Present and Incorrect – Frank McNally on the importance of being “Anseo”

An Irishman’s Diary

On BBC 6 Radio the other night, they played the song Anseo by "Irish rapper Denise Chaila", as the DJ summarised her. Chaila was born in Zambia but moved here in early childhood – hence her appreciation of the importance of saying "Anseo" in Irish life, whether as a way of telling the teacher you've turned up for school today, or as a general statement.

The song is in the latter spirit, with the A-word punctuating its cheerful chorus, eg: "If you're looking for your black James Bond: Anseo./Spice box, taxi by the Centra: Anseo." And after playing it, the BBC man explained that he had first heard Chaila's music via actor Cillian Murphy, who also has a show on the station.

He was still was doing well until it came to pronouncing the song's name. Then, despite the repeated correct versions to which his ears had just been exposed, he decided the word must be "Anz-i-o", like the city in Italy.

I know this may be reading too much into a minor faux pas by a pop DJ. But I thought, there is a microcosm of the centuries-long tragedy of Anglo-Irish relation, up to and including the first three-and-a-half years of the Brexit saga. So much of Irish history has been about us trying to remind our former rulers that we were here (in both languages). And yet again, they weren’t listening.



Chaila's song is not the first work of poetry to riff on the word. Anseo is also the name of a fine poem by Paul Muldoon, a man whose work often involves musical accompaniment too. I most recently saw him perform last spring, just before Covid, at a celebration in Newcastle (the Co Down one) of Roscommon-born rapper Percy French.

But I first heard Muldoon read at the Electric Picnic some years ago, when Anseo was part of the set-list.

It’s a pithy, three-verse poem about the northern Troubles, and about the cyclical nature of violence generally, as illustrated by its protagonist, one “Joseph Mary Plunkett Ward”.

The first verse is set in an Armagh primary school in the early 1960s, where young Ward is all-too-frequently not “Anseo” when the schoolmaster calls his name. In verse two, the “Ward of Court” (as the master now sarcastically dubs him) is present and corrected – violently – for his absences, via a sally rod.

Then we fast-forward in verse three, where some years later our hero has himself become a master – a quartermaster, to be exact – in a certain paramilitary organisation. His duties include taking role call from volunteers, who are encouraged to raise their hands and say “Anseo”.


Getting back to Anzio, I should point out that the BBC presenter may have had an excuse, in that he was speaking on or near the anniversary of the famous Battle of Anzio, which began on January 22nd, 1944. That was supposed to be a dramatic strike by the Allies, establishing a beachhead for the advance on Rome. Instead, it dragged on bloodily for months.

As Churchill lamented: "I had hoped we were hurling a wildcat into the shore, but all we got was a stranded whale." Among the early fatalities, in February, was Eric Fletcher Waters, father of Pink Floyd's Roger, who has written his own bitter song about it.

No doubt the BBC mentioned the anniversary at the weekend, so maybe that’s what the presenter was thinking about. In the meantime, his misspeak reminded me of a notable Irish contribution to the battle.

He was a man called Joe Dunne, from Offaly, and he won the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions, which included killing six enemy snipers in a gunfight on January 31st, 1944.

Wounded in the process, he survived that and the rest of the war and went on to enjoy another 70 years of life. Indeed, I last wrote about him here in May 2014, when he was about to celebrate his 100th birthday.

And I recall being slightly worried then that I was tempting fate, because there were still three weeks to go to his big milestone.

Happily, he made it there, as was subsequently noted in the news pages. Then I forgot all about him until the BBC’s playing of the Irish rap song Anzio made me look him up again.

In the original column, I noted the ominous timing of Dunne's birth. He announced himself to the world ("Anseo") in June 1914, just as Archduke Franz Ferdinand was about to visit Sarajevo. And having survived the mad century that followed, as I have only now learned, he died in late 2014, on another portentous date, November 11th.