A blessing in disguise
An Irishman’s Diary about an ancient Irish custom
‘Neil Jackman went about developing a series of downloadable guides on heritage sites: ranging from the famous – the Rock of Cashel (above) – to the relatively obscure, the Rock of Dunamaise. Rock of Cashel’. Photograph: Getty Images
The expression “God Bless the Work” is still common in rural Ireland, I think. Or at least it was where I grew up. Spoken by visitors then, it accompanied friendly intrusion into a farmyard, or hayfield, or any other scene of obvious industry.
But it must have been even more common 100 years ago. So when I was browsing through a copy of PW Joyce’s 1910 book, English as We Speak it in Ireland recently, it was no surprise to see the phrase feature.
What took me aback, however, was Joyce’s suggestion that the verbal blessing was merely the echo of what had once been a much more elaborate custom.
The custom was called abarta, he said, and even the word was ancient. It was no longer used in Irish, but it formerly referred to “a blessing conferred by a workman on completion of any job”. As such, it went back “more than 1,000 years”.
Although the nature of the blessing was unspecified, it was clearly a serious, professional obligation. In fact, if the workman failed to perform it, he was liable to a fine: equivalent to “one seventh of the cost of his feeding” and deducted from final payment.
The practice was defunct by the 20th century. In fact, amusingly, Joyce goes on to complain that in “modern times” (he was writing in 1910, remember), tradesmen had “perverted this pleasing custom into a new channel not so praiseworthy”.
Builders were the main culprits, he implied. On completion of any work, they had now developed the habit of fixing “a pole with a flag on the highest point” of the building: a demand for the employer’s blessing that, as Joyce added drily, “means money for a drink”.
If that was the new custom, circa 1910, it too seems to have died out since. Or maybe there’s still an echo of it today in the service industry, via the ubiquitous notes on cafe counters and other such places, indicating that tips are welcome.
No job now – not even the making of a cappuccino – is too modest to be accompanied by a hint that a top-up payment is expected on completion of the project. But oddly enough, the more elaborate works, like construction, seem to have become exempt.
Anyway, it was while trying to look up the word and custom Joyce referred to that, this week, I came across a website for something called Abarta Audio Guides.
As the name hints, the products involved are downloadable travel guides: in this case relating to Irish historical sites. So, assuming the name had been adapted from the ancient custom, I rang the man behind the website, Neil Jackman, to find out more.
But, as it happens, Neil had never heard of Joyce’s abarta. Rather than name his business after an ancient blessing, I learned, he had named it after an even more ancient mythological character.
This Abarta was a mischievous member of the Tuatha de Danann, who once played a trick on Fionn and the Fianna, by getting them onto the back of a magical horse that took them on a tour of the underworld. Hence the use of the name for a company providing audio travel guides.
An archaeologist by profession, Jackman confesses not to know much Irish. But he has good excuse: he’s from Lancashire. He only moved here back in 1999: a golden age for archeologists in Ireland, albeit only as an indirect result of the construction boom.
Since then, along with his partner Roisin, Neil has adapted his digging to another cause: putting his expertise in archaeological sites at the service of tourists.
The idea was inspired by a visit to Venice some years back, and having to pay €10, plus a €50 deposit, for a clunky hand-held audio guide to the Doge’s Palace. In the era of smart-phones, clearly, this could be done with MP3s.
So back in Ireland, Neil and Roisin went about developing a series of downloadable guides on heritage sites: ranging from the famous – the Rock of Cashel – to the relatively obscure, the Rock of Dunamaise.
They also publish a blog on the same theme:
Among the good things about the guides is that none of them are expensive – the downloads cost €1.99 typically – and some are free. The one on Dunamaise, for example, is gratis. But somehow, the business model works. Although it’s “not a huge living”, Neil told me, it has already created two jobs. To which I can only say: God bless the work.