Hedge Schooling – Frank McNally on being given haws for thought

An Irishman’s Diary

On the way to the shop this morning, to buy the newspaper, I was stopped briefly by a man in cap. I knew him to see: we have passed each other wordlessly for years. But on this occasion he leaned over and said something that, at first hearing, sounded like: “When all truths fail, welcome laws.”

It had the ring of a saying from ancient Greece or Rome. So much so, I was tempted to nod knowingly and pretend I remembered it from school. The words had been muffled by the mask he was wearing, however, so I asked him to repeat then. And this time I caught it correctly: "When all fruits fail, welcome haws." It turned out to be from ancient Cork, where he had often heard it as a child. He walked off, adding: "You'll get a column out of that."

In the shop, I was reminded that we never live in a post-fruit society anymore. What the local seasons cannot produce is compensated by an endless supply of produce from around the world. But the phrase dates from harder times and, in Ireland at least, is often connected with the Famine. Its message is that, when the rest of the hedge-fruit is exhausted, you'll appreciate the haw, bitter as it might be.

Mind you, the proverb is also well known on our neighbouring island. And there, according to my Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, it is often used metaphorically of love and marriage, especially when somebody short of options “takes […] an older or otherwise unsuitable lover”.


Other examples cited include one from Brendan Behan, in Borstal Boy, where the foreman of his prison painting unit asks him if he can "serve mass". Behan explains that he has been excommunicated for IRA activities, but the foreman shrugs. The current server is due for release and there are no qualified replacements, so an excommunicated one will do: "When all fruit fails, welcome haws."

This year’s haws are a long way off yet. In the meantime, we have the blossoms to look forward to, proverbial in their own right. In the “language of flowers”, according to Brewer’s Dictionary, the hawthorn symbolises “good hope”, because it “shows winter is over and spring is at hand”.

The Romans though it a “charm against sorcery” so put it in the cradles of babies. And getting back to marriage, the young women of ancient Athens used to crown themselves with hawthorn flowers at weddings, where the “marriage torch” was made of hawthorn too.

Hawthorn was also a symbol of Henry VII because Richard III’s crown of had been “recovered from a hawthorn bush at Bosworth”. But perhaps, for the marriage associations, it should have been the symbol of Henry VIII too. He was a great enthusiast for weddings, after all, passing on the marriage-torch frequently – a bit like the Olympic one, except that he didn’t usually wait four years to declare the current games closed.

The haw (cenelle in France) did not make it into the Jacobin Calendar, the French Revolution’s religion-abolishing reorganisation of the year, which was based instead on nature and the rural economy. But the hawthorn (aubépine) did, as part of the spring month of Floréal, which would be starting around now.

The calendar lasted barely a decade, petering out – like most of the revolution – with the rise of Napoleon, although it was briefly revived 150 years ago this spring during the Paris Commune of March – May 1871. That followed the Siege of Paris, when food supplies dwindled to the point where rats became haute cuisine. If there were haws available, they would have been a luxury.


An afterthought on Hiberno-English "after", which we discussed earlier in the week. Readers may recall that the debate started with somebody in the Observer newspaper misunderstanding the term. But as Michael Gloster reminds me, this would not have happened under its former editor, Conor Cruise O'Brien.

His 1969 book Conor Cruise O’Brien Introduces Ireland included an essay on language by his wife Máire Mhac an tSaoi, which among other things tried to explain the phrase “I am after going”. It was “a difficult construction” for the uninitiated, she admitted. And speaking of difficult constructions, she then explained that “its statal or aspective character is absolute […] it must always communicate a state ensuing on the completion of an action.”

Whether an English reader would have been any the wiser after that, I don’t know. I’m not sure what a statal character is (or whether there are Free Statal characters as well).

But I suppose it would at least serve as a warning to Observer sub-editors to approach the term, if at all, with extreme caution.