Sunday, January 15, 2012


of course i've had it in the ear before

This is a post I handwrote in late October 2009, a few weeks after I'd been (temporarily, but indefinitely) laid off from my teaching job. I'm not sure why I never got around to typing it up, but a visit to my grandfather on Friday night reminded me to do so.

My grandfather calls me at about 10.30 in the morning. I'm relieved that he doesn't seem to realise he's just woken me. He asks if I'll meet him for lunch later, and I happily acquiesce. I'm delighted to have any excuse to leave the house at the moment: three weeks into unemployment and I hate that it now doesn't matter whether I get out of bed or not. Lunch with a man of wit and dignity is as good a reason to do so as I've heard. It's over a year and a half now since my grandmother died and he's wearing it well - better than I could possibly have imagined.

We meet on the steps of the Dining Hall in Trinity College. I'm late, sodden and flustered. He's punctual and characteristically pristine, as though the rain wouldn't be so insolent as to try. The man is effervescent, and frequently taken for my father. He looks me up and down in bemusement and greets me warmly. He fumbles with his key to the members-only door for alumni and staff and we head in. I was in there only once before, for coffee and a chat with a senior lecturer. He wasn't grooming me, it was for a chat about my dissertation. I spent five of the last eight years in Trinity and I don't really know anyone here. Despite it being over twenty years since he retired from working here my grandfather seems to know everyone, and they're all pleased to see him. "George!" says one chap enthusiastically and expectantly. My grandfather looks somewhat blank.

 "It's Henry Winter. You don't remember me, do you?"
"Of course I do, Henry - a fine, handsome young fellow like yourself!"

Henry is about 45 and not particularly handsome at all, but beams with the compliment. We bid polite hellos and goodbyes and move on briskly. "I've no idea who that fellow is, or what he's about," confides my grandfather in tones of disappointment and relief.

It turns out that the magic door leads us to the same eating area as all the proles and students use. But they're barricaded out of the place for a little longer and we get superior eating options. I end up with a three course meal in front of me, owing to his generous encouragement and my reluctance to admit that I only horsed my breakfast into me half an hour ago.

During the meal I spot a blogger* whom I recognise from pictures beside his journalistic work. I like what he does and, being on his blogroll as I am, I imagine he'd be only fucking thrilled to meet me. So I contemplate going over and saying hello, but decide that it's bad form to interrupt a chap over his lunch. and besides, I'd feel compelled to explain to my grandfather why I'd gotten up from the table to introduce myself to some bloke who had no idea who I was or what I was about, and I don't feel like explaining what blogging is to an 84 year-old.

A few minutes later he makes a casual reference to some bishop or something in cork landing themselves in a bit of trouble by whinging about someone on Twitter and having that whinge read by the person in question.
"Sorry, did you just say Twitter?"
"Yes, Twitter. It's like blogging but with more back and forth, as I understand it."
"Uh, yeah...I suppose it is."

Later, over coffee, he asks out of nowhere whether I do any writing to occupy myself while I'm unemployed. I end up telling him about this blog, about the piece i wrote for Homepages, about the couple of piss-takey pidgin Gaeilge columns I've written for the Irish language magazine Rosie contributes to, about my painful, stunted attempts at short story writing.
"I'd never make a career out of it, though" I say, lest he or, worse, I start getting big ideas.
"No, but it's good you're keeping active."
So the conversation moves on to what i might make a career out of, given how hard it seems to be to land a teaching job right now. He's fascinated to hear how much I enjoyed my time in South Korea a couple of years back, and I regale him with a few anecdotes from there. I don't think it's anything I hadn't told him in the immediate aftermath of my trip, but I'm enjoying telling it again.
"And would they know you in the Korean embassy here?"
"Well, I think was only there briefly a couple of times to sort out my working visa before I went, so..."
"I think it would be a good idea for you to go in there and ask to speak to someone significant and explain that you're someone who has spent time in their country and has very positive things to say about their country and that you could be useful to them."
I ponder the fact that the only use the Koreans would have for me is as a spokesman for soju.
"Mmm, sure, I might do that sometime."

I love his career ideas for me. Previous ones have included sourcing Polish food for all the expats here (he was shocked to here that the supermarkets have been all over that for some considerable time now), and opening a language school with Rosie where I teach English and she teaches Irish. They beat the hell out of "put your name on the teaching substitution register and maybe get a job in Tesco in the meantime", which is probably exactly what I should be doing.

He calls an abrupt halt to our time together, as is his tendency. He presses an envelope with a very generous cheque inside into my hand as a belated birthday present, and hurries off towards Dawson Street. I feel a certain twinge when I realise that this 84 year-old has more pressing engagements to attend to than I have, and wonder if I'll manage to get my shit together before he starts losing his.

*In my original draft I had named the blogger and intended on providing a link, but in the subsequent couple of years I have encountered him once or twice and discovered that he's a bit of a prick, so anonymity would serve him better now.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012


Beasts of no nation?

When I was eleven or twelve some knacker walked up to me on the street, said something in Cant that I didn't understand, and punched me in the stomach. It was ideal, really: it didn't hurt very much but it allowed me not to feel bad about referring to Travellers as 'knackers', and to lustily join in with every badmouthing of them that I was every privy to. I learned quickly that, despite everyone and their dog understanding the term to be pejorative, it was nearly always completely socially accepted. Usage in front of teachers and other adults would, at worst, be met with a mild frown - the same one you might get if you said 'crap'.

I don't know how many times it took being punched by settled people for me to write that one childish tap in the gut off as part of life, rather than symbolic of the values of an entire ethnicity. I don't know exactly when I grew out of using the term 'knackers' (I suspect it was shamefully recently), but I did.

Last Saturday I read a piece in the Irish Times about the rugby players Denis Leamy and Rory Best. A puff piece, in fact, that had little to do with sport and a lot to do with the fact that the aforementioned are now 'Bushmill Brothers' (there's a remarkably similar piece in The Examiner - it seems that the edict from the marketing people was to use words like 'brothers' and 'bond' prominently, and mention the brand name at least once. Tacky. One can only hope Messrs. Thornley and Lewis got a nice case of whiskey or five for their trouble). But what was jarring was not the thinly-veiled-infomercial nature of the piece, but the part where Rory Best is asked about his BFF's playing style and says he is "a complete knacker on the pitch, as you can imagine."

Does Rory Best mean that Denis Leamy is in the habit of finding old horses on the pitch and turning them into dog food and glue? He would undoubtedly claim that he's using the word in the other sense - that of a person behaving anti-socially or thuggishly. Some say that it's an entirely separate meaning, with no reference to Travellers at all. Bock does (or did, I'll allow for the fact that that post is three years old). But most of the times I've heard people use the phrase "some knacker..." in the middle of an anecdote they will inevitably have to clarify whether they are referring to a scumbag-knacker or, you know, a knacker-knacker. The etymology of any term is a complicated thing, but there seems little doubt that its origins are connected to Travellers. The term is still heavily connected to them, in my experience.

Rory Best has always seemed like a decent enough skin, but he might want to think again about publicly using a term that is highly offensive to an entire culture, even if a lot of people use it freely. They used 'nigger' freely, too, once. If he must use it in the context of Bushmills Brotherly Bonding Banter, then perhaps the Irish Times might think a little more carefully about publishing it, and potentially perpetuating its use among the thousands who will have read that article. Twenty percent would deny citizenship to them, remember, lest we claim that Ireland doesn't have a problem with Travellers. Perhaps they'll redact it later, as they do.