Pubic transport – An Irishman’s Diary on the dangers of taxi ranks
In Dublin, “hazard” used to be the actual term for a taxi-rank, or its forerunner, the cab-stand. Photograph: Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters
Amid a mountain of old newspaper cuttings on my desk recently, I found one with the headline: “Man leaves Porsche in taxi rank to go to a Paris nightclub and returns to find bomb squad has blown its bonnet off”.
As usual, apart from it being an amusing story, I couldn’t remember why I had cut it out.
But closer inspection revealed that the driver had left his “hazard” lights on (all night). And underlining the word hazard, I had added the letters “H.E.” beside it, with an exclamation mark.
So I looked up the Dictionary of Hiberno-English, which sure enough included an entry for “hazard” with an exclusively Irish sense that I must have known at that time and since forgot: namely that, in Dublin at least, “hazard” used to be the actual term for a taxi-rank, or its forerunner, the cab-stand.
I don’t think this was ever meant to threaten physical danger – explosive or otherwise – to non-cab drivers who parked in one. On the contrary, the dictionary suggests it was the cabmen who ran any hazard, ie “the element of luck in the prospects of obtaining a fare”.
Either way, the Paris Porsche owner was unwittingly the butt of a Franco-Hibernian etymological joke (and the war on terror). If he’d known, it would surely have helped him see the funny side of his €150,000 car being destroyed.
Irish taxi-ranks can still be hazardous on occasion, especially around 3am on weekends. But I presume the word “hazard” is no longer used anywhere to describe them.
When it still was, they also tended to have individualised nicknames. And at a time when the old horse-drawn-cabs had become a threatened species, in 1910, this newspaper recorded some for posterity.
The hazard at the Rotunda, for example, was called the “Ink Bottle”, due to the building’s shape. The Metropole Hotel hazard (on what is now O’Connell Street) was the “Shinglin”, because of the shingle used there in pre-paving times.
Then there was one on Rutland (now Parnell) Square called “The Chair”, dating from an even earlier era of public transport, when the site was associated with a licensed Sedan operator.
Still with cabs of the older kind, I mentioned “jarveys” here recently as the original popularisers of a Dublin term “me oul’ segotia”. On foot of which, Pascal Desmond wrote wondering about the parentage of “jarvey” itself, and speculating on a link with St Gervais, a place-name ubiquitous in France (although the saint it commemorates was Milanese).
There would be a precedent-in-reverse for this because, of course, the French for cab – fiacre – took its name from the Irish Saint Fiachra, via a Paris hotel of that name, the location of the city’s first cab-stand.
But the usual explanation for jarvey is that it immortalises a former cabman called Jarvis, or Jervis. He seems to have been in urgent need of immortalisation too, because a book from 1882 further explained the term as “a compliment paid to [to members of the driving profession] in consequences of one of them being hanged”.
This tends to rule out a connection with most famous Jervis in these parts: Sir Humphrey, a former mayor and “private improver” of Dublin, whose name was enshrined in a street, a hospital, and the modern shopping centre.
Had the jarveys taken their name from a cab-stand at the Jervis Street hospital, as Pascal suggests, it would have been doubly apt, since St Fiachra was an early provider of health services. His French shrine was sought out by haemorrhoid sufferers in particular.
Venereal disease was another specialty.
As occasional venues for casual sexual encounters, covered cabs and their motorised successors may have caused a few STDs too. Less curably, it was in a Rouen fiacre that Madame Bovary began her doomed affair with Léon. Indeed, since Flaubert couldn’t describe what was happening inside, in an early version of the steamy car scene from Titanic, he had to eroticise his descriptions of the carriage.
Vigorous sexual encounters were hardly feasible during the Sedan chair era of public transport, although the licensing arrangements of the period might suggest otherwise. Like taxi-drivers of a later time, chair operators had to pay for their plates. There was a basic charge, plus rent.
But under an act of the 1760s, they also had to donate 35 shillings and sixpence annually to the Dublin Foundling Hospital: a charity that received up to 2,000 babies of unknown parentage each year, and brought them up as Protestants.