Scotch Broth – Frank McNally on whiskey-soaked summer schools, the Lough Ness monster, and Flann O’Brien’s poetic mews

An Irishman’s Diary

The Loch Ness monster: no match for St Columcille. Getty Images

The Loch Ness monster: no match for St Columcille. Getty Images

 

Like the swallows, pandemic or no pandemic, the first of the summer schools have begun to arrive again as usual. The latest starts on Friday night in virtual Leitrim, when the 2021 Sean MacDiarmada school opens. Given the centenary that’s in it, republican themes dominate, but the Crown will also be well represented, if only in the form of Prof John Crown, who performs the official opening and also delivers Saturday’s keynote address.

In a happy coincidence, Leitrim also featured in the Times of London letters page on Thursday, after that paper’s “On this Day” feature had credited Scotland with the earliest recorded mention of whiskey, from 1494.

But giving the Times a brief summer schooling on the subject, one Nollaig Ó Muraile pointed out that uisce beatha had been the subject of an entry in the Irish annals almost a century before that, in 1405, thanks to one Risteard MagRaghnaill, a Gaelic aristocrat from South Leitrim. Less happily, as Ó Muraile added, the uisce beatha proved to be “uisce marbhtha” on that occasion. MagRaghnaill drank too much of it and died, hence his place in history.

There will be less than usual danger of overindulgence in spirts at this weekend’s school. No more than Larry Cunningham when he sang about it so longingly, most attenders will not be in the actual Leitrim. The event, which also features Bertie Ahern, Sinead McCoole, and our own Ronan McGreevy, is happening mainly on Zoom (via seanmacdiarmada.ie).

***

Not to steal Scotland’s glory completely, but it seems Ireland can also claim the first written mention of another of its great tourist attractions: the Lough Ness monster. That too arose from the adventures of St Columcille, who I was writing about earlier in the week. But for the actual record, we are indebted to his biographer, another holy man of the northwest, Adomnán (circa 624-704), who was writing a century later.

According to him, Columcille had just crossed the River “Nes” one day in 565 AD, when he witnessed the funeral of a man who had been “most savagely bitten by a water beast”.

Then one of the saint’s followers entered the river for something and the beast came back for seconds. As it broke the surface “with gaping mouth”, everyone was terror-struck, except of course the saint, who made the sign of the cross and ordered the monster into reverse, whereupon it disappeared again.

As mentioned on Wednesday, Columcille’s 1,500th anniversary is the inspiration for this week’s American Conference for Irish Studies in virtual Derry. But as a remarkable figure in his own right, Adomnán also features.

He is the subject of a new book from Four Courts Press, which sums him up as “monk, priest, manager, writer, historian, lawmaker, and diplomat”. And the book’s author, Dr Brian Lacey, will be discussing him on Friday night in what the conference calls a “fireside conservation”. Also taking part, I am intrigued to see, is one “Professor Nollaig Ó Muraile”, a name I had not expected to mention twice in the same column but which, like the Loch Ness Monster, has just resurfaced unexpectedly.

***

There may be some accidental cross-pollination between events in Derry and Leitrim because down the road at the Sean MacDiarmada, John Crown’s keynote will have the title “Building an island of saints, scholars and scientists”. And mention of scientists in turn brings me back to Flann O’Brien, whose borrowings from the poet Roibeard Ó Fearacháin I was discussing yesterday.

First, two minor embellishments on that theme. I have been reminded that in one of his pieces for this newspaper as Myles na gCopaleen, he jokingly (I think) referred to Ó Fearacháin and others as “implacable enemies of the poetic mews”.  

But proceeding from the unlicensed premises of that pun, I note from the property pages that there is now an address in Dublin named “Flann O’Brien Mews” (no joke intended): a row of converted coach houses at the back of his former family home in Blackrock, No 3 of which is currently on sale for €945,000.

What the real-life Brian O’Nolan would have made of that I can’t imagine. But his mad scientist De Selby would not have been impressed. Among the latter’s many pronouncements is this – as summarised in the opening lines to chapter two of The Third Policemen – the hitherto unsuspected wisdom of which may have been increased slightly by the pandemic:

“De Selby has some interesting things to say on the subject of houses. A row of houses he regards as a row of necessary evils. The softening and degeneration of the human race he attributes to its progressive predilection for interiors and waning interest for the art of going out and staying there.”

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