The tomb of the unknown citizen

An Irishman’s Diary on why a certain kind of obscurity is Ireland’s greatest honour

‘I refer of course to “known”. As in the terrible phrase: “the dead man was known to the gardaí”. Yes, I should have included this in my adjectival blacklist last week. But, in truth, it has been up before the court here so often before that one despairs of ever reforming it.’ Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

‘I refer of course to “known”. As in the terrible phrase: “the dead man was known to the gardaí”. Yes, I should have included this in my adjectival blacklist last week. But, in truth, it has been up before the court here so often before that one despairs of ever reforming it.’ Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Fri, Jun 28, 2013, 01:00

I agree with Loman O Loingsigh (Letters, June 26th) that RTÉ should consider a reduction in the number of communities it describes as “tight-knit”. Which, apart from being a mere cliche, is hardly accurate any more as a description of most Irish towns and villages.

Okay, maybe even today there are a few communities – Aran, for example – that remain tight-knit. Or cross-knit. Or at any rate knit according to a traditional pattern. But elsewhere, the most you could expect from a modern Irish community is a looser arrangement, like crochet.

It’s not just RTÉ that uses this phrase, mind you. I saw “tightly-knit” in these pages too recently, applied to Clare’s Loop Head peninsula. This seemed wrong on more than one level. I’m not an expert on needlework, God knows, but I’m fairly sure there’s no such thing as a tightly-knit loop.

“Tight-knit” is not the worst, though. An even more hackneyed phrase, also applied to remote or rural communities, especially when they’re in receipt of rare visits by an urban media, is to suggest that the place was “normally sleepy” until whatever it was happened to bring the circus to town.

Then, the grave-faced reporter will probably also tell us that the normally sleepy village is now “united in shock”. Or “united in grief”. Or united in something other than the dozy complacency to which, he implies, it’s more used.

I know it’s the nature of the news business that one never hears of a community divided in happiness, or united in transcendental bliss. In fact, the nearest I recall to an exception was the sexcentennial celebrations in Drogheda last year, when we were reminded that the Co Louth town used to be two separate villages, until the community was “united in 1412”.

Still, community knitting and narcolepsy are both minor sins compared with what is surely the worst cliche in Irish journalism: an adjectival verb applied to individual persons rather than communities.

They’re invariably deceased persons by the time this term is used. And the other constant is that their passing has never been due to natural causes. On the contrary, the manner of its occurrence is often the reason why a “normally sleepy” community is now “united in shock”.

I refer of course to “known”. As in the terrible phrase: “the dead man was known to the gardaí”. Yes, I should have included this in my adjectival blacklist last week. But, in truth, it has been up before
the court here so often before that one despairs of ever reforming it.

There are, I accept, international precedents for the verb “to know” being heavily loaded: most notably in translations of the Bible. There, it is often pregnant with meaning – eg, Genesis 4:1: “And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bore Cain”. Or conversely, Matthew 1:25: “And [Joseph] knew her not, until she had brought forth her firstborn son . . .”

In the Irish crime world, however, the term doesn’t usually imply carnal relations. And the other difference there is that the verb is only ever used in the positive sense (but always implying something negative). Thus, if the dead man was “known” to gardaí, then there was a certain inevitability to his demise. If he was “well known” to them, the only surprise is he survived as long as he did.

Donald Rumsfled could have been talking about Irish criminals rather that the war on terror when, a decade ago, he pondered the mysteries of known knowns and unknown unknowns. Except that, in the catechism of Irish crime cliche, it is implied that the vast majority of the population, including all law-abiding citizens, are unknown to law enforcers.

The paradox here is that, in a tight-knit community, everyone would know everyone else. And in such places, it should surely be possible for the designated Community Garda, at least, to know people without casting aspersions on them. But it’s not, apparently. Insofar as there’s an opposite to being known to the gardaí, it’s being “a popular member of the local GAA club”.

Pursued to its logical conclusion, this means you could be the star hurler in a village; you could practice every day against the wall of the Garda station; you could even break the station windows regularly with a sliothar. Yet if anything bad ever happens to you, you can rest assured nobody will suggest afterwards that the local gardaí ever had any idea who you were.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com