Extract From Letter About Placenames

Below an extract from correspondence to Coleraine Borough Council in 2008 on Consultation regarding Street Names.

Dear Sir

EQIA – Consultation Document – Street Naming & Numbering Policy

Our great poet laureate Seamus Heaney wrote: ‘Every layer they strip/Seems camped on before’.

The danger for us all is that if we choose to disregard history and namings of the landscape we inhabit, that there will be nothing there for future generations that might wish to ‘strip away’ in an attempt to understand where they live and why a placename has a particular significance. Any attempt to frustrate bi-lingual signage, masquerading as consultation but in reality driven by an ulterior motive, is a disservice to the wonderfully rich, expressive and lyrical names which we have the privilege to read and hear day in and day out. Every time the word Coleraine is used it is an expression of an Irish placename – the articulation of the word itself is fundamentally and inextricably bi-lingual.

Heaney has a philosophical and poetic concentration on the ‘sense of place’ that serves to celebrate and understand the countryside around us and the rich landscape where we live. There is a temptation in obstructing or diverting efforts to provide the original Irish placenames as part of a signage programme to divert the argument down the side street of political debate. This is inappropriate and demonstrates a breathtaking level of ignorance on the part of those that would do it.

The fact of the matter is that the area in which we live and breathe itself is a landscape alive with names from the traditional Irish. When someone first described this town as Port na Binne Uaine –  The port of the verdant green rock cliff – they were not making a political point. They were describing a small settlement beside the sea so that would –be visitors would know exactly where they were going.

Likewise the traditional name of the town of Coleraine – the pronunciation of which by the local population with their Ulster Scots inflexion is almost identical to the original Irish –  Cúil Raithin Ferny Corner – related to a story concerning St Patrick.

It is the responsibility of this generation to retain and respect each others’ traditions  – especially now that we have a semblance of peace after thirty years of disrespect and abuse. However, the placenames from which our street names and roads originate do not belong to one tradition or another – they belong to all of us and we use them in everyday speech whether we appreciate it and understand it or not.

I am submitting the views below as a contribution to the above consultation. I would appreciate confirmation of receipt as before the deadline of 13 June 2008 and its inclusion in the EQIA process.


Takes the Skin off The Roof of Yer Mouth

I just had for lunch a toasted ham sandwich. It was delicious. What made it even nicer was the detritus of some earlier sandwich that attached itself to the outside of the bread. Hmm wonderful. Lunchtime bliss.

I like mine with white bread, the sort of terrible and tasteless white bread that if you roll into a ball it doesn’t crumble but squishes together like a white paste. More food value in its wrapping. Probably. But when you stick a bit of ham between two slices the inside of the bread sort of liquidises and adds to the  texture. Brown bread just doesn’t do the same job. White bread is toastie bread, the way it merges and joins together in communion with your filling.

I remember the first time I came across toasties was in my uncle’s bar in Omagh. The Hogshead served them, ham, cheese or ham and cheese. Simple. A drop of Worcester Sauce too if you wanted it. I was only about four at the time but I remember the daytime drinkers getting a toastie with their beer or stout. It looked tasty and it was tasty. Mmmm.

My mother-in-law Patsy loves to have one with a glass of Irish Whiskey. Angela loves a toastie and makes a tasty one herself, sometimes for me too if I’m good. In fact, so big a fan of toasties were we that we got a yellow one for a wedding present. A lovely fancy Breville jobbie, it busted after a while and was replaced by one costing a fiver from Tesco.

You can wipe your toastie maker down but for me, like an archaeologist digging up some oul bones, I love that taste of cheese cooked a couple of times over that clings to your latest creation. Wherever it lurks, it manages to affix itself to the next sandwich. How could you not like that?

My sister Mary was the first in our house to get one and we tried all sorts of recipes. Mars and apple was one. Stinking. At Queen’s we used to crack an egg onto the bread and have an egg toastie. Filling and functional for beer purposes and late night snacking.

May not be the trendiest kitchen gadget on the market, and overheated cheese and tomato toasted sandwich has stripped many’s the layer of skin from the roof of my mouth. But they’re still the business. I love the wee sharp corner bits, sometimes you find a wee bit of filling fused in the corner. When the dog wants a bit, I’d nearly rather she had the part with the filling than the corner. I love the way the bread fuses and seals – white bread does it the best. The seal round the sides are a treat too, the little beards of cheese hangin’ out there to be nibbled off.

Nowadays every fancy lunch joint has a panini for sale. But all hail its predecessor, the toastie maker.

Hungry? You know what to do.

