During a lengthy correspondence about Irish and fáinne-wearing in the Times Literary Supplement recently, English author Geoffrey Wheatcroft suggested it was Myles na gCopaleen, formerly of this parish, who first described the lapel rings as "erseholes".
It's an excellent joke, well worthy of Myles. But as has been pointed out by the latest contributor to the debate (Hugo Brady Brown), it was more likely Brendan Behan who first cracked it. Although I can't for the moment say where or when, exactly, I have found Declan Kiberd attributing it to Behan in this newspaper as long ago as 1987.
We'll come back to that in a moment. First, I must add my own tuppenceworth to another sub-plot of the TLS exchange, which began with Roy Foster's review of Patrick Joyce's memoir about growing up in England, Going to my Father's House.
Foster was sceptical of Joyce's claim to have heard Irish spoken in Kilburn during his 1960s childhood. This has since been taken up by Caitriona Clear of NUI Galway, who recalled hearing Irish in several parts of London while working there in 1982 and added "a friend told me he often heard it on the Metropolitan Line".
Well, I can’t remember if it was the Metropolitan Line, but while working in London myself in 1988, I once witnessed a group of young men speaking Connemara Irish on the Tube. It was all the more striking because I had never heard it Dublin. The other reason it made such an impression is that it started a row.
The men were newly arrived in England, clearly, and still a bit wide-eyed (as I was myself). They were giddy and joking a lot. And while joking at one point, they were also staring – in innocent wonder, I’m sure – at a passing Tube inspector who happened to be black.
Thinking the joke was on him, he launched a verbal attack, to their suddenly speechless astonishment. But happily, I wasn’t the only one who thought they had meant no harm.
A blonde Englishwoman in a business suit then gave out to him for his attitude. The situation was quickly defused. It was the Maamtrasna Murder Trial in microcosm, except this time the defendants had been acquitted (and then quickly switched to English to chat up the blonde).
Getting back to Brian O’Nolan (aka Myles) and Brendan Behan, they had similarly complicated relationships with Irish, so that the “Ersehole” quip could have been uttered by either.
O'Nolan was fluent in the language but became reluctant to speak it outside family circles because he didn't like the way it was used by its official champions. His 1941 novel An Béal Bocht was on one level a spoof of the Blasket Islands school of literature. The real targets, however, were in Dublin, enjoying the impoverished purity of Gaelic Ireland from a safe distance.
As for Behan, he made a pilgrimage to the Blaskets in 1947, and according to biographer Ulick O’Connor, was “elated” to hear Irish spoken naturally. There and in Connemara, O’Connor added, he was “swallowed up for a while in this Gaelic other world”. One of the heroes of his 1954 play The Quare Fellow was a Blasket Islander, who attacks a Dublin Gaeilgeoir for using the language just to further his career.
By a pleasing coincidence, there was a letter in the London Times this week about another ring used symbolically in certain circles. The writer was a Canadian engineer who explained that his colleagues in that country identify themselves by wearing a ring made of iron on the small finger of their writing hands.
Like the Fáinne, the engineer's ring is a century old. The former emerged during Ireland's revolutionary years. Before there was an actual ring, there was an association named "An Fáinne" , formed in 1916. The ring itself came a little later. The Canadian ring dates from 1922, partly inspired by a Rudyard Kipling poem. Kipling was in turn asked to write the ethical oath that engineers in Canada still swear.
A popular myth has it that the iron rings were made from a twice-collapsed Quebec bridge, as a reminder of the profession’s responsibility. That’s not true. But the Quebec incident was at least part of the background from which the symbol emerged. In which case, it seems apt to Irish eyes that the second bridge collapse was in 1916.
By the way, the Times letter writer noted another use for the rings, pointed out to him by a female friend. This one may also have held true for the Fáinne once (it clearly did for Behan).
As the Canadian’s friend put it, the rings could also be helpful “for identifying those (male) people at parties whom you want to avoid.”