Frank McNally on mural madness (Part 2)

Wall of Unsound

Further to that mysterious Irish measurement of sanity, a refusal to “take bites out of stone walls” (Diary, Thursday), a few more examples of the expression’s usage have emerged.

At least one confirms my suspicion, based on the phrase’s popularity with GAA pundit Colm O’Rourke, that it is a phenomenon peculiar to Meath.

To wit, in the Westmeath Examiner some decades ago, a columnist also commenting on Gaelic Games mentioned, apropos of no-one in particular, that he “never knew a Meathman to take a bite out of a stone wall yet”.

Against which, a reader on Twitter recalls a friend of his mother’s who was fond of pronouncing, in approval of men generally: “Well, he wouldn’t take a bite out of a stone wall”. And she was from Fermanagh.

But I am also indebted to David Browne, who dug up two uses of the phrase in 19th-century court reports, wherein the sanity of the accused was indeed in question.

One of these, from 1870s Dublin, was unusual for the action not being stated in the negative. The defendant said of her detractors: “… they would take a bite out of a stone wall.”

Unfortunately, no evidence of actual wall-biting was produced. And the speaker, who had been arrested for attacking policemen and made the comment about those questioning her sanity, was subsequently “committed to a lunatic asylum”.

The other court citation is from the Cork Examiner in 1866, in a colourful case that now reads like something from a play.

The defendant there, a regular guest of the law, was a man named Patrick O’Callaghan, but styled himself “the King of the World” and shared the happy news that he was “about to be married to the Queen of Italy’s daughter”.

The judge was a “Mr McOstrich”, no less. But again, the accused vouched for his own sanity with the expression: “I am not mad enough to take a bite out of a stone wall yet”. Where followed this exchange:

Mr McOstrich: “How does he live?”

Prisoner: “On bread and honey.”

Mr McOstrich: “Where do you get it?”

Prisoner: “From the King of Heaven.”

Alas for the defendant’s extensive connections with royalty, the court doctor ruled him of unsound mind. He was remanded in custody, where his refusal to bite stone walls must have been further tested.


On a not unrelated subject, meanwhile, a follower on Twitter inquired during the week if I knew the current whereabouts of the “Táin Wall”, a mosaic that formerly stood alongside the Setanta Centre in Dublin 2.

In fact, I had not noticed it missing. But I peered in while passing next day. And sure enough, there it was, gone.

As I have since been reminded, the disappearance is temporary. The Setanta is being demolished to make way for a new office block, for a company owned by Larry Goodman. The mosaic wall, created in 1974 by Desmond Kinney, has been dismantled and packed away for the duration but is to be re-erected in the new courtyard.

That I hadn’t noticed its absence may be a comment on the location’s obscurity. This is a paradox, because the Setanta Centre was located on one of Dublin’s most touristed thoroughfares, Nassau Street, within metres of Trinity College, the National Library, and the Dáil. Yet the mural was somehow buried, out of sight.

The mystery is part-explained by its location in a “ginnel”, defined as a “narrow passageway between buildings”. And even by ginnel standards, this one is especially nondescript, being accessed mainly by those using the underground carpark and opening onto what may be the most boring street in Dublin: Setanta Place.

I learned the word ginnel about five minutes ago, courtesy of Richard Marsh, a “bardic storyteller” who for years has maintained an excellent blog on the mural that, as he says, depicts “the Iliad of Ireland”.

Marsh is not a man to take bites out of stone walls, but he has taken a few out of the owners of the Setanta Centre over their neglect of this one, especially the lack of any explanation to visitors about its history and meaning.

People had to make do instead with a “colophon” - another word I learned from Marsh - which is not so much an explanation as a disclaimer by one of the Táin’s ancient retellers. This too was part of the mosaic but may also serve as a cautionary tale for readers of other kinds of writing (perhaps even Irishman’s Diaries).

Translated from Latin, it declares: “I, who have copied down this story, or more accurately fantasy, do not credit the details of this story or fantasy. Some things in it are devilish lies, or some poetic figments. Some seem possible, and others not. Some are for the enjoyment of idiots.”