Polish is a tricky language but Hiberno-Cavan-English is worse

Michael Harding: It’s a pity the ancient tongue of South Ulster is not given more formal recognition by governments

Michael Harding: ‘Parity of esteem for Hiberno-Cavan-Elizabethan-English,’ the plumber cried, as he gripped his spanner. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Michael Harding: ‘Parity of esteem for Hiberno-Cavan-Elizabethan-English,’ the plumber cried, as he gripped his spanner. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

Martin Donohue has a new accordion and it’s as orange as a vitamin C tablet. He told me it was his Brexit box. And I suppose it’s possible that if at some time in the future he can’t bring his usual accordion to sessions in Tyrone and Fermanagh, without it being inspected by customs officials,  then he might leave the orange accordion box on the Fermanagh side of the Border and pick it up each time he’s heading through Belcoo. There’s no end to the complexities of Brexit.

I told this to the plumber, a Cavan man, who came to fix the central heating. He was lying underneath the boiler with a little torch on his forehead and he was saying, “Bad cess to this box.”

In Cavan an accordion is called a box. But I hadn’t heard a central heating boiler spoken of as such.

“What box?”

“This yoke.”

“Will you be able to fix it?” I wondered.

“I doubt I will,” he said.

My beloved was standing beside me, a woman not completely fluent in the native Cavan tongue. 

“That’s a pity,” she said, thinking he meant it would likely not be mended.

“No,” I said, “he means it likely will be mended,” because in Cavan the verb to doubt can be positive. 

People usually mean “doubt” as a negative. As in – I doubt he’ll come tomorrow; which means there is little likelihood he’ll arrive. 

But in Cavan – I doubt he’ll come tomorrow, means that it is most likely he will come.  

I suppose it is a pity that the ancient tongue of South Ulster is not given more formal recognition by governments, and put on an equal footing with Gaelic, Ulster Scots, and of course plain English.

“Parity of esteem for Hiberno-Cavan-Elizabethan-English,” the plumber cried, as he gripped his spanner.

 A few days later I was in a restaurant in a west Cavan village where two old men were enjoying their dinner.

  They had arrived on separate buses. Small buses. Buses that go up the sides of various mountains to lure old men down to the towns for dinner, medical inspections, the cutting of toenails, and the distribution of pensions.

The two boys had been scrubbed up well at a morning session in the day care centre, their faces red and their wisps of hair like a light grey lace of dead bog cotton behind their ears.

They sat at separate tables, both deaf as stones, and shouted at each other so that the entire restaurant was drawn into their chat.

“Deal a man putting in the cabbages now,” one fellow declared.

“Aye. There y’are. That’s it. What?” 

(Meaning: That’s true. You have spoken well. Such is the nature of reality. Is there anything else we can say?)

Then the conversation turned towards the weather.

“Horrid day.”

“Shocking.”

“Odious.”

“The snipe would need wellingtons.”

And then in a subtle gem of anthropological music, the initial motif was repeated.

”Deal a man putting in the cabbages now.” 

Linking the weather and the cultivation of cabbages implied profound concern about climate change. And so on it went until the waitress arrived.

“Gimmie the chicken.”

“Do you want the stuffing?”  

“Aye.”

“Gravy on the carrots?”

“Aye.”

“And garlic pototoes?”

“Aye.”

He wanted everything that was going. 

“Give me a good lock,” he shouted.

The waitress was confused.

“Give me a good lock,” he said again.

I interjected.

“He wants plenty of the garlic potatoes,” I explained.  

“Aye,” he agreed. “Isn’t that what I’m after telling her.”

To pass the time, waiting for my own dinner I surfed the phrase – “a lock of potatoes”. In south Ulster a lock is a gathering of things. A lock of hair. A lock of water. A lock of spuds. It surprised me that the waitress didn’t catch the sense of it from him. But I feared she might have been an illiterate from some remote corner of Dalkey.

My google search for a lock of potatoes only showed one result in videos. 

How to unlock a door with a potato.  

The man in the video cut a small hole in a potato. Then he pointed to a door that was clearly locked. I was on the edge of my seat wondering how this might develop. 

So he stuck the key into the potato. Then using the potato as a knob to insert the key in the door, he opened the door and said, “That’s how to unlock a door with a potato.” 

The waitress brought my soup. I said, “You’re not from around here.”

“Gdansk,” she said.

“Polish is a tricky language,” I observed.

“It’s not the worst,” she replied, smiling.

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