Game, Set, Mismatch – Frank McNally on journalism’s favourite word, Billy Brennan revisited, and a tale of two Zoom events

An Irishman’s Diary

 “Maybe the Cabinet should consider actual set-dance classes as a team-building exercise? It would be a way to let off steam. It might help improve coordination and prevent solo performances.” Photograph: Eamon Ward

“Maybe the Cabinet should consider actual set-dance classes as a team-building exercise? It would be a way to let off steam. It might help improve coordination and prevent solo performances.” Photograph: Eamon Ward

 

As you may have noticed, we journalists love using the word “set”. This is because it’s short, snappy, and fits easily into headlines. Combined with another three-letter word – “hit” – it also carries a useful implication of violence, even in dull stories about fiscal policy.

Those rarely meet the traditional criteria of front-page news, “if it bleeds it leads”. But violence is not nearly as common as people think. If you’re a pressurised editor, predicting that somebody somewhere is “set to be hit” with something, however abstract, is next best thing.

The other attraction of the s-word is deniability in case the foreseen event doesn’t happen

It used to be a bugbear of mine that we overdid this, so that a word prized for economy was often superfluous, eg: “Sun set to rise again today.” Now I’m not so sure. In the age of climate emergencies and Covid, we can’t predict anything with confidence anymore.

Then there’s the current Government. Time was, I might have been impatient with a line in an Irish Times story on Tuesday saying that the dates for school reopening “are set to be agreed by Cabinet”. Instead of “are set to” there, we clearly meant “will”, even if they might be changed later.

But maybe it was sensible to leave room for doubt, something with which the Government too is now stricken.

***

I’m reminded of another kind of “set” – the Irish dancing variety, typically involving groups of eight.

As aficionados will know, such sets are led by the “first tops” (the couple with their backs to the band), who face the “second tops”, with the “sides” at right angles. And although there are many regional variations, the dances all involve “advancing” and “retreating”, with a bit in the middle known as “house around”.

The Government – around the house and otherwise – has been like an under-rehearsed set-dance for the past year, with obvious tensions between the first tops and second tops, resulting in many leaks from the sides.

Then there’s Stephen Donnelly. He appears to be dancing off a different set-list entirely, like the other night, when he burst into Norma Foley’s Kerry Set doing a one-hand reel and waving his arms like Michael Flatley.

Maybe the Cabinet should consider actual set-dance classes as a team-building exercise? It would be a way to let off steam. It might help improve coordination and prevent solo performances. If I were a Government adviser and had to come up with a catchy name for the programme,

I might borrow the journalists’ slang for press conference and call it, “Round the house and mind the presser.”

***

Still with Irish dancing, I see Billy Brennan’s Barn is back on the market. The place made famous by Patrick Kavanagh was last for sale in 2014. Now it’s up for online auction today at Gibson’s of Dublin.

In a minor coincidence, Gibson’s is based in Baggot Street, Kavanagh’s other “village”.  

And yet there is no mention of him, or the poem, on their website. Instead, what is offered for sale is just a parcel of land with outhouses at “Drumnanaliv”.

The oversight is doubly notable because Inniskeen Road July Evening is a poem for our times. Its theme is social distancing, between the barn-dance and the exiled poet’s “mile of kingdom”. The nearest the auctioneers get to a hint of that is when mention the property’s location vis-à-vis various local towns. If you’re buying the barn as a Covid bolthole, you may be interested to note that it’s within 5km of Crossmaglen.

***

Clashing Zoom events are a problem we could not have imagined this time last year. On the plus side, we can now be in two places at once. Thus, later today I hope to attend both a seminar about Ireland and the British Empire, hosted by Áras an Uachtaráin, and a book-launch for The Lost Letters of Flann O’Brien, published in Liverpool, each starting at 7pm.

I just have to decide which event to wear my iPhone to and which the laptop. After that, the book being mostly comical and the seminar mostly serious, all I need are two faces.

The subjects are not entirely incompatible, as it happens. Flann O’Brien was among the first post-colonial Irish writers, and often dealt with legacies of empire, especially in his newspaper persona as Myles na gCopaleen.

Indeed, when translating that pseudonym once, he made a classic point about the right of small nations to define their identities without reference to the supposedly great. Instead of “Myles of the Little Horses,” he preferred “Myles of the Ponies”. The sovereignty of the pony, he insisted, must never be subjugated by the imperialism of the horse.

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