late sixteen hundreds, when it was decreed that the island west of England, which it had conquered, should, by compulsion, be forced to adopt the habits of its masters. And so, though the native Gaelic language was outlawed, some rebellious words carried on underground, and were prevalent in the period when I lived in rural Ireland.
I lived then in a little hamlet called Coolcappa, near to Ardagh of The Ardagh Chalice fame, and straddling a promontory line that separated West Limerick from North Kerry. Aspects of the Gaelic tongue still persisted within the seams of the official language, like outlaws. Every first name, unless restrained by some unpronounceable translation, was re-named by the Gaelic ending of ‘een’ which fell automatically into usage when its future wearer would start to attend the local national school. The ending was culled from the old Gaelic pet word for being wilfully small but likeable. So, in my native Coolcappa, I was always known as Tomeen, not Tom or Thomas, my older brother John was always known as Johneen, never John, our youngest brother Con, named Cornelius at birth, always skipped the long form and was reduced to Coneen.
There were exceptions, of course, every form of language has at least one. You couldn’t get your tongue around the name Patrickeen so the name took a reverse turn and became Pat. Sometimes, that far region of yesterday is wakened again. I’m in Thurles at a hurling game and I hear a voice calling me, calling in that indecipherable accent of once upon a time, ‘Jaysus Tomeen, is it yourself that’s in it?’ And only a month ago, following on to something I had written for IrishCentral, I had this message, ‘are you the Tomeen I used know in Coolcappa, long ago?
The rural Ireland that I grew up in was a greater miasma of directional language than ever occurred in Hugo Hamilton’s Gaeltacht. The language that identified how to go someplace and return again was far more fluent and more varied. In Coolcappa someone would come visiting to our house, and after the welcome dialogue was exchanged, he, invariably he, would be asked how they were all back behind. If you heard that to day you might be hard pressed to make any sense of it. But it was perfectly sane to me what was being asked. It simply wanted to know how those west of us were getting on.
In Coolcappa we never went west along the road, or any road. Our description of local travel deferred neither to longitude or latitude, nor to cardinal points on the globe, nor to any system that was fixed and had no facility of responding to individual idiosyncrasies. We, in Coolcappa, would never say west, we would never say east. We would never say south, never say north. And it didn’t stop there. Rathkeale was about five miles from Coolcappa, Coolcappa was one hundred and forty miles hundred from Dublin according to the sign opposite Curley’s post office in Ardagh, farther again to Belfast, sixty to Cork, any number you like to the continent of Europe.
Now hear this, this is how our directional compass behaved quite like no other. We went into Rathkeale, due south. We went up to Dublin. Due east. We weren’t sure what direction Belfast was in because of no one from our neck of the woods had ever been there. And finally, in a welter of gravitational excess, we went down to Cork, and went over to France across the water, though that one was rarely traveled. And we went over the sea to Amerikay in droves.
With me so far? Let’s summarize in another focus. John Tom Mangan, our neighbor, and a great biker in a time before asphalt roads, comes into our house, sits on the hob and lights up a Woodbine. We ask him how are they all back. We might also ask how are they all behind. Both words were often used synonymosly, nearly always referring to west. Now, suppose a watcher behind a window spies John Tom cycling the white gravel road past our laneway, that news would be relayed by saying that John Tom is going over the road. Geographical science would say that the man is going east and generally the Coolcappa argot would agree if asked for confirmation. But if the same watcher saw that John Tom had cycled past Mangan’s Cross, and most likely was heading for the town, he would then be going in to Rathkeale, not over. Get me? And at that point geographical science would either head for the hills or cover its head on frustration. But I’m not done yet.
When our children were young we holidayed in the Kerry Gaeltacht in a hamlet called ‘An Graig,’ in a house owned by Maire Ni Suilleabhain, about 20 miles west of Tralee. In the language that our ancestors struggled with, trying to cope with the idiosyncrasies that two languages caused, we looked forward, all throughout monsoon winter and desultory spring, to our going back to An Graig in summer days. Maire was a replica of Hugo Hamilton’s landlady, except that she had far more movement to express with. Travellers sped by her window, mostly from the country that had once foisted a language upon us. Maire would stand before the window enumerating the cars that passed by, ‘GB eile ag dull siar, ‘GB eile ag dul aniar’ – another English car going west or another English car coming from there. In other words, going back the road or over the road.
Let’s let John Tom have the last word. It’s the Marian year of 1954, the year dedicated to the Virgin Mary. John Tom and some lads from Kilbradern cycled to Knock, where a new shrine had been dedicated to the Virgin Mother. They went up to Knock because Knock is due north. And coming home they came down by Tuam because Tuam coming down is always south. And don’t ask me, John Tom said, the names of all the other towns and villages that were back going up, and were over coming home.
Tom Nestor is a writer living in County Offaly. For almost forty years he wrote a column in the Limerick Leader - My Life and Times - about the Ireland that he grew up in during the fifties and sixties. It ran from 1964 to 1998. That column became the basis for two works of memoir, published by The Collins Press, titled "The Keeper of Absalom's Island" and "Talking to Kate."