Monday, 3 August 2009

Wild Wales, the wild Irish and others

[Just so you know, this is one I wrote earlier and has been posted whilst I'm on holiday.]

Apparently, Muslim extremism is on the wane in Europe. I can't say I'm that surprised: I always suspected a miserably self-denying death cult was unlikely to become - or remain - that popular.

The article relating this was also arguing that European Muslim populations have become more integrated into their host societies in recent years. Defining and determining integration is a slippery job and the piece's conclusions are mostly based on inferences. It's also something a paper like the Observer would want to be true (wouldn't we all?). But I feel there's something in it.

Concerns about mass immigration are sometimes dismissed with the argument that Britain is a mongrel nation anyway; that it's been repeatedly invaded by immigrants from the Cro-Magnons onwards. This isn't true. Britain might well be mongrelly, but that's mostly down to the English having worked over their archipelagan neighbours at a time before the idea of a pure pedigree nation state had been invented. Mass immigration, on the other hand, is a rare phenomenon.

Nevertheless, the last time it happened - and also involved a potentially threatening religion - it turned out all right, eventually. I'm referring to the 'Barbaric and Papist Irish', as I think Milton called them, who started to come over in large numbers in the nineteenth century.

I found a reminder of this whilst strolling through George Borrow's 'Wild Wales'. I bought a copy, second-hand, at Hay-on-Wye: a blue pocket-size hardback printed on good quality paper (no foxing), illustrated with black-and-white photos and for the ridiculous price of £2.

It's a wonderfully relaxing book. It straightforwardly recounts Borrow's vagarious walks across the country, the conversations with people he comes across on his way and his learned ruminations on bards, poetry, travel, Wales, language, landscape, traditions, ale, character and nationality.

It has a few odd and memorable incidents featuring the wild Irish. They appear fairly regularly in Wild Wales, and are portrayed as an alien and often threatening intrusion (or at least threatening to the locals; Borrow always retains his cool). Caricatures of the Irish abound in writing and illustrations of the period, particularly in newspapers, and it might be argued that Borrow's portraits follow the usual lineaments.

However, I think Borrow, whilst undoubtedly having a taste for picturesque characters, can be broadly trusted in his descriptions. He certainly shows more sympathy to the Irish than the society around him, a sympathy partly generated by his broad-minded pity for their poverty-enforced exile. It also, surely, comes from the same source as his love of gypsies: wild and ragged the Irish may be, but they also possess a sort of freedom. Nevertheless, they remain a rough, ready and superstitious crew; there's a deal of truth in every caricature.

Anyway, here's his account of an incident at Caer Gybi (Holyhead on Anglesea), from where the ferry to Dun Laoghaire still departs. He's taking a stroll down the pier when he comes across 'two or three dozen of Irish reapers...well-made middle sized fellows with rather a ruffianly look...[with]...shillealahs either in their hands or by their sides'. His presence provokes 'a great commotion amongst them' and he's approached by one of them:

'He stopped within a yard of me and took off his hat. He was an athletic fellow of about twenty-eight, dressed in brown frieze. His features were swarthy, and his eyes black; in every lineament of his countenance was a jumble of savagery and roguishness. I never saw a more genuine wild Irish face — there he stood looking at me full in the face, his hat in one hand and his shillealah in the other.

“Well, what do you want?” said I, after we had stared at each other about half a minute.

“Sure, I’m just come on the part of the boys and myself to beg a bit of a favour of your reverence.”

“Reverence,” said I, “what do you mean by styling me reverence?”

“Och sure, because to be styled your reverence is the right of your reverence.”

“Pray what do you take me for?”

“Och sure, we knows your reverence very well.”

“Well, who am I?”

“Och, why Father Toban to be sure.”

“And who knows me to be Father Toban?”

“Och, a boy here knows your reverence to be Father Toban.”

“Where is that boy?”

“Here he stands, your reverence.”

“Are you that boy?”

“I am, your reverence.”

“And you told the rest that I was Father Toban?”

“I did, your reverence.”

“And you know me to be Father Toban?”

“I do, your reverence.”

“How do you know me to be Father Toban?”

“Och, why because many’s the good time that I have heard your reverence, Father Toban, say mass.”

“And what is it you want me to do?”

“Why, see here, your reverence, we are going to embark in the dirty steamer yonder for ould Ireland, which starts as soon as the tide serves, and we want your reverence to bless us before we goes.”

“You want me to bless you?”

“We do, your reverence, we want you to spit out a little bit of a blessing upon us before we goes on board.”

“And what good would my blessing do you?”

“All kinds of good, your reverence; it would prevent the dirty steamer from catching fire, your reverence, or from going down, your reverence, or from running against the blackguard Hill of Howth in the mist, provided there should be one.”

“And suppose I were to tell you that I am not Father Toban?”

“Och, your reverence, will never think of doing that.”

“Would you believe me if I did?”

“We would not, your reverence.”

“If I were to swear that I am not Father Toban?”

“We would not, your reverence.”

“On the evangiles?”

“We would not, your reverence.”

“On the Cross?”

“We would not, your reverence.”

“And suppose I were to refuse to give you a blessing?”

“Och, your reverence will never refuse to bless the poor boys.”

