It’s What’s Underneath That Counts! (Not the Udders)
“What is the most common expression in Ireland?”
This was the question which was pose for a competition recently in one of Ireland’s most wide-read magazines, Ireland’s Own (target demographic: widows/spinsters aged 90 to 130). Although my subscription to the magazine was let lapse once I retired to the Canarias (prohibitive postal charges), when I was work in Ireland back in the 1980s for the Spanish intelligence services, this magazine was essential reading in order to acquire up-to-date information on what the population was thinking, and consequently a week was never go by without it appearing on the top of a pile of documents on my desk, the always gorgeous watercolour painting on its cover stamped with a single word: Urgente.
Even though my reading was for work purpoises and therefore by definition a trial to be endured, I was raised to enjoy pain and suffering, especially those of others, and Ireland’s Own was replete with suffering, especially of the Irish people and their saints, all of whom seem to have been killed by the English at Vinegar Hill (which I think is a poetical metaphor for Calvary rather than an actual place). Consequently I came very much to look forward to my rendez-vous with the Irish psyche, an attitude that both enhanced my appreciation for and understanding of the prevalent worldview abroad in the land and also to scale the greasy pole, which is not a reference to Ludmilla the office secretary but to the promotions I secured in my several years in the embassy. When I leave Ireland, it was with much sadness but also a hefty pension as chief of station, and much of that can be placed at the doorstep of Ireland’s Own, although, needless to say, I have no such intention of doing so.
I was, however, intrigued by the competition which was run by the magazine recently, if you remember. Since I am now newly back in Ireland, it was strike me that the correct answer to this question would tell me a great deal about how much the country had changed in the years I had been away. I had seen some of and sympathized with the lovely holy pissing Ireland of yore, a simple, pious, bitter, fervently nationalistic Ireland driven by self-hatred, hatred of others, and the love of our lord Jesus and his blessed mother, but it was clear to me that a materialist atheist capitalist conspiracy had insinuated itself into some parts of society, particularly the urban regions, with their cosmopolitanism, ladies living alone, Jews, bookshops, lack of playing fields, and huddled masses (although not huddled Masses, which were still, thankfully, much in evidence down the country). Thus I took it upon myself to utilize this competition question as a springboard for some amateur research, suspecting that the changes which have take place since the arrival and departure of the Celtic Tiger would manifest itself in the answers I was likely to receive.
I therefore was set up my stall in various parts of the city of Dublin and the suburb of Dun Laoghaire where I am now based and asked people the question posed by Ireland’s Own. So in order as not to raise their suspicions, I carried on my person a fake Newstalk i.d., a microphone, a portable tape recorder (conveniently, I had one given to me as a birthday present in the 1970s), and sunglasses so I could not be recognized. I set up first my stall outside the swimming baths, sometimes following people in and sometimes following them home afterwards, then outside a GAA club, then also outside the FÁS offices on Baggot Street, then immediately after that outside the Waterloo pub (also on Baggot Street), then outside Harcourt Street police station, inside Harcourt Street police station, and then a ladies’ hairdressing salon. And finally back inside Harcourt Street police station. I was able to make from this process a fairly representative sample to extrapolate with (and some nice photos too). The most popular answers I received to Ireland’s Own‘s question, masquerading as Manuel’s Own question were (in no particular order):
(1) “Hail Mary, full of grace. Our Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” (This was reassuring to hear and also allowed me to engage in some guerrilla praying.)
(2) “If you really loved me, you’d put it in your mouth.” (This suggestion was particularly common among ladies.)
(3) “We are where we are.” (This was usually said with a sneer.)
(4) “There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet.” (A consecutive number of students from the college of F.E. in Ballsbridge said this to me with barely contained laughter, which I took for contempt and proof of the insidious Islamicization of education in Ireland that the Irish Independent is always warning people about.)
(5) “This is the wettest July on record since last July.” (I insert here myself the word “July,” but respondents actually used every month on the calendar).
(6) “We apologize for the delay to this train, which was caused by a technical difficulty/a lorry hitting a bridge/suicide at Killester.”
(7) “What time’s your flight?”
(8) “We here at Ireland AM have teamed up with [insert the name of any half-empty hotel in the provinces].”
