The Words We Use
Deaglán de Bréadún
While we’re all focussing on the economy and politics, our civic culture is gradually crumbling away. Maybe not so gradually.
O’Connell Street, heart of the city (Photograph by Cyril Byrne)
Last week we read about a decline in profits at Clery’s, the famously long-established department store on Dublin’s O’Connell Street. A senior manager mentioned “social problems” and “commercial begging” in the city centre as a contributory factor, discouraging people from coming into town. To read what he had to say, click here.
Last time I ventured down that way, a few weeks back, it was about 7.30 in the evening. As I walked from from O’Connell Bridge to the Luas stop in nearby Middle Abbey Street, I observed what looked suspiciously like two drug deals taking place. You don’t peer into these proceedings too closely or you will get a very robust reaction. Should I have reported my suspicions to the Gardaí? By the time they got there, in the event that they regarded it as an unusual occurrence, the druggies would have moved along. In any case, the entire centre city is sprinkled with individuals who look very much like drug addicts, drug-dealers or both.
Last night on the way from the office to my car, I was verbally abused by a total stranger on Townsend Street. Hard to say if the fellow was drugged or just drunk, maybe a bit of both. He crossed the road towards me, reciting the slogan: “If you f*** with me, I’ll f*** with you!” It was mildly alarming but he obviously decided he did not like the look of me after all and moved away.
At another level, where drugs and drink don’t feature in any obvious way, the old norms and rules are gone out the window. Over the weekend, I travelled to a sporting fixture down the country. After a short while sitting in the stand out of the rain, I realised the fellow behind me was bellowing obscenities on a regular basis. Not just the F-word but C— and B—-x as well.
Don’t get me wrong: I can turn the air blue with the best of them on occasion. But I generally don’t inflict this type of language on total strangers and the public at large. There were women and children in the vicinity also as this man kept up his barrage against the Referee and the players.
Knowing it would be a fraught endeavour, I finally turned around and asked him to stop swearing for the sake of the women and children (also for my own sake, but I didn’t think that would cut any ice.)
I need hardly say that a robust exchange occurred which concluded with said gentleman threatening to punch me in the nose – “glasses or no glasses”. I pointed out that a little girl was sitting right beside him. “That’s my granddaughter,” says he.
But at least the guy stopped cursing, which was a considerable relief. But there were chaps on either side of me who both effed and blinded their way through the afternoon – more quietly and less oppressively I have to say.
Back to Dublin then on the bus. It was a very nice journey apart from one thing. A chap right in front kept swearing into his mobile phone. “Why are you effin’ callin’ me, etc., etc.”
I used to think it was just Dublin people but my weekend foray showed once more that it was people from all over. The three sources of swearing at the weekend GAA fixture were all from different counties.
Should the media take some responsibility for this, particularly television? When I arrived home on Saturday night, a comedian on RTE was getting a great laugh from a huge audience as he joked in quite explicit terms about the influence of porn on 12-year-olds (too explicit for this Blog anyway).
In previous decades the fight against censorship was a noble one. Practically every Irish writer of note was banned by the prudes and religious fanatics for what nowadays – and even then – seems very mild indeed. But the wheel has turned full circle, the pendulum has swung the other way. And of course verbal violence is often a stepping-stone to violence of the physical kind.
The frustrating thing is that there doesn’t seem to be any solution. Any politician or public figure who tried to resist the tide of foul language would probably be laughed at and become a staple of the stand-up routines.
All I can say is, in the words of the character in the film Network played by the late Peter Finch: “I’m mad as hell and I can’t take it any more.”
While I’m at it, I was intrigued by the Clery’s executive’s use of the phrase “commercial begging”. This points to a phenomenon whose existence I have suspected for a long time. Instead of the spontaneous alms-seeker down on his luck, we seem to have a small army of fellows who are, in fact, begging entrepreneurs. They are very polite too – as though they had gone to Begging School. It must be difficult for tourists as they are constantly accosted on the streets – and then, when you think of the prices in some of the shops and restaurants!
Another factor in city-centre decline, not mentioned by the man from Clery’s, is the phenomenon of unnecessary parking charges. Try to get on-street parking downtown on a Saturday and you will be put to the pin of your collar finding a space that isn’t subject to a substantial charge (€2.70 per hour, if memory serves). There is no justification for this – the streets are virtually deserted most of the time. The city-centre business people and their employees should kick up about this. And if they have already done so, they need to kick up a whole lot more. There is a role for all those local councillors elected a few weeks back in a blaze of publicity.