Michael Harding: The S-word was a weapon that I feared

It was a single-syllable knife that often sliced the air in front of my face to shame and silence me

The sheep stayed overnight at the door of my studio, and in the morning their droppings were everywhere. Photograph: iStock

The sheep stayed overnight at the door of my studio, and in the morning their droppings were everywhere. Photograph: iStock

 

Three sheep – a mammy sheep and two big girl sheep – wandered into the garden last week, where they sat in a single huddle beside the beech hedge. I took a photograph and sent the picture to the General.

“The new lawnmowers have arrived,” I texted, because he has one of those automatic machines that crawls around the grass all summer long keeping it manicured.

Our lawn wouldn’t look well if it was manicured, because we live in the hills and there is only farmland and wilderness near us.

The sheep stayed overnight at the door of my studio, and in the morning their droppings were everywhere.

Droppings is a nice word for it; although only the two big girl sheep left droppings. The mammy sheep left huge mountains of black stuff like miniature slag heaps of coal, and you couldn’t call it anything but “shite”. And I value shite. So I put it in a bucket and tossed it into the rose pots.

My preferred word is “dung”, which my neighbour delivers from his cows every April, a box load on the back of a tractor. I use it to feed the plants.

I say “dung” and he says “manure,” but neither of us uses the S-word, because there is something violent about it.

Even when some celebrity uses it on television to prove his street credibility, I get uneasy.

“If you don’t mind me saying so, you’re talking complete shite,” someone like Bob Geldof might say when he’s angry. And everyone laughs because it shows that he’s cool and has zero tolerance for waffle.

Cavan childhood

We used to talk like that in Cavan as children when we didn’t believe something. If someone said you could make jam from rhubarb, or that Kennedy had been shot, or that the Beatles had a new LP coming out, our incredulity was expressed in two blunt syllables.

“That’s shite.”

In fact, the troubling thing about our childhood was that we didn’t believe anything. Even the existence of President Kennedy was doubted, never mind God. And when Kennedy was assassinated we didn’t believe that either, although all our parents went into a melodramatic wobble, crying and running from one house to the next on the night in question, saying: “Did you hear the news?”

I was personally commissioned to go over to Mrs Smith, whom my mother said had no radio, and when I got to her door she opened it in her nightdress and I was so distracted that I said: “Someone has been shot.” But I couldn’t remember who. She thought it must be someone in our house and, looking back on it, I’m glad she hadn’t a phone at the time because she might have called the guards.

But in those days the S-word was used only by children to dismiss some person or idea, and I suppose it reflected our reluctance to trust anything adults said.

The musical option

Dung was a more musical option. We had a joke about a farmer who was wheeling a barrow of dung along the road and a city man stopped his car and asked the farmer what he was doing with the dung. The farmer said he was going to put it on his rhubarb, and the city man said: “We put custard on ours.”

But if I told that joke in class someone might probably have said: “That joke is shite.” Because the S-word was a weapon, a single-syllable knife that I feared, and it often sliced the air in front of my face to shame, humiliate and silence me.

Nowadays the S-word is used a lot by adults on Facebook. I notice users who think that politicians talk shite. And that various presenters on television talk shite. That pronouncements from church leaders are shite. That comedians on stage are shite. And as for our own Government Ministers, apparently they’re all talking shite.

So I realise now that the big mammy sheep in the garden may have been a buddha or bodhisattva , and her two big daughters may have been dakinis; all of them incarnated as scraggy sheep munching the sweet grass with their big jaws in the air, just to help me purify another bit of aggression from my karmic system.

I could have gone into the house shouting: “Damn those sheep, I have shite all over my shoes.” Or, worse still: “I’m after walking that shite on to the carpet.”

But I didn’t. I held my breath and looked into their lovely big sheep eyes and said: “Okay, okay: this just means more dung for the roses.”

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