All Hail the Minibus Player Round Up and Rule 2.2

One of the great traditions of the GAA over the years has been all the rigmarole associated with the round up of players before the game. Although we still pride ourselves on being a resolutely amateur organisation, in matters such as preparation for matches, even the most junior B outfit these days will run their matchday logistics like clock work.

Players will be given precise times to load up with carbs ahead of the big game. They will be well hydrated, well enough to know that clear water means go and amber means stop. They will have digested the psycho-babble at meetings, the individual stats sheet prepared meticulously by the coach, gleaned from a shiny silver Macbook he bought after a stint on placement with a company that specialised in greyhound performance management.

Nowadays no self-respecting coaching course is complete without the mandatory section on what to eat before, during and after a match. Steaks, rashers and bacon; a slice of orange and a rake of pints replaced by pasta; energy bars and more pasta. But it wasn’t ever thus. . .

Sunday morning, coming down for the game, there were always fellas that were too keen by far at the prospect of a game; likewise plenty of the other lads could see a match far enough on a Sunday. The former not up to much, maybe played corner back marking the slowest forward, but he’s invaluable in pumping up balls filling water jars and maybe making sure the jerseys were washed once in a while. “There’s nothing like the smell of another man’s sweat on your shirt to clear the head, eh lads?” would roar one oul boy whose wintergreen would bring a tear to any man’s eye.

The other lads, well some of them would be sittin’ in the house or maybe still lyin’ in bed hopin’ they’d never hear the craggy diesel of the minibus or the doorbell would never ring. Their pre-match routine was a feed of rashers and eggs scorched to within an inch of being edible, maybe a puddin’ or two. A recuperative Major would complete the process, before the painful business of locating football socks, togs and especially boots last seen under a bed, dried turf intact and still in place. The final items in the carrier bag a yellow Mikasa glove and a clean pair of Y Fronts.

This scene was repeated in numerous households round the parish as fellas faced into the fag end of a season. Then there was the lad that managed finally to disentangle himself from active football, but walked that murky twilight between playing and not playing. So the boys still called at the door when they were stuck for players and he inevitable obliged.

His whereabouts might depend on who he was seen talking to the night before and the minibus often trekked the parish looking for him to bring him back to his mammy’s to get his stuff and his inevitable mercurial contribution delivered through the fugue of last night’s fun.

The throw-in time of course was a moveable feast – refs knew not to get there too early, for them could be a long stand waiting for the away team to appear.

But, to its eternal credit the Powers that Be have always recognised the difficulty of rounding up fellas for an away game, with Rule 2.2 permitting a team to start a match with only thirteen men – it explicitly says that so long as the other two lads appear by the beginning of the second half that’s grand.

The arguments around any abolition of Rule 2.2 would make the debate over opening Croker look like a teddy bear’s picnic. The origins of the rule are thought to date back perhaps to more agricultural days when fellas had to complete the farmwork and might be delayed getting away; others put it down to the checkpoints operated by occupation forces targeting known GAA men. Others just point out that it’s a practical rule that has its place and that’s that.

So, the next time your pre-hydration or your carb loading is behind schedule and you’re running later for a match, remember Rule 2.2. Twas made for days like that.

Stop Here or Gently Pass

This piece as written for the Omagh CBS 150th Anniversary Book and Appeared in Edited Version There. Here is the original piece.

“The river was the colour of oxtail soup. . .”

This, claimed Lewis Meenagh, would be the opening line of his book. The words had come to him in a moment of inspiration, when he was teaching in the Tech, breaking for a moment to gaze out over the Strule. He taught me English for four years, did Lewis Meenagh, and I heard this many times.

The line has stuck with me over the years, like indeed has much of what I learned in Lewis’s A level English class. Likewise many of the happenings in the class. There were ten of us there. He seemed to like having ten pupils. At one stage there were eleven but the number was pruned back to ten.

There were the others that were present, large as life. Stanley Kowalski, Stella, King Lear and the Fool, the Knight, the Mayor of Casterbridge, Heathcliffe. . . Blanche DuBios certainly wasn’t the sort of girl you might meet at the disco we were told, “but you never know Passmore!” Lewis would add as a tantalising aside.

We slipped seamlessly from one text to another, all brought to life with his startling local perspective. Whether that was explaining the intricacies of the rhyme scheme of Wordsworth’s sonnets, or Chaucer’s Wife of Bath brought to live as if she were some woman bringing her shopping home from Wellworths before heading off on a wee trip down to Canterbury along with the other pilgrims.

