Wednesday, February 25, 2009

On Renouncing Swearing for Lent

An Spailpín Fánach has decided to conduct an experiment, and is renouncing swearing – or cursing, if you like – for Lent.

It’s been quite some time since your faithful chronicler of contemporary Irish life gave up anything for Lent. The priests of Ballina in the County Mayo in the 1970s still glowed with the reforms of Vatican II, but your narrator and his fellow urchins had the black hearts of schoolboys everywhere, and we knew soft boys when we saw them.

The sandal-wearers told us that loving God in a positive way was just as good as that nasty old self-sacrifice. We nodded assent eagerly, and then off to Brennan's sweetshop with us to gorge our fat little faces on blackjacks, curly-wurlys, catch bars, gobstoppers, sticks of Eniscrone rock and, best of all, the 1970s equivalent of the asphodel that blooms in the Elysian fields, super refined sugar marketed as sherbet, sold in yellow paper packets and consumed by dipping a stick of liquorice into the powder and sucking away. Good times.

An Spailpín is not necessarily in the process of a religious conversation; my Lenten resolution has a practical aspect. Like most Irish countrymen An Spailpín swears like a sailor. The blog stays clean – someone seems to have already cornered the swearing market there – but in his private life your faithful narrator almost unconsciously embellishes every remark with a frightful curse, rich in scope and intent.

And I don’t want to be that guy any more. I hear parents swearing at their children in town in the most vile way and feel sick to my marrow. I don’t want to be on that side any more. It was the same with giving up smoking; eventually, you realise that while it was cool for Bogie and Bacall in the forties, right now smoking is very much a Lee and Nat’lee pastime.

Swearing is a loss to the language on both sides; everyday discourse becomes cheapened as it’s run through with qualifiers that don’t really mean anything any more, and then in moments of extremis when there’s only one word that can describe something, that word’s meaning and impact is lost from overuse.

Perpetual swearing can let you down. One of the greatest philosophers I have known – from the rebel county of Cork, of course – told me once that he had a swear switch in his head, that allowed him to converse in one language with his dear mother, and in quite another with myself. I know what he means, and I seldom cross those circuits myself.

But all the same; you never know when you’ll be sitting in traffic, and someone cuts across you, and you get out of the car and make certain remarks pertaining to uncertain ancestry and unlawful carnal knowledge and all manner of stuff, and some little five thousand year old nun gets out of the car – a 1983 Austin Metro, or some similar chariot – and starts apologising to you, and the ground does not open up and swallow you. It never does.

The chief problem with swearing denial, of course, is what to use to fill the gap. Nothing ever seems to quite replace the oomph. The writers of Battlestar Galactica delight in using the neologism “frack” but it sounds rather too close to the root; a lot like Norman Mailers use of “fug” in the Naked and the Dead. How odd it seems now that the publishers baulked at the original. It wouldn’t surprise me if people were Christening their kids with that word now.

A friend of An Spailpín delighted in using the word “crikey” for a week or two five years ago. It was charming, but it didn’t stick. She enjoyed a week as a visitor from Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers, but she’s very much back to herself since.

An Spailpin was always charmed by the pouting Scarlett O’Hara, and her expression of “fiddle-dee-dee” when she found out that the big dance had been cancelled because the Yankees were rampaging through Dixie. Myles na Gopaleen cooked up some marvellously baroque insults in the fifties, such as thoorlramawn and goshcogue, most of which he hurled at the misfortunate Doctor Alfred O’Rahilly of UCC (“he may deny he is a thoorlramawn, but he cannot deny that he is Cork”).

The rugby against England will be the first big hurdle, of course, and it won’t be easy to watch Mayo play Westmeath in Charlestown next month with no stronger injuction to calm the nerves than “for goodness’ sake, referee!” but if a man can see those challenges through he is ready for the greater challenges ahead. Wish me luck.

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