An Irishman's Diary


AS THE Government grapples with the crisis in public finances, some imaginative fiscal responses will be required. So it seems a rather pointed coincidence that the announcement of an emergency budget should be made just as Russia is marking the 310th anniversary of Peter the Great's tax on beards.

In fairness, the reforming czar's infamous measure was not primarily a fundraising exercise. It was part of a drive to westernise his countrymen in everything including their appearance. More particularly, it was an assault on the power of the Boyars, the Russian noblemen who wore long beards and traditional dress. Peter shaved some of these personally to make his point.

The tax he imposed in September 1698 was only a compromise, after the Boyars resisted his reforms on religious grounds. Thenceforward, they were allowed to retain their beards by paying 100 roubles a year.

But this is surely one possible avenue for Brian Lenihan to explore. Although the motivation would be mainly financial, an Irish tax on beards would also target some modern-day Boyars: academics, economists, left-wing intellectuals, and fundamentalist members of the Green Party. This would make it popular with Fianna Fáil grassroots (and also perhaps with the Green Cabinet members).

Of course, there would have to be exemptions for religious groups: Orthodox Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and so on. But bikers, ballad singers, and the Fine Gael spokesman on health, James Reilly (who has been tipped to succeed Enda Kenny, despite voters' well-known prejudice against candidates with facial hair) would all be fair game.

Against complaints of unfairness it could be argued that beard-wearers are currently avoiding VAT on razors. But the minister could also defuse such criticisms by simultaneously introducing a new "green" tax on disposable razors with more than two blades.

As well as wringing revenue from saps who fall for those poncey ads with Roger Federer and Thierry Henry, this would help curb blade-inflation in the disposable razor sector which, at current rates, will hit double digits by the end of the decade. The junior Government party would have no choice but to support the move.

Rather than wait until the Budget to bring in the beard tax, incidentally, I suggest the Minister should rush an emergency bill through the Dáil before September 21st, allowing him to impose a "windfall" beard levy on anyone entering Dublin on the weekend of the All-Ireland football final.

This would capitalise on a fashion now rampant in Tyrone. Ever since the shock demolition of the Dubs, the Ulster county's miraculous re-emergence as title contenders (without the help of another Peter the Great) has been attributed to the wearing of beards by several team members.

The more committed and/or superstitious supporters had no choice but to follow the trend, and a rash (as it were) of beard-growing has resulted: suggesting that the All-Ireland final will see the hairiest southbound migration from Tyrone since the Battle of Kinsale.

To minimise traffic disruption, I suggest the Department of Finance sets up barbershop/tax-collection booths at the M1 toll plaza, offering fans a choice of being shaved on the spot (dry, with hedge clippers) or paying the levy.

No doubt some Tyrone fans will try to invoke the religious loophole. But patriotic nationalists as they are, most will be only too happy to help the Free State's finances in an hour of need.

I WOULD like to apologise to the proud people of Wexford for omitting their county from last week's column on embarrassing place-names.

As several have taken the trouble to point out since, the south-east is not just sunny. It also boasts three of the rudest-sounding locations in Ireland: Bastardstown, Horestown, and a place that - even in its American sense - would give Pratts Bottom in England a run for its money.

I will name it in the words of one correspondent who wrote, recalling an occasion when he found himself "lost in the maze that is South Wexford, shouting to a deaf 80- year-old man for directions to Fannystown".

The same man informs me that Hore is a common surname in Wexford, and was once attached to a family of landed gentry near Taghmon. The family's descendents include Lord Gowrie, the former British cabinet minister, who confirmed to the local historical society that he was indeed "a Hore of Harperstown". Sorting out family identities and their geographic origins - a staple of Irish conversation - must make for some interesting exchanges Wexford.

Although we might imagine such names are embarrassing to have in your address, local attitudes typically range between pride and indifference. This may explain the name of a house currently for sale in Wexford. "Two Hoots" is located in Bastardstown. And the several property websites on which it is now advertised on include "". It's a funny old world.

Tyrone too seems to have its share of curiously named places, by the way - including one called "Gammy" and the twin townlands of "Balix Upper" and "Balix Lower". Then there's a place in Antrim, which should be in Tyrone. It's called Beardiville.

FROM embarrassing place-names to embarrassing name-places. The shrine of St Fiacre at Meaux is not, as I suggested last week, in Brittany. There is a church of St Fiacre in Brittany, all right. But as a reader has drawn to my attention, Meaux and the main site associated with the Irish monk is a long way east of Brittany, at Seine-et-Marne, near Paris.