An Irishman's Diary
Last August, as you probably won’t remember, two Qantas pilots had to be grounded after an argument in the cockpit of a Boeing 747. It was a row about their calculations for a take-off from Dallas. And they didn’t resort to violence, or anything like that. But even so, the incident came closer than one might like to illustrating the etymological origins of the part of the plane where pilots sit.
It’s funny how far words can evolve from where they started. The original cock-pits, logically enough, were places where prize-fighting roosters performed, when that was still considered a more-or-less legitimate sport. Some time in the 1700s, the term was enlisted into the British navy to describe the junior officers’ quarters on a ship, where – presumably – fighting was common. A century later, the word strayed further into figurative use, being applied to international conflict, and specifically Belgium, which was dubbed the “Cockpit of Europe” because it was the centre of so many disputes (and which is these days giving the term a new lease of life by hosting a constitutional fight-to-the-death between the Flemings and the Walloons).
But having so far retained some contact with its origins, the word then made a leap of no logic. From about 1914 onwards, it became used to describe the aforementioned aircraft part. Which is among the last places on earth you would ever want to hear of testosterone-fuelled conflict, even on a fighter plane. And yet the word “cock-pit” is now used for little else.
I was reminded of its origins while browsing hidden-gems.eu, a website for which I had the honour of performing the official opening last weekend. It’s a joint venture between Ireland’s two local history federations, North and South. And as the title suggests, it aims to collect and promote details of the country’s lesser-known attractions: forgotten but often fascinating vignettes, located just off the tourist trail.
The “Athy Cockpit” is a good example. Dating from the 18th century, it’s an octagonal structure, about 8 metres in diameter, twice the then-standard area for a cock-fighting arena.
It probably also once had an elevated gallery for spectators. But that was before the 1849 Cruelty to Animals Act drove the “sport” underground, or out of the towns anyway. Thus, today, the decommissioned cockpit is just a room in a hardware store: Griffin and Hawe, on Athy’s Duke Street.
The Hidden Gems project is still in its infancy. So half the counties on the website’s interactive map of Ireland have yet to post a single entry. But even compared with the others, interestingly, Kildare and Antrim appear to have stolen a march on the competition.
The cockpit apart, Kildare’s already-impressive list of entries ranges from a so-called “Bird Bath” (more likely a baptismal font) dating from 1625, to sections of the original Pale. In Antrim, meanwhile, proving that anything can acquire historical interest if it survives long enough, the hidden gems include what is described as “Ireland’s First Bungalow?” Yes, that question mark is part of the description. Which, in such a bungalow-rich country as this, is probably a sensible precaution. But if you think your area has an even older version (Antrim’s dates from the early 1900s), the website would be interested in hearing about it.
In Dublin, most of the early running has been made by the Foxrock Local History Club. Whose additions to the map, reflecting the project’s eclectic nature, include a 1920s telephone box and a holy well. The group has also listed an old milestone, at Cornelscourt. Which is only a stone, and yet, like many so many stones in Ireland, has a story attached.
It used to be a five-mile marker, delineating that distance (in Irish miles) from the GPO. And as such, in 1789, it was the subject of a bet between two young gentlemen. One was the notorious Buck Whaley, who had himself once won a £15,000 wager by walking to Jerusalem and back. But in this case, he bet 150 guineas that his friend could not walk to the GPO in under an hour. It was the sort of thing young men did then, when they didn’t have killer roosters to entertain them. In any case, this time, Whaley lost. The other man reached the GPO in 55 minutes, walking so fast that companions on horseback had to trot to keep up with him. He was no ordinary walker, of course. Born Arthur Wellesley, he would later become more famous for his military exploits, and for one battle in particular, fought on June 18th, 1815 in the cockpit of Europe.