Debunking the shillelagh

Although I had lived in Ireland all my life, it was not till I reached the age of fifteen that I first heard of a shillelagh. I came across the word, if I remember correctly, in Reader's Digestm, and had to look it up to discover what it meant. And indeed it was some time later when I first saw the object - in the window of a Dublin shop catering to tourists. They are, for anyone who does not know, murderous-looking blackthorn sticks with which the Irish were reputed to hit one another over the head. Or so they tell me, anyway - I have never come across one doing so.

Now, I am willing to believe, although I have no proof, that shillelaghs once played a part in Irish life - beyond shop windows, that is. But I am much more dubious about other supposed facets of Irishry. Take the word ''brogue,'' for instance, commonly held to mean ''Irish accent'' in Anglo-American belief. Irish people spend 13 years of their educational life learning a smattering of their native tongue, and most of them know that ''brogue,'' or something like it, means ''shoe.'' If told that it meant anything else they would look at you in blank amazement.

No Irish person has ever said ''Begorrah,'' outside of plays (at least I have never heard them do so). No Irish person has ever said ''Top o' the mornin','' either. If these expressions are heard in Ireland, they are invariably underpinned by English or American accents. Irish people do say, ''Look what I'm after doing,'' but they do not say, ''Would you be after doing (whatever it is)?'' They do wear shamrocks on St. Patrick's Day, but they do not dye the Liffey, their faces, or their beverages green. (To be frank, they do not have to dye the Liffey green.) An Irish plumber will say, ''Sure I'll be there tomorrow'' (when he means next month), but there is no comma after the ''sure,'' as is commonly reported. And so on.

In fact, much of what is taken for Irishness is a myth, manufactured abroad in a curious attempt to construct a land that has never existed - or at least to maintain one that no longer exists. I still remember the look of blank amazement on the face of a Canadian host who owned horses when told I had never been on one - unless you counted once, at the age of three. Ireland is justly renowned among the equine fraternity for tPe quality of its horses, but Irish city people , like city people elsewhere, hardly know one end of a horse from another, and I was no exception. Certainly the horse I rode on his farm was well aware of my ignorance, as horses invariably are, since he took me into the middle of a field knee-deep in snow and stood stock still, refusing to move an inch in any direction - laughing to himself, as horses will. I had had some vague idea that you just sat and steered, as on a motor bike, but evidently there was more to it than that. I had to clamber down, muttering to myself in Irish, and get someone to bring him back to his stable, where he no doubt snickered about me to the other horses.

I have the curious feeling, often, of living in'two lands: the Ireland I actually do live in, and the Ireland foreigners believe in. Irish people do say, ''It's a soft day,'' when it is a soft day (which it usually is), and they do grossly underestimate distances when giving directions, so as not to discourage you. Their preference for politeness over straightforwardness verges on the Oriental - and I personally prefer it to veracity without politeness. So there is some basis for the myths that abound, without a doubt. It may be that the ''quaintness'' of Irishry which has gone down so well abroad says more about the Western world as a whole than it does about Ireland: that this land of mists and (partly manufactured) myths operates as an antidote to the calculative, grinding ''rationality'' of modern society. An imaginative oasis, perhaps, in the everyday desert. The fact that this oasis is partly imaginary as well as imaginative says much about the need of people in highly industrialized societies to find a mental corner where the laws of goal-directed effort and the reign of everyday banality are relaxed, if only momentarily.

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