A no-whin situation

An Irishman’s Diary on the plant also known as furze

‘Unlike another Border, Lucas’s line did not follow county boundaries. It was more like the Korean arrangement: a line of latitude, in this case half-way between the 53rd and 54th parallels. Nor did Lucas propose a boundary commission to consider reallocating the south’s whin-majority areas to the north, or sending furzy areas south.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘Unlike another Border, Lucas’s line did not follow county boundaries. It was more like the Korean arrangement: a line of latitude, in this case half-way between the 53rd and 54th parallels. Nor did Lucas propose a boundary commission to consider reallocating the south’s whin-majority areas to the north, or sending furzy areas south.’ Photograph: Getty Images

Thu, Aug 15, 2013, 01:00

Niall O’Carroll’s recent letter (“Furze, whins, or gorse?”, August 10th) – itself a reply to Seán Mac Connell’s Irishman’s Diary (August 5th) – sent me scouring libraries for AT Lucas’s book, Furze: A Survey and History of its Uses in Ireland (1960), which O’Carroll cites.

And it’s true. On the question of the plant’s name, Lucas partitioned Ireland on either side of a line between Drogheda and Westport. He even drew it on a map: with the territory north of the border marked “Whins”; the land to the south “Furze”.

Unlike another Border, Lucas’s line did not follow county boundaries. It was more like the Korean arrangement: a line of latitude, in this case half-way between the 53rd and 54th parallels. Nor did Lucas propose a boundary commission to consider reallocating the south’s whin-majority areas to the north, or sending furzy areas south.

But of course he didn’t suggest the line was exclusive: just that it was an approximation of where the name, as in general use, changed.

So I wonder if in choosing the Drogheda-Westport parallel, he was conscious of a certain Meath village that, were his demarcation even slightly further south, would have made a liar of him. I refer to Yellow Furze – the Tijuana of this border – and home to a similarly-named GAA club that wears the colours of the plant.

Mind you, as Lucas himself pointed out, there is a contradiction in the naming scheme. Even where the plant is exclusively called “whin”, he wrote, the adjective “whinny” is little used. Instead there, just as in southern Ireland, the preference is for “furzy” or “furry”: eg the Furry Glen.

A rare exception occurs in an old Cavan proverb, expressing a man’s formula for a happy life, viz: “Green fields and whinny ditches/A nice girl and to hell with riches.” (The verse is doubly unusual, coming from Cavan, in that it dismisses the importance of money).

Adjectives aside, any poets I know of who have pronounced on the subject conform with the Lucas partition. In A Christmas Childhood, for example, Monaghan’s Patrick Kavanagh imagines “three whin bushes” as the Magi riding across a hill. Whereas, describing a Kerry Christmas, Sigerson Clifford remembers how the wren boys of Barr na Sráide “searched for birds in every furze/from Litir to Dooneen”.

Those writers were both well behind the whin-furze front line, however. It would be more interesting to know what Francis Ledwidge named the plant, if he ever did. On his rambles in Meath, he probably often walked through Yellow Furze. Against which, he was born a few miles north of it, in Slane, which made him nominally a citizen of Whinland.

Despite the map, the naming question is only a side issue in Lucas’s book, the subject of which was the plant’s extraordinary role in Irish life for centuries. Even by 1960, he wrote, this was largely a thing of the past, with whins/furze “now regarded as little more than a troublesome weed”. But in former times, it had been “put to such an astonishing number of uses that there can hardly be any other plant like it”.

Its value as animal fodder – Seán Mac Connell’s theme – was only one application. It was also used as veterinary medicine, as fuel, as fertiliser, and as bedding. It helped build fences and roofs. It was included in road foundations. It cleaned chimneys. It harrowed fields.

Lucas even mentions a scheme in 1880s Wicklow whereby John Parnell, brother of Charles, mooted using furze to make umbrella handles. And maybe strangest of all, it was once also a common alternative to ash in hurleys.

The sticks were too soft for hurling, really. Nevertheless Lucas reported their former use in most counties, including Limerick, where a survey correspondent recalled that furze hurleys were called “cromogues” and were used mainly by children, but by adults too “in an emergency”.

Getting back to the plant’s name, however, and as Niall O’Carroll says, Lucas (a former curator of the National Museum) was dismissive of a third version. “The Common English name ‘gorse’ is not used in Ireland except by those who have become familiar with it in England or in books,” he wrote.

It’s a pity he didn’t live to see a certain court case in 2008 concerning the ownership of a piece of land in Dalkey, south Dublin. The reported value of “Gorse Hill”, as it was known, might have astonished even him. And yet by any name, to paraphrase Shakespeare, the plant in question would still have smelt strangely of coconut; although I’m told people are divided even on this, and that some are much more susceptible to the aroma than others.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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