Frank McNally: The great Irish tradition of slandering Kinnegad and other midlands towns
Flat but unflattered – An Irishman’s Diary
Kinnegad – A warm welcome. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
I watched most of Wednesday night’s World Cup semi-final in a back room of the GAA club in Kinnegad, of all places.
And based on my particular experience I can say, without apology, that it was a game of two halves.
Throughout the first half, it seemed, England were in control and likely to hold on to their early lead. But at 8pm, I and others in the company had to tear ourselves away from the TV, temporarily, to take part in a 5K road race organised by the same club.
And by the time we all got back, the score was 1-1, with the English being run ragged by the Croatian midfield, a pattern that eventually decided the result.
If it had been an Ireland game, I would now blame myself for the turnaround.
As for the race, that had followed the narrow back roads around the village, along a route with an interesting name: Boreen Bradach. The boreen is self-explanatory, but according to Dinneen’s Dictionary, bradach is Irish for “given to thieving, dishonest, stolen, obtained unjustly”.
My usual sources are unable to explain how this place-name derived. Maybe it dates back to ancient times and some trickery of the magical kind. This part of Ireland was known for that once, as the Seven Wonders of Fore attest.
Alas, the magic I was hoping for, in the form of one of those Flann O’Brien-approved running routes that are simultaneously circular but all downhill (Irishman’s Diary July 6th), did not transpire.
For starters, this course was clockwise, which is contrary to natural law. And in general, none of my finishing time was dishonest, stolen, or obtained unjustly, much as I wished it to be. It was one of those nights when even the downhill bits were hard work.
On the plus side, the tea and buns were excellent, as was the Kinnegad welcome generally. Indeed, among the other mysteries I found myself wrestling while there was why this Westmeath town gets such a hard time from outsiders.
It’s well known that Kinnegad has a bit of a bad name. Or to be more accurate, it has a name a bit of which rhymes with “bad”, which may be most of the problem.
Surely this is the reason it is singled out in a notorious but popular verse, one version of which goes as follows: “They say that Naas is a terrible place/Mullingar is just as bad/Longford Town really gets you down/But fuck me, Kinnegad!”
There are multiple variations. As with Irish traditional music tunes, the verse can be adapted to fit local styles and prejudices, so that, for example, I have heard the “Mullingar” and “Longford” lines rewritten to feature “Athlone” and “Ballinasloe”, and many others.
But for purely rhyming reasons, the intro invariably involves Naas, while by the same logic, Kinnegad must always be butt of the joke.
The identity of the poet who first wrote it seems lost to history. The most I can ascertain is that it was part of an anonymous “Bank Teller’s Lament”, written in the 1960s about the supposed worst transfers a clerk might suffer.
But it also seems telling that most of the places mentioned, in all versions, are from the midlands.
As such, the verse could be considered a successor to a much older, and also anonymous rhyme deriding the then-two main towns of Offaly: “Great Bog of Allen, swallow down/That odious heap called Phililpstown;/And if thy maw can swallow more/Pray take - and welcome – Tullamore.”
Archaic language aside, those lines are dated by mention of Philipstown, once the county town but now – as Daingean – too obscure even to feature in any combination of the Naas/Kinnegad axis of terribleness. As to its crimes in the original satirist’s eyes, the main one may have been mere location.
Flat countryside has its charms, as runners, cyclists, and farmers all know. But since the era of the romantic poets, its literary share price has fallen badly in favour of rugged mountains and windswept shores. That seems to have influenced the verse on Offaly, whatever about the one on Kinnegad.
When the former featured in the Penny Magazine, a popular British journal, as long ago as 1844, the author was already unknown.
But the magazine was in no doubt that topography was the real target.
Introducing the verse, it explained: “The two principal towns of King’s County, Philipstown and Tullamore, are situated on this bog; and their position is so dreary, monotonous, and uninviting, as to have given rise to the following uncomplimentary address [...]”