These, I think you must agree, constitute a varied and representative sample of what passes for the commonplace banter of the average Irish interlocutor. Imagine therefore my surprise, having entered all eight of these statements into the competition under different identities but the same address so as not to complicate any prize collection, when the winning entry was announced and it transpired to be the proverb which now makes up the title of this blog post: “Every Cow has a Silver Lining.” I was at once taken aback, mystified, and yet also strangely comforted, since it made me realize that the old Ireland that I had so much loved was still intact somewhere out there, somewhere beyond the fleshpots of sin and depravity that make up Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown.
My overseas readers will no doubt be asking, though, what means this saying “Every Cow Has a Silver Lining”? Although not my Spanish readers, who will be familiar with a similar such proverb which we have, “Every Bull Has Gold Inside,” which is a clever proverb that plays on the words “Toro,” meaning bull, and “Oro,” which is the word for gold. This is an old farming expression which tells you of the high esteem and importance in which rural communities hold bulls and their regenerative powers, since a good bull is much more valuable to a farmer than a dozen cows. Some people, mostly foreigners, think that the saying is meant to be taken literally, as a reference to the bull’s seed, but bull semen is not gold at all, merely a sort of orangey-beige, as any Spanish child can tell you from school trips. The Spanish saying is therefore nothing more than a metaphor.
In the case of the Irish saying, however, there is some evidence that rural communities still believe that it is literally true that cows have silver linings. This is because of the peculiar history of the Irish dairy economy. Irish farmers, while astute, tight-fisted bastardos, are also very sentimental sons-of-bitches, and since the country gained independence, not a single cow has been slaughtered in the 26 counties. Irish farmers could not bear to see the cows they had become so fond of and intimately affectionate with shot through the skull with a bolt gun. Therefore, all cows were exported “on the hoof” by ferry to England, often under better conditions than Irish men and women (anyone who has taken the overnight boat train from Dublin to Holyhead can testify to this), and then the cows were ritually slaughtered by the English, which is what they are good at. The butchered meat would then be distributed to all three corners of the British Empire, including Ireland, where the populace are notoriously fond of their rump steaks, chitlings, buffalo wings, and Bisto. Of course, by the time the cows are in the butchers’ shops in Kilkenny, Castlebar, Carlow, and sometimes Athlone, they are no longer recognizable as the individuals they once were, and what is more, their skin has been removed long ago, kept by the English who use them for their rugs, having FIRST removed the silver lining! This, at least, has been for hundreds of years the Irish farmers’ suspicion for how come the cruel, vicious, animal-hating Protestant English were getting so rich while the decent, animal-loving, pious Roman Catholic Irish were still having to pay €5 for a decent tongue sandwich.
It was heartening to think that this traditional worldview was still underneath the surface of the superficial postmodern multicultural communist Ireland of today, even though the casual observer has to peer deeply under the carapace, or the bonnet, depending if they are looking at a car, a ladybird, a small child, or a teenage girl. The competition result proved to me that the shallow mediocrity that some sections of Ireland aspire to adopt as their defining national characteristic has not yet taken hold across the country; somewhere out there the beating heart of the true Ireland persists, throbbing under the surface like an unwanted erection at the aforementioned swimming baths, and since it my return to this island has been premised on the belief that conditions have never been riper to restore Ireland to herself, her true pious, disciplined, fascist Roman Catholic self, locating the source of that pulsating flesh would be the sine qua non of success. It must be massaged, cajoled, made stronger and bigger, the way it once was, so that it can rejuvenate and regenerate this once proud, but also very humble, nation.
I have resolved therefore to embark upon a nationwide tour in search of the real true Ireland. I plan to take in every single county and every major townland, village, convent, farm, and bar in my quest. I have already packed my Tupperware box with sandwiches and filled my Thermos flask (with Bisto, of course!), and Miss Whipcream and Jane Bondage have promised to keep an eye on my home in my absence, dealing with post, burst pipes, death threats, unmarked packages that appear on bank statements as “Runnymede Entertainment Enterprises,” and the football scores. I have asked them to record for me the Champions League final so that I do not miss Real Madrid beating Manchester United 6-0 at Wembley, but I espect I shall be able to watch it in a field in Fermanagh, surrounded by cows. With silver linings.
Let us pray.