No Flowers, Please - Frank McNally on the etymological ambush of Beal na Bláth

Disputes over placenames

On the back roads of Cork some weeks ago, I was intrigued by a sign that read: “Site of Ambush 7km”. Assuming the place in question to be Béal na Bláth (or Béal na Blá, as some prefer), which was in the general vicinity, I thought it odd that so famous a name should be hidden under a layer of anonymity.

But historical ambush sites occur in Cork with a frequency that roadwork schemes do elsewhere. It later emerged that the sign was for Kilmichael, a place also famous enough to merit specific mention – you would think – and indeed, when you get there, the subject of a grandiose memorial.

I wondered if the coyness in the “site of ambush” reference was connected to the regular theft of historical road signs in the area, a problem that bedevilled the 1916 centenary events.

Back then, the Béal na Bláth commemoration committee lamented that such signs often ended up in “pubs in America”. The old wrought-iron ones had long disappeared, followed by their tin replacements, and more recently even temporary aeroboard versions, leaving many visitors lost.


But while searching for a picture of the “site of ambush” sign online, I was taken aback to find that it too was a target for collectors. An original was apparently for sale on a website specialising in antiques. “Rare Irish road sign” read the blurb. Rare indeed.

My other first thought when I passed the sign was that, in keeping it vague, the county council had attempted to sidestep the controversies that such names often provoke.

Never mind the Civil War. Disputes over placenames, including questions of correct grammar and etymology, have bitterly divided Irish families in the past, turning brother against brother and – worse – academic against academic, in a vicious spiral of tit-for-tat correction.

The worst of such violence, often, occurs here on The Irish Times letters page, where much ink has been shed in the cause down the years.

This month marks the tenth anniversary of the notorious Béal na Bláth exchange, begun when the late John A Murphy launched an attack on the then traditional Béal na mBláth spelling, which he called “stupid”, and on its supposed origin in Irish as “Mouth of the Flowers”, which he derided as “phoney” and “pseudo-poetic”.

In the resultant battle, shots were fired from as far away as Ontario, Canada, where a language professor accused Murphy of being “strong in tone but weak in information”.

The battle raged for several days. Flashpoints included the question of whether part of the presumed true original name, “Blá” – meaning “fertile plain” rather than flower – was masculine or feminine, and whether the eclipsis “m” before “bláth” was correct or misplaced pedantry, applying new rules to old language.

The apparent traducement of the correct original, it seems, is almost as old as the assassination itself. According to one local researcher, it started the day after Collins’s death.

“The ‘mouth of the flowers’ translation is a mistake which has been repeated and repeated and repeated ever since it was first wrongly used by an English journalist on Wednesday August 23, 1922,” a letter to the Southern Star lamented in 1990.

In many places, probably, the error is repeated still. In fact, a year after Murphy decried the translation as pseudo-poetic, it appeared in an actual poem elsewhere in this newspaper. But then, unfortunately, like many folk etymologies, the mistranslation is appallingly plausible.

Here, for example, is Michael Noonan delivering the oration at the ambush site in 1984: “There can be few placenames more beautiful in any language than ‘Béal na mBláth’ (Mouth of the Flowers) and yet I cannot think of any place named with such a savage incongruity.”

Or there, from some years previously, is another orator, Denis Jones TD, developing the floral theme: “Here at Béal na mBláth, – ‘the mouth of the flowers’ – in the flower of his manhood, in the flowering of his achievements, [Collins] sank to earth again…”

It was under such misguided etymology that Roibeárd Ó Úrdail, another contributor to the 2012 letters saga (and the inspiration for Murphy’s opening salvo) attempted to draw a line. Having demolished the case for Béal na mBláth, he concluded: “No flowers, please.”

On at least one occasion, by the way, “Mouth of the Flower” has even turned up as a clue in this newspaper’s cryptic crossword. Happily, that had nothing to do with Cork, or indeed flowers – of the blooming variety at least.

The apparent reference to the ambush was a classic distraction tactic, to throw the enemy (or the careless crossword solver) off. On closer inspection, the “flower” in that case rhymed with “grower”, indicating a river. Thus, the seven-letter answer was “estuary”.