Cruiskeen Lawn December 9th, 1957


This piece of social observation is from December 1957, a year in which Fianna Fáil returned to power, with Seán Lemass (then tánaiste) poised to launch the State into the modern era. Much has changed in the more than half a century since. But apart from a few details, such as rationing and radio licences, the column could still be written today. – FRANK McNALLY

SOMEBODY SHOULD write a monograph on the use of the word “supposed” in this country.

Start listening for it, either in your own mouth or in others, and you will see that is comprises the sum of the national character, that, it is a mystical synthesis of all Irish habits, hopes and regrets.

There is no immediately obvious or neat Gaelic equivalent, and I harbour the guess that the discovery of this boon “supposed”, may have been a factor in the change over to English.

You meet a man as you take a walk along the strand at Tramore. “Of course, I’m not supposed to be here at all,” he tells you, “I’m supposed to be travelling for orders for th’oul fella in Cork. I’m here for the last week. How long are you supposed to be staying?”

The word occurs most frequently in connection with breaches of the law or in circumstances where the gravest catastrophe is imminent. You enter a vast petrol depot. The place is full of refineries, tanks, and choking vapour fills the air. The man on the spot shows you the wonders and in due course produces his cigarettes and offers you one. “Of course I needn’t tell you,” he comments as he lights up, “there’s supposed to be no smoking here at all.”

You enter a tavern, meet a butty you have not seen for ages, and you invite him to join you in a drink. He accepts. He toasts your health, takes a long libation and gingerly replaces the glass on the counter. He then taps his chest in the region of the heart. “As you know,” he remarks casually, “I’m not supposed to touch this stuff.”

Yes, drink is full of this property of suppose. You have been to some very late and boring function. You are going home, you feel you need a drink but you are a gentleman and know nothing about the licensing laws. Naturally you rap at the door of the first pub you see. All is in darkness. The door opens, a head appears, it peeps up the street and down; next thing you are whisked in.

“We’re supposed to be closed, you know.”

Menuhin is not a great violinist, in the view of the Irish. He is merely supposed to be one of the greatest violinists in the world. Nor is Irish the national language of Ireland, the Constitution not withstanding. It is supposed to be. You are not supposed to own a radio set without paying the licence. Not more than eight people are supposed to stand inside a bus, and none is supposed to stand on top. You are aware that your colleague was at the races when he was supposed to be sick, but you are not supposed to know and certainly you are not supposed to report such an occurrence. You are not supposed to use the firm’s telephone for a private trunk call. And so on. In no such context does the term “not supposed” connote prohibition. Rather does it indicate the recognition of the existence of a silly taboo which no grown-up person can be expected to take seriously. It is the verbal genuflection of the worshipper who has come to lay violent hands on the image he thus venerates. It is the domestic password in the endemic conspiracy of petty lawlessness. All that I believe to be true, though possibly I am not supposed to say it so bluntly.

To celebrate the work of Myles na gCopaleen, The Irish Timeswill print one of his Cruiskeen Lawn columns each day during October