Monday, February 20, 2012

Insults, Books and Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín identifies the greatest insult in Ireland as part of the introduction to a piece in last week’s Guardian. He believes it to accuse someone of having no books in their house:

“I remembered smiling to myself when I found an attack by WB Yeats on a group of politicians in Dublin. They were the sort of people, he said, ‘who do not have books in their houses’. In an Irish context, it is hard to think of a greater insult, especially if it were directed at people who had any money at all.”

“In an Irish context, it is hard to think of a greater insult.” This comes as news to your correspondent.

To not have books in your house is not now and certainly never was an insult in Ireland. It might have been among the Celtic Dawn gang like Yeats and Lady Gregory at the end of nineteenth century, but they were touchy anyway. You could easily imagine the drawing of the shillelaghs when George Moore would insouciantly remark how little he cared for AE’s cravat. But for the vast majority of the population, not having books in the house was the very least of their concerns.

Ireland was a peasant society until very recently. It’s not easy to build bookshelves in one-room cabins, and storage is at a premium in the bedsits of Cricklewood and Camden Town.

Although they couldn’t afford books, it is true to say that the old people had huge respect for learning. The notion of learning is very large in Irish culture. Duns Scotus, the medieval philosopher, was on the old five-pound note, and the island of saints and scholars was mentioned by An Taoiseach at Harvard as recently as last week.

One of the pities of Ireland, and one of the reasons, perhaps, why the nation was so easily conquered, was that the saints-and-scholars tradition did not last. When those saints and scholars returned the knowledge they curated back to Europe, the value of knowledge and of learning was not maintained in Ireland.

One hundred years after the Norman Invasion, Ireland was one of few countries in Europe that didn’t have its own university. By the middle of the 13th Century, universities had been founded in Bologna, Cambridge, Modena, Montpellier, Orleans, Oxford, Padua, Palencia, Paris, Salamanca, Siena and Toulouse. In the island of saints and scholars, not a dicky-bird until Trinity was founded in 1592 - the same year Red Hugh O'Donnell escaped from Dublin Castle to start the Nine Years War that ended with defeat and exile after the Battle of Kinsale.

Yet for all that, the respect for learning continued, even through the darkest days of genocide, penal laws, famine and war. The three most respected men of any community were always the priest, the schoolteacher and the doctor, where there was one.

Revisionism dictates this is because those three had power, but there were other figures with power for whom the people cared not a straw – magistrates, policemen and, God forgive them, bailiffs.

Now that we have come up in the world – and we’re not Greece yet – it is still not an insult to say to someone that he or she has no books in his or her house. You could go into any public house in Ireland, turn to the man on the high stool next to you, say you don't think he has any books in his house, and all you will be met with are blank stares and looks pity.

However, if you were to enter the same public house, turn to the man on the next high stool and call him a Tan, you will not be met with blank stares and looks of pity. You will be met with glasses, bottles, fists and boots, possibly all at once.

The sad irony is that this would be a better country if not having books in your house were an insult, and our patriotism went a bit further than booing the English soccer team. Perhaps Colm Tóibín just didn’t want to share that grim reality with the gentle readers of the Guárdián? How discrete of him.

FOCAL SCOIR: I saw a headline on the front of yesterday’s Sunday Times that left me wondering if they carried the Tóibín piece as well. I don’t know if they carried the greatest Irish insult reference in the piece, as I have stopped taking the Sunday Times since they spiked a story about Denis O’Brien for the Irish edition even though it ran in the British - or "mainland" - edition. I now have no newspaper at all to buy on Sunday. No wonder the industry is going belly-up.