Hung, Thrawn, and Quartered – Frank NcNally on Westminster’s Brexit crisis, as seen through Ulster-Scots
Ian Paisley jnr: plenty of reading material in his Irish passport. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA
Watching BBC’s Newsnight programme on Thursday, I was intrigued to hear presenter Kirsty Wark use the word “thrawn” in a question to an interviewee. It was vaguely familiar, but I had to look it up, to be reminded that it’s a Scots term (although from the same ancestry as “throw” and “thrown”), which can mean “twisted” or “obstinate”, or both.
It need hardly be said that Wark was discussing Brexit at the time, and specifically Theresa May’s apparent unwillingness to compromise. But she could have been talking about many of the key players in the ongoing fiasco, including Jeremy Corbyn, or the MPs of a party whose members wouldn’t need to have “thrawn” explained: the DUP.
Lately, British politics has been a Game of Thrawns. If you’re not familiar with a similarly-named blockbuster TV series, described as “The Sopranos of Middle-Earth”, it’s a mixture of ancient history, fantasy, and sci-fi – a bit like Boris Johnson’s political vision – in which leading characters are killed off with the frequency of Brexit ministers.
It’s also set partly in a place called Westeros, which has echoes of Westminster, although the neo-gothic Houses of Parliament, with their black rods and royal maces and outlandish characters shouting “So the Ayes Have it! The Ayes Have it! Unlock!” is not nearly as plausible as the TV series.
Speaking of things gothic, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a short story in that genre called Thrawn Janet: a dark tale of demonic possession set somewhere in central Scotland. But thrawn has also crossed the Irish Sea, albeit losing its “w” by the time it reached Antrim, and softening further as it travelled west.
Some Donegal people even spell it “tran”, which is ironic, because that prefix in English implies flexibility and movement: the opposite of thran or thrawn.
In their traditional intolerance of anything that diminishes the Biblical ideal of man and woman, I wonder, would the DUP consider themselves “thrawns-gender”?
I don’t think thran ever travelled quite as far south as my native Carrickmacross, although other Ulster-Scots terms, including “brae”, “oxter”, and the habit of rhyming “door” with “poor”, did. Indeed, among our local townlands was one called Latinalbany, rendered more exotic than it is by anglicisation.
In the original Irish, Leacht an Albanaigh, it means the “Scotsman’s Monument”. What the monument comprised, or whether there is any trace of it left, I can’t say. Nor do I know who the Scotsman was. But he and his ilk left their mark on the local dialect, if nothing else.
A favourite word of my mother, who was born not far from there (and was a Murray to boot), was one I always thought of as Ulster-Scots: “through-other”. It meant “unplanned” or “chaotic”, and would therefore also be useful to journalists covering Brexit.
As if to confirm its Scottish origins, I’ve seen it in the writings of the Antrim poet and revolutionary James Orr.
Like many northern Presbyterians of his time, Orr was a member of the United Irishmen and took part in the 1798 Rebellion, when he led a “throughither squathry” (a disorganised squadron) of his neighbours to join the fight for a republic.
But I note that “through-other” also features in Terry Dolan’s Hiberno-English dictionary, as an exact translation of the Irish phrase trína chéile. So in this as in other things, it seems, the Planter and the Gael are not as far apart as they think.
A poet who at his best rivalled Robbie Burns, Orr should be better known in Ireland. The timing of his death, on 24th April 1816, didn’t help. It coincided with the bicentenary, a day before, of the demise of a certain William Shakespeare.
And a century later, it clashed exactly with the start of the Easter Rising. So his recent bicentenary was overshadowed too.
On the plus side, his work is included in a book of which almost every Irish household has at least one copy, certainly in the Republic. In fact, thanks to Brexit, many northerners now have it too.
It’s a little page-turner called your passport, which along with a verse in Irish by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, has one in Ulster-Scots by Orr (page 28 in my edition).
Among the people who may have enjoyed this is Ian Paisley jnr, a man much in need of passports, who tweeted a selfie with the Irish one a while back. If he hasn’t yet read Orr’s verse, I recommend he do so.
It might make him a little less thran.