Freudian slip-road – Frank McNally on ‘Ballyduff’, Percy French, and George Bush’s Lady Macbeth moment

An Irishman’s Diary

It seems I owe an abbreviated apology to the town of Ballyjamesduff, mentioned earlier in the week in connection with a 1922 football match played for the prize of a machine gun.

Noting that a local newspaper report had situated the game in somewhere called “Ballyduff”, I added a “sic” in brackets. But Dublin reader Barry Doherty has taken me to task for the presumption that this was an error. From childhood trips to the Cavan town, he recalls, “Ballyduff” was the name locals used.

Sure enough, I now find that in the national placename database, Logainm, the shorter version was widely popular once, and perhaps still is. Both it and the longer one derive from an 18th-century Earl of Fife, James Duff. So, unusually for an Irish town, the full version commemorates both a first and second name.

The Duffs of Fife were descended by tradition from the Macduffs, one of whom, readers will remember, was Macbeth’s Nemesis. The same man was also the vehicle for a rather dubious plot twist, in which Shakespeare, via the Weird Sisters, requires us to believe that a baby delivered by C-section is not “of woman born”.

Most Irish town abbreviations use the first half of the name, as in the various Carricks or West Cork's "Skib". A few prefer the second, like that well-known South Dublin village "the Noggin".

The people of Ballyjamesduff may be unique in omitting only the middle part of theirs from the abbreviation while retaining both ends. Which leads me to wonder in passing if local GAA rivals have ever taken to calling them “Duffers”.

***

I used to think Percy French had made a mistake too when, in his ballad about Paddy Reilly, he gave the following directions to Ballyjamesduff: "Just turn to the left at the Bridge of Finea/And stop when half-way to Cootehill. "

First, this seems to be a classic example of the time-honoured advice to travellers in Ireland: if you want to get to Ballyjamesduff, you shouldn't start from there.

But even if you did, Google Maps suggests that turning left at the bridge of Finea is not an option. This is because the bridge spans a river connecting two adjacent lakes, Lough Sheelin in Cavan and Lough Kinale in Westmeath. If you turned left, or indeed right, there, you'd need a boat.

History books seem to agree with Google Maps on this point. The bridge was once of great military importance, hence a famous battle of 1646, which emphasised the only two directions available locally: forward and back.

As commemorated in stone nearby, Myles “the Slasher” O’Reilly died defending the river-crossing against Cromwellian forces: “He fought till the red lines before him/Heaped high on the battlement lay./He fell but the foot of a foeman/Pressed not on the Bridge of Finea.”

Seeking elucidation of French’s eccentric directions, however, I have found a letter from a 1996 version of this page, which referred to the former existence of an old road, “now out of use”, immediately north of the bridge. Travelling to Ballyjamesduff from the direction of Longford, the writer insisted, you could once have turned left there.

I’m still not convinced. Wherever your starting point, it seems to me, you would have had to go well out of your way to arrive at the bridge. Be that as it may. For anyone still using GPF (Geography of Percy French) technology to find Ballyjamesduff, I advise you to stop one-third of the way to Cootehill. Half-way, you’ll have overshot the target by about 10km.

***

I had Macduff on the brain this week thanks to that spectacular verbal gaffe by George W Bush. In case you missed the Freudian Slip of the Century so far, he was trying to condemn Vladimir Putin's war-mongering in Ukraine and, instead, lamented "the decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq".

Before Freud lent his name to this kind of thing, the great exemplar of involuntary truth-telling was Lady Macbeth, driven to nightly sleepwalking by guilt at her husband's mounting list of victims, eg: "The Thane of Fife had a wife; where is she now?"

In Shakespeare’s play, one of her ladies-in-waiting, watching from the wings, comments in horror: “She has spoke what she should not.” A sentiment that must have been echoed on Wednesday, if not in those exact words, by Mr Bush’s advisors.

There is no suggestion yet that the ex-president has taken to excessive hand-washing over his guilt about past events in the Middle-East. But if he does, Shakespeare has a worrying precedent for that too. As Lady Macbeth laments during her nocturnal ablutions: “All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.”