Michael Harding: Ireland was fertile ground for the involuntary yelp

It was the only release we had from anxiety

Photograph: iStock

Photograph: iStock

 

I was so overwhelmed with anxiety during the spring that often I would drive to far-off towns, just to sit in some cafe gazing out the window for hours. One day I had fish and chips in a remote district of Connacht, and although the chips were excellent, the cod had not been well battered. Inside the shell, the fish was completely soggy. I was looking out on the main street, where a man with a grey ponytail and silver rings on his thumb and forefinger was unwinding the leash from a small dog who had got entangled because he had been left too long tied to a parking meter while his owner was in the post office down the street.

The man came into the chipper, all happy in himself, a wad of notes between his fingers, and he bought a single bag of chips and a mug of tea. But he shared his food with the little rusty dog, slipping one chip at a time under the table.

I asked him would the dog eat the soggy fish.

“No,” the man said, “eee’s a carnivore, but I would.”

So I passed him my plate.

“Do you know,” he said, in an English accent, “I love that dog like a wife.”

“Do you have a wife?” I wondered. It was the only response I could think of.

“Yeah,” he said, “but I left her, cos she did my fakking head in.”

I affected an expression of deep sympathy.

“Are you married?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, “although my problem is that I can never find my wife; we’re never in the same place at the one time. If she’s in Ireland, I’m usually somewhere else. If I’m in Ireland she’s probably in Poland. Or Supervalu. We keep coming and going. The only thing is that when I come she goes, and when I go, she comes. So we never get to have long conversations.”

Both the man and the dog looked a bit uneasy. So I apologised. “I suffer from overexcitement and anxiety, in alternating cycles,” I explained. “Which makes me a compulsive talker. And not only do I never know where the wife is, but I haven’t a clue where I am myself. I’m confused all the time. It’s no wonder I end up talking to strangers in chip shops.”

“You should try weed,” the man with the ponytail suggested. “Might take the edge off the anxiety.”

Which is true; it might. But it was far from drugs I was reared. The only weeds we indulged in were dock leaves, which soothed the sting of a bee when rubbed on the skin. But even back then I was full of anxiety. In fact, every child I knew was afflicted with worries. Shadowed by various authorities, we accepted that youth was a time of depression, pain and humiliation. We just thought it might get better when we grew up.

Release from anxiety

The only release we had from anxiety was the “yelp”, a sound not approved of by teachers, who would often beat children for letting out a yelp. A “yelp” was an involuntary exhalation of sound from the gut that the child couldn’t control. It was a way of releasing tension; a kind of doggie sound like a sudden hiccup.

Yo! Or – eeeeyo!

These yelps were common in school yards around Cavan town, although variations such as “Yeboye”, “Yahoo” and “Wally-eeh” were often reported from the wilder districts of Loughtee. Yelps were heard at football matches in the quiet lull when nothing was happening on the pitch. The lone yelp would bring the collective dreamers back to the surface of consciousness and perhaps even awaken the players to the urgency of life.

But it was really in pubs that the yelp became an art form, in its sudden delivery and timing. During music sessions the yelp would mark the moment when the fiddler shifted key or moved from one tune to another. Just on the turn of the tune, someone would let out a yelp; an exclamation of delight that burst the damn of inner anxiety and released from the gut an incoherent spontaneity, akin to the caw of a crow. Every ignoble nobody proclaimed their allegiance to the music in that awkward noise. And indeed there was music back then, and mighty singers: beautiful lacquered voices in the mahogany snugs. And beyond the stained glass of those little sanctuaries the rest of us stood dazed and worried, like dogs tangled in their own leashes, trying to ease some undefined pain, in that lonesome yelp.

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