Lost in translation

An Irishman’s Diary: A wren in the wrong place

‘Back in the 1977 the firm decided to commission a Christmas plate, the motif for which was taken from that well-known traditional song – connected with the martyrdom of St Stephen – The Wren in the Furze.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘Back in the 1977 the firm decided to commission a Christmas plate, the motif for which was taken from that well-known traditional song – connected with the martyrdom of St Stephen – The Wren in the Furze.’ Photograph: Getty Images

Wed, Aug 21, 2013, 01:00

Further to the question of whether a certain plant should be called “furze” or “whin” (An Irishman’s Diary August 15th), Ted O’Brien writes with an amusing but true story. It concerns the famous Fermanagh porcelain company, Belleek Pottery, which over the years has occasionally produced limited-edition plates on certain themes.

Back in the 1977, for example, the firm decided to commission a Christmas plate, the motif for which was taken from that well-known traditional song – connected with the martyrdom of St Stephen – The Wren in the Furze.

Unfortunately, the die for the plate had to be cast in England, where the Feast of St Stephen is called Boxing Day and the custom of hunting the wren unknown. It may be assumed, also – this being 1977 – that directions for the plate were given over the phone.

In any case, the die came back depicting the bird among the branches of what looked like a coniferous tree, with a cone attached to one of the twigs. Sure enough, the obverse of the plate declared this to be “The Wren in the Firs”.

But nobody noticed the mistake (perhaps because Fermanagh is a whin-speaking area) and production went ahead. So now, as Ted says, “there are limited editions out there somewhere which, like faulty postage stamps, must have considerably increased in value.”

They are indeed out there, turning up on eBay and antique auction sites from time to time. But here’s the thing. On any sites I have seen, the “Wren in the Firs” plates are offered only as objects of beauty and of a certain vintage.

That’s to say that, in Britain and America, where most such purchases are made, they still appear not to have noticed the error. Or maybe they have and just don’t care. And I’m not sure why – it’s my post-colonial hangover, no doubt – but I find this slightly annoying.

It’s as if our mistakes are not important enough to add value at auction. So, in the circumstances, I have decided to take perverse, retrospective satisfaction from an e-mail I received some years ago about Irish signage.

I can’t remember whether it was was from a man or woman. But it must have been a first-time visitor to Ireland, or somebody remembering a time when s/he had first visited, and had never before encountered Irish-language signs for toilets.

Relying instead on anglophone logic, my correspondent had decided that, being anagrams, “mná” and “man” meant the same thing. And either the visitor was a male who blundered into the “mná’s”, or a female who – by reductive reasoning – did the opposite.

This in turn reminds me that, up until the 1990s, Britain still had a female branch of the navy: the Women’s Royal Naval Service, aka the “Wrens”. It’s an idle thought, but I wonder whether, visiting Ireland, a startled Wren ever found herself “in the Fir’s”. If so, such a scene would almost be worth a commemorative plate (with porcelain by Armitage Shanks).

Thanks to several other readers, while I’m at it, for further enlightening me on the whin/furze dichotomy. I now know (courtesy of Deirdre Cantwell) that the poet Francis Ledwidge was indeed a whin-man. Despite living only a few miles north of Yellow Furze, he wrote at least twice about “whin-clad” hills, as AT Lucas’s map would imply he should. I don’t know, still, why Irish news reports always refer to “gorse fires”, even though, as Lucas wrote, nobody here calls the plant by that name. Maybe it only becomes gorse when it’s burning. But against that, I’m assured by Colm Donoghue, that in south Wicklow, they used to make bonfires of the shrub every May 1st, in which role it became the “Maybush”.

A couple of readers have also drawn my attention to another traditional tune called Whiny Hills of Leitrim. Which I assume to be a spelling mistake, although even in the Comhaltas archive, that’s how it’s written. I suspect, somehow, that the hills in question were merely whinny. And if they weren’t, they probably had their reasons for complaining.

But to show that translation problems are not confined to Irish and English, I’ll leave the last word with Declan Bonner. Who, years ago, visited a Dublin garden centre, seeking advice on a plant suitable for “my new exposed seaside site in west Donegal”. The garden centre prescribed something called Ulex europaeus. So he filled his car-boot and took them home. Where, as he puts it, “They turned out to be the whin bushes I was trying to eradicate from my field at the time.”

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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