The classes were nothing if not entertaining. Lewis had the remarkable gift of making you think global and act local. Breathing life into Tennessee Williams Streetcar as if the characters were a colourful group that inhabited Bogan’s bar. “Could I take Stanley… ehhh think I could.”

In Lewis’s worldview , a savage kick up the rear would have put a swift end to Stanley Kowalski’s predatory behaviour and saved Blanche a lot of bother. I think though even he thought her beyond redemption. He liked Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh in the film version, certainly we watched it often enough.

Another memory, Lewis on demonstrating the meaning of the word onomatopoeia: “The moth battered softly at the window.” Simply brilliant.

He took great delight in one lad who, when asked which football team he supported, replied Carrickmore and United. Of course to Lewis, Carrickmore was bad enough but United, without the ‘Manchester’ displayed an arrogance that he, as a self-proclaimed Arsenal supporter, gleefully pounced upon.

After I left the Brothers and was studying for my degree in English at Queen’s I met him up the town one day, and he invited me to come to his house for a chat. I duly obliged, something to lubricate the evening tucked under my arm. We talked about life and literature, the Brothers, my father. The teachers he liked and disliked. The special opprobrium he reserved for one or two.

It was the last time I was talking to him. For a man who had such an impact on my life I felt in several ways I had let him down. Once he asked me to help him with something and I was unable to do so. That bothered me and still does. Yet in my working life there is a hardly a day goes by when I don’t use something or other I picked up in Lewis Meenagh’s English class.

And I recall those days spent reading King Lear, or the Changeling and all the guys that shared the class with me. He said to my good friend Declan Coyle, who was gone too before he reached the age of thirty, “You don’t like me Coyle, do you?” Whilst Lewis couldn’t have been further from the truth, Decky froze before spluttering a terrified “I do like you sir.” Lewis chuckled, he may occasionally have got angry, but on this occasion he was toying with us.

My time at the CBS began long before I turned up in September 1979. My father had taught there for much of his working life, in fact right up until he had a heart attack in the school on December 1977. It was like a second home to us. School stuff littered our home, setsquares, large timetable plans, geography books, homework, you name it.

When I was at St Colmcille’s, after school I enjoyed going into the Brothers to see my father and get to run about the place. When I was young I went on various CBS school trips with my parents and remember the older boys being unfailingly kind to me.

So, when I pitched up at the Brothers in 1979, there were more familiar faces among the teaching staff than there were among the pupils. There was Mickey Grimes, and Stevie McKenna and PA. And Gerard Haughey, Cormac and Mick O’Kane. Paddy Groogan, Seamus Woods and Vincent McGill. Men my da held in the highest regard and I still do.

Looking back it was as if I had a posse of guardian angels watching my step. People like Seamus Woods, who reproached me for some act or other once by saying “I’m disappointed in you.” I knew what he meant, It was his way of saying “your da would be disappointed in you”. He was right.

The Christian Brothers themselves too were fundamentally decent guys. For all the criticism they have shipped over the years, it was a lay teacher that turned me off one subject. I have now returned to the subject almost thirty years later, so even that wasn’t a permanent effect.

The school then was different than it is now. The entrance is different now, and the entrance process itself is likely to change. In our time there was a place called the Smoking Shelter at the rear of the gym where pupils went to smoke. If this activity wasn’t actively permitted it certainly was tolerated. There a regular gang gathered to talk, slag, cadge cigarettes and generally have the craic. On the coldest days there we would be found in a fugue of smoke, happy as sandflies talking about everything and nothing in particular.

Since then I have had the honour of being asked back to the school a few times to functions and events. It is different now. Once seated at a function, I gazed up at the ceiling in the assembly hall, above which some of the lads used to bunk off classes via doorway they had discovered, the adventure almost ending in disaster as one of them put a foot through the wooden roof one day.

As I walked down the corridor the last time I was there, corridors I had walked and ran thousands of times, they all of a sudden seemed older. I had a flash on my inward eye of a burly figure in a brown tweed sort of jacket, with thickish glasses, brown briefcase in hand, head down, driving down the corridor through a sea of boys who knew to step aside out of his road. For all his bluster he was a hell of a guy. Like most of them.

And I remembered a line from Wordworth that Declan Coyle used to recite when he’d had a few in the Union Bar at Queen’s, having learnt it by heart for Big Lewis’s English class.

‘The music in my heart I bore, long after it was heard no more.’

So. Here’s to Lewis, my mate Decky Coyle, Mickey Grimes, Paddy Groogan and my da of course, and the rest of them who each bestrode those corridors like a colossus over the years.