Avail of tears

An Irishman’s Diary about Hiberno-English

‘If anything, we are too fond of the reflexive pronoun, myself included. It’s a long-established habit. In fact, writing of his Irish travels 90-odd years ago, the English poet GK Chesterton remarked on it as a cornerstone of the local language.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘If anything, we are too fond of the reflexive pronoun, myself included. It’s a long-established habit. In fact, writing of his Irish travels 90-odd years ago, the English poet GK Chesterton remarked on it as a cornerstone of the local language.’ Photograph: Getty Images

Fri, Oct 18, 2013, 01:00

A reader named Kieran Heneghan has written from our neighbouring island with a question about English as she is spoken here, namely:

“Why do only the Irish (including The Irish Times) say that they “avail of” something while it seems that, in the rest of the world (I’m London- based), we always “avail ourselves” of it? A recent article in the IT’s business section had no fewer than five instances of unreflexive availing of something or other (a record surely), which troubled me.

“For all I know the grammarians have decided it is “ok” for an Irish person to avail of something, but it would certainly put this reader’s mind at ease to know. I hope you don’t mind me e-mailing you about this grammatical bagatelle.”

I don’t mind at all, Kieran, although I’m not sure I can help. I tried checking with the grammarians just now, but as usual they’re not in the office: probably out on yet another of their long, boozy lunches. If and when they get back today, I’ll ask them about all the unreflexive availing going on over in Business. Come to think of it, the ethics committee might want to hear about that too.

In the meantime all I can say is, whether “avail of” is grammatically correct or otherwise, it’s also uncharacteristic of Irish speech – in the sense that, elsewhere, we rarely pass up the chance to use a reflexive pronoun.

An Irishman calls at a friend’s house, for example, and if the friend’s wife answers the door, he will invariably ask: “Is himself in?” Or say the same man is in the pub, shirking some domestic duty and having accidentally-on-purpose left his phone at home. Then the phone behind the counter rings, and his paranoia strikes. So now, in time-honoured fashion, he will warn the barman: “If that’s herself, I’m not here.”

If anything, we are too fond of the reflexive pronoun, myself included. It’s a long-established habit. In fact, writing of his Irish travels 90-odd years ago, the English poet GK Chesterton remarked on it as a cornerstone of the local language. Being religious-minded (and indeed Catholic), Chesterton was especially taken by an example he heard while eavesdropping on a conversation in west Donegal.

The speaker was an old lady, a survivor of desperate times, telling a story from the Famine about travellers who met a homeless woman and child wandering those same parts. When they asked who she was, she replied: “I am the mother of God, and this is Himself, and He is the boy you’ll all be wanting at the last.”

Chesterton mentioned this in the course of a prolonged reflection about what makes a language “national”. And he suggested that, in the old woman’s story, even the word ‘boy’, with its “half-humorous possibilities”, was another “wholly national nuance”.

I know what he means. A few years ago, in another part of Ulster, I was driving to a football match with my then six-year-old son, and stopped at a Border shop to buy him an ice-cream.

While fetching the one we wanted, the shopkeeper remarked: “That’s a dear boy”. And if this had been England, I would have assumed he was complimenting my child. In fact, if we’d been even a few miles away, across the Border, in one of those places with a village green and a cricket team, I might have assumed the same.

But here, thanks to a combination of geography and nuance, I knew that the “dear boy” was the ice-cream. The shopkeeper was just warning me that my son’s choice (a Magnum or something) cost €2, in case I wanted to avail myself of a cheaper option.

Anyway, the grammarians are still not back . So I’ll end today’s column by sharing a story from another reader, Máire Nic Mhaoláin, on foot of yesterday’s diary.

Máire grew up in Co Down where, back in the 1960s, her mother “religiously” placed bets on the English Grand National. Before doing so, she always quizzed her children about any dreams they might have had the previous night. And on the eve of the 1961 race, as it happened, Máire had dreamt about being invited to tea with the devil.

Not only was the devil a gracious host, she recalled, he even had a silver teapot. So you can imagine the family’s excitement when, scanning the runners at Aintree, they spotted one called Tea Fiend. The bet was made accordingly. But alas, events in Liverpool that day added to the suspicion that the devil is a bookmaker. Tea Fiend didn’t win. A horse called Nicolaus Silver did.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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