Fighting Talk – An Irishman’s Diary about the languages of Ireland, Scotland, and Mickey Spillane
The visitors can expect a céad míle fáilte today but next year in Edinburgh, it’ll be a ceud mìle fàilte in return
Mickey Spillane was a product of the two countries that play in Lansdowne Road today. Photograph: Lou Krasky/AP
The biennial invasion of Dublin by kilt-wearers this weekend reminds us of one of the ways the Irish have diverged from their closest Celtic cousins. Outside pipe bands, hardly anybody wears kilts on this island any more. An attempted revival of the custom in the years before independence went nowhere.
But a less obvious and more curious example of divergence involves the way the two countries write their mother languages: specifically the accents. What Irish people call the “fada” leans to the right, whereas the Scots equivalent, while serving the same purpose, goes the other way. Thus the visitors can expect a céad míle fáilte today. But next year in Edinburgh, it’ll be a ceud mìle fàilte in return.
Is this another example of the narcissism of small differences? That’s the condition, diagnosed by Freud, whereby people in adjoining territories or close relationships feel the need to stress every minor contrast, causing constant friction.
My autocorrect suspects this is what the Scots are doing, because when I write ceud, it keeps trying to change it to “feud”. But there may also be a more benign explanation. Until fairly recently, Scots Gaelic used to have both acute and grave accents, like French. When the two strokes were merged into a single, orthographical centre of excellence, they just chose the left-leaner.
Some people think it looks odd, because the natural flow of language in the western world is left-to-right. So, at least on maps, are the prevailing winds that affect the Gaelic speaking parts of Ireland and Scotland. If trees were letters (and of course they are in the Ogham alphabet), they would lean like fadas.
As it is, the contrasting accents of Irish and Scots Gaelic always remind me of those little crossed-sword symbols on signposts for historic battle sites. And that may be apt today, at least, as the two countries clash, if only on a rugby pitch.
To be kilt in HE is never fatal. If a player in today’s game is kilt, for example, the worst he might need is a Head Injury Assessment. He could even be “kilt entirely” and still expect to make a complete recovery, although it would probably mean missing the next game.
I don’t think Mickey Spillane, who would have been 100 on Friday, ever had his characters “kilt”. I doubt he ever put one in a kilt either. But if he had done both, it would have been fully within his ancestral rights.
His anniversary is well-timed because, although a New Yorker, Spillane was a product of the two countries that play in Lansdowne Road today. His father was an Irish Catholic, his mother a Scots Presbyterian. He was christened in both churches, and in neither was he called Michael. His real name was Frank Morrison Spillane, he said, “but my Dad always called me Mick”.
Their ultimate fates were often monosyllabic. They could be “bopped”, “clipped”, “plugged”, or “rubbed out”. If they survived shoot-outs, it was often only to face judicial execution, where they would “dance” (the gallows) or “fry” (the chair). Only sometimes were they allowed poetic endings, in a “Harlem Sunset” (fatal knife attack) or a “Chicago overcoat” (coffin).
The violence of Spillane’s books in particular was nearly rivalled by their production process. When he died in 2006, one hard-boiled obituary writer claimed that the novelist’s debut was “banged out” in under a fortnight, that he was “thumping out” books regularly thereafter, and that even in his 70s, he “knocked out” another in four weeks.
The nearest his unfortunate typewriter ever got to a break, according to the same obit, was when he was merely “churning out” material.
Even so, the results were enormously successful, to the despair of literary types. ”Hemingway hated me,” Spillane recalled late in life, because “I sold 200 million books, and he didn’t”. But there were critics closer to home too. The writer must have inherited some of the hard-boiled flair from his father, a Brooklyn barman, who once described his son’s work as “crud”.