Parking between the lines

An Irishman’s Diary about Hiberno-English, Cavan-style

There are few experiences more soul-destroying that wandering around large car-parks, underground or otherwise, unable to remember where you put your damn car. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

There are few experiences more soul-destroying that wandering around large car-parks, underground or otherwise, unable to remember where you put your damn car. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien


Cavan reader John Connolly has referred me to an interesting headline that appeared recently in the Anglo-Celt. “Council looking for to get out of multi-million white elephant car-park,” it said. And he’s right – there’s a lot going on in that one short sentence.

My first reaction was to picture council officials driving around the car-park, unable to find an exit, a plight with which I’m familiar. My second reaction was to admire the car-park’s white-elephant theme, which seemed a very good idea.

At least the stricken officials had found their vehicle, I thought. Whereas there are few experiences more soul-destroying that wandering around large car-parks, underground or otherwise, unable to remember where you put your damn car.

Colour-coding alone can be no help. Not long ago, I lost a precious hour of my life going back and forth between the red, blue, and green car-parks of Dundrum Shopping Centre, absolutely unable to remember which of them my car was in. The problem arose partly because the centre was not my intended destination in Dundrum (I was going to Joe Daly’s bike shop around the corner). On the contrary, I try to avoid visiting Dundrum Shopping Centre the way Orangemen avoid visiting Catholic churches. So that, even after deciding it was the easiest place to park, I attempted to minimise my contamination by walking out via the exit ramp. The plan backfired later when, this time following the prescribed route for returning drivers, I was forced repeatedly to criss-cross the temple of Mammon while uselessly dredging my memory for clues about the car-park’s colour.

But if, along with colours, there were animal motifs on the floor, that would surely have helped. It would be easier to remember you were in the white elephant car-park, or the pink panther one, or the brown cow. Then your only problem, like the Cavan council officials, would be looking for to get out.

None of which, however, is John Connolly’s actual point. He was mainly drawing my attention to the use of the Cavan localism “looking for to”. And I agree it’s amusing to see this enshrined in a newspaper headline, common though it is in speech.

I presume it’s a Hiberno-English construction, influenced by Irish. As such, linguists probably have a name for it, like the “periphrastic do and be” (eg, “I do be down there often”), which many Irish people still use to to emphasise the habitual nature of something.

The function of the “for” in “looking for to” is less clear. Maybe it serves to stress the profundity of the search. If so, I wish Cavan County Council well in its metaphysical struggles.

John adds, by the way, that his own favourite localism is “for to be”, as in: “He took the car for to be going home”. But I’ll see your “for to be”, John, and raise you an expression once common among my Monaghan neighbours, “be to be”.

Although I struggle now to recall the exact context, I think it was used to describe someone’s condition or fate, as in “ . . . and she be to be married to one of the McCabes”. But sure enough, linguists have a term for this too, the “certainty-inferring epistemic be”.

Whether it’s Hiberno-English, I don’t know, because as the aforementioned Orangemen could probably tell you, it also occurs in the King James Bible (Deuteronomy 21:22): “And if a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be to be put to death . . . ”

(Which leads me to wonder if the certainty-inferring epistemic would have helped a famously doubt-ridden Shakespearian character. Maybe not. “To be to be, or not to be to be” might only have prolonged his torture.)

By coincidence I also received an email this week from a former Anglo-Celt reporter, John McEntee, who has since gone on to an illustrious career in British journalism. He was recalling the complexities of life once in and around Drummully, that strange Border area we were discussing here earlier in the week. Among the things he mentioned was that, attending Ulster Finals past, the cuter Cavan fans used to abandon their cars in that peninsula of Fermanagh that juts down between Clones and Drummelly.

For one thing, it was an easy enough walk from there to the stadium. But they also knew, for an epistemic certainty, there was no danger of the RUC venturing down into that enclave to impose fines. If you’ll excuse my sentence-ending preposition, that was one car-park Cavan people never had any trouble looking for to get out of.

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