An Irishman's Diary

Sat, Dec 15, 2012, 00:00

Seeking light relief on Thursday after a fortnight of internecine feuding, the Sluggerotoole blog invited readers to ponder the question “if Northern Ireland was a Hollywood movie?” and submit suitable suggestions.

There followed a spirited exchange, with many excellent proposals ranging from comedy (Carry on Forever) to science fiction (Planet of the Papes). But at time of writing, nobody has yet suggested what I think is the obvious film: a remake of Edward Albee’s stage classic, in this case retitled Who’s Afraid of Harland and Wolff? The original plot wouldn’t need much tweaking. As you’ll recall, it featured a house party from hell, in which a warring married couple (played in the film version by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor) spend a night tearing strips off each other in front of their appalled guests.

The male protagonist (George) is an associate professor of history, while his wife Martha is daughter of the college president. But realistically, in a Northern Irish remake, both would be history dons: just specialising in different eras. George would deal with the relatively modern period, from about 1641 onwards; whereas Martha’s discipline might go back a bit further, say 800 years.

Apart from that, the couple’s relentless abuse, mostly verbal but always threatening to become physical, could stay close to the original script. As could the reaction of their guests – here representing latter-day Britain and the Republic – which is mostly just embarrassment, except when they get hit in the crossfire.

By a happy chance, Albee’s play is 50 years old in 2012. So just in case you’re planning to see the movie for the first time, I won’t give away the denouement. Suffice to say it revolves around the couple’s much-loved son, who may or may not exist, but who – we gradually realise – is the focus of all their squabbling.

In the remade film, at the risk of heavy-handedness, this troubled son could represent the goal of a functioning democracy. Or a shared future. Or just some form of agreed identity. Whichever it is, I foresee a scene-stealing cameo appearance by Rory McIlroy.

Among the more serious questions Slugger has been grappling with of late, meanwhile, is a linguistic one: whether the first official language has a term for “Northern Irish”. Like most questions to do with that part of the world, this one too turns out to be vexed.

There are some working versions of the term, including Éireannaigh-Thuaisceartacha, or “ET” for short (which, given the attitude of many Southerners to Northern Ireland may not be not inapt), but apparently nothing official.

So when challenged on the matter, the Irish language database Focail.iecame up with Tuaisceartóir. Which of course means only “Northerner” – the Irishness is implied. And equally implied are certain insults. In Patrick Dineen’s famous dictionary, the related adjective Tuaisceartach is deemed to mean not just “northern” but also “sinister”, “awkward”, “rude”, and “uncivilised”.

Dineen was famous for finding multiple, obscure, and unrelated meanings for the same Irish word: a habit much lampooned by Myles na gCopaleen, formerly of this parish (if you haven’t seen it, look up his classic Dineenesque definition of the fictional Irish word “cur”: it’s a Flann O’Brien novel in miniature).

But in this case, there’s a worrying uniformity to his definitions.

I have more than a passing interest in questions of northern identity, being a bit of a border case myself. Even in other parts of Monaghan, my home town of Carrickmacross would be regarded as being a little too near the equator to be wholesome.

Whereas anywhere south of Finglas, I’m from the Black North.

When I married a Tipperary woman some years ago, her father was heard to wonder aloud whether I’d ever been to a “country wedding” before. And when it was pointed out to him that I myself was from the country, he seemed to think that calling anywhere as far north as Monaghan “the country” was a bit pedantic. Which was broadly in keeping with the attitude I found on arrival in Dublin, where people from outside the Pale were divided into two groups, culchies and nordies. I was in the latter.

Back in the 1970s, when I was at school in Carrickmacross, our geographical confusion was occasionally added to by the Troubles. We had a very good Under-14 basketball team once which, presumably because it wasn’t safe to cross the Border, was entered in a Leinster championship instead. This probably added to our dubious reputation further north. But almost needless to say, the soft southerners were a pushover, and we won the provincial title.

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