“But suppose I were to refuse?”

“Why, in such a case, which by-the-bye is altogether impossible, we should just make bould to give your reverence a good big bating.”

“You would break my head?”

“We would, your reverence.”

“Kill me?”

“We would, your reverence.”

“You would really put me to death?”

“We would not, your reverence.”

“And what’s the difference between killing and putting to death?”

“Och, sure there’s all the difference in the world. Killing manes only a good big bating, such as every Irishman is used to, and which your reverence would get over long before matins, whereas putting your reverence to death would prevent your reverence from saying mass for ever and a day.”

“And you are determined on having a blessing?”

“We are, your reverence.”

“By hook or by crook?”

“By crook or by hook, your reverence.”

“Before I bless you, will you answer me a question or two?”

“I will, your reverence.”

“Are you not a set of great big blackguards?”

“We are, your reverence.”

“Without one good quality?”

“We are, your reverence.”

“Would it not be quite right to saddle and bridle you all, and ride you violently down Holyhead or the Giant’s Causeway into the waters, causing you to perish there, like the herd of swine of old?”

“It would, your reverence.”

“And knowing and confessing all this, you have the cheek to come and ask me for a blessing?”

“We have, your reverence.”

“Well, how shall I give the blessing?”

“Och, sure your reverence knows very well how to give it.”

“Shall I give it in Irish?”

“Och, no, your reverence — a blessing in Irish is no blessing at all.”

“In English?”

“Och, murder, no, your reverence, God preserve us all from an English blessing!”

“In Latin?”

“Yes, sure, your reverence; in what else should you bless us but in holy Latin?”

“Well then prepare yourselves.”

“We will, your reverence — stay one moment whilst I whisper to the boys that your reverence is about to bestow your blessing upon us.”

Then turning to the rest who all this time had kept their eyes fixed intently upon us, he bellowed with the voice of a bull:

“Down on your marrow bones, ye sinners, for his reverence Toban is about to bless us all in holy Latin.”

He then flung himself on his knees on the pier, and all his countrymen, baring their heads, followed his example — yes, there knelt thirty bare-headed Eirionaich on the pier of Caer Gybi beneath the broiling sun. I gave them the best Latin blessing I could remember, out of two or three which I had got by memory out of an old Popish book of devotion, which I bought in my boyhood at a stall. Then turning to the deputy I said, “Well, now are you satisfied?”

“Sure, I have a right to be satisfied, your reverence; and so have we all — sure we can now all go on board the dirty steamer, without fear of fire or water, or the blackguard Hill of Howth either.”

“Then get up, and tell the rest to get up, and please to know and let the rest know, that I do not choose to receive farther trouble, either by word or look, from any of ye, as long as I remain here.”

“Your reverence shall be obeyed in all things,” said the fellow, getting up. Then walking away to his companions he cried, “Get up, boys, and plase to know that his reverence Toban is not to be farther troubled by being looked at or spoken to by any one of us as long as he remains upon this dirty pier.”

“Divil a bit farther trouble shall he have from us!” exclaimed many a voice, as the rest of the party arose from their knees.'

Borrow departs and there is no further incident.


Hey Skipper said...

I can't say I'm that surprised: I always suspected a miserably self-denying death cult was unlikely to become - or remain - that popular.

As well as the flip side of that coin: I always suspected those that were so worked up over Muslim extremism deeply discounted how viral "Western" values are.

Scare quotes because the really the best word to use there is "human".

Gadjo Dilo said...

A long post but well worth reading! I'd heard of Borrow and imagined him to be a rather airy-fairy character, but he seems to understand well how to conduct himself. Excellent.

No Good Boyo said...

Anti-Irish sentiment was strong in Wales well into the 1920s. The popular song "Mynd i Rymni" (Going to Rhymney) includes the line "Wedi gwato naw o Badys" (Having beaten nine Paddies).

A nice aside is that the "od" plural ending is used for very few animate nouns, and usually indicates that you should distrust the bearer. "Benywod" (women) and "gwrachod" (witches) speak for themselves, but the Entente cordiale has now persuaded most educated Welshmen to sat "Ffrancwyr" rather than "Ffrancod" for "Frenchmen".

We still called the Irish "Gwyddelod", though but.

Sean said...

You have not read much of the Koran then?

Yup the old testament is a bit mad but the Koran is full on hate from one verse to the next.

and surprise. surprise,not one mention of this in the groans article which is a bit of a paradox at odds with the Groans materialist underlying ideology.

Never mind, they might one day get around to explaining the current rise of the the islamist party in "right on, multi cultist" Malaysia

At the end of the day, black people from Jamaica or navies from Ireland share a underlying cultural rock in the form of Christianity.

Gaw said...

Skipper: Couldn't agree with you more, which is nice.

Gadjo: Borrow was a mensch. His interest in languages would, I'm sure, strike a chord with you.

Boyo: Thanks for your erudition. We love the Paddies now, of course. Nearly cheered them on to their Slam, in fact.

BTW were you ever in Oxford in the early 1990s? I briefly met someone who held violently strong opinions about the quisling Welsh gentry of the Tudor period. Could it have been you?

Sean: That view of the world is the mirror image of the one held by inadequate Islamist twats. Why take them at their own estimation?