Tracking the words
An tAthair Pádraig Ó Duinnín - Bleachtaire
le Biddy Jenkinson, Coiscéim 2008.13
Oíche Bhealtaine le Biddy Jenkinson, Coiscéim 2005.52
I prefer not to be translated into English in Ireland. It is a small rude gesture to those who think
that everything can be harvested and stored without loss in an English-speaking Ireland. If I were
a corncrake I would feel no obligation to have my skin cured, my tarsi injected with formalin so
that I could fill a museum shelf in a world that saw no need for my kind.
Biddy Jenkinson,’A Letter to an Editor, Irish University Review, Spring/Summer 1991
Tarsi? Thinking of the recent spate of football injuries to the metatarsal, I suspected that these too must be foot bones, So I opened Chambers Dictionaty and found that tarsus’ is sometimes applied to the tarsometatarsus, a bird’s shank—bone. Now, I am not a taxidermist, and cannot say if birds’ bones are indeed injected with formalin, though it strikes me as unlikely. No matter. The point is that any language — be it English, Irish, Mandarin or Tibetan - is much bigger, wider and deeper than even its most attidulate and vocabulary-rich speaker or writer. We are all ignorant to a lesser or greater degree, whether it be of the language we call our own, or of procedures such as taxidermy. Until just this minute I knew nothing of the tarsometatarsus. And, of this minute, I feel again that pang of intermittent guilt that my command of the Irish language falls far short of its deep grammar, its genius loci, its comhrá cainnte, those turns of phrase unique to the language. Compared to Duinnín, my Irish vocabulary is impoverished.
Duinnín is the Rev. Patrick S. Dinneen, ex-Jesuit priest and compiler of Foclóir Gaedhilge agus Béarla - an Irish English Dictionary, renowned for the sometimes eccentric range of its definitions. Biddy Jenkinson’s An tAthair Páidraig Ó Duinnín - Bleachtaire conjures up an alternative universe in which Dinneen is not only a lexicographer but an amateur detective in the mould of a Father Brown, Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple. The book, a collection of eleven stories or cases, has as its epigraph an entry from the Dictionary, in which bleachtaire is defined as ‘a milker, a dairyman, a milk-dealer; a wheeler; a detective (rec.)’. Intrigued by ‘wheeler’, I checked it against the actual Dictionary, to find it should have been ‘wheedler’. Could it be that the ‘typo’ is deliberate, a reference to the cyborg bicycles of The Third Policeman? Certainly, Jenkinson’s book is imbued by the spirit of Flann Ó Brien, or Myles na gCopaleen, and involves more than a modicum of intertextual play. In one story (‘Duinnín agus Professor Moriarty’) Duinnín encounters Sherlock Holmes or Searlach de Hoilm, who defines himself not as bleachtaire but lorgaire, which according to the Dictionary is ‘a tracker or sleuth, a follower, a pursuer, a searcher; an author who follows in the track of, adopts the statements of another’.
It follows that the Dictionary is an indispensable companion to reading Biddy Jenkinson. Each story in fact is prefaced by - one might say generated by - an entry from Duinnín. Thus the first story, ‘Duinnín agus an Cat’, has féirín as its epigraph: ‘a reward, a present, a keepsake. . . in a bad sense, a lasting complaint, an affliction; féirín nó lag, a Christmas box’. An tAthair Duinnín is spending Christmas Day at the home of the Misses Cruikshank, Eleanor and Penny, two of the many unattached ladies of indeterminate age who appear throughout the book to press on him buttermilk, bread, honey, sausages, potatoes or knitted socks; at one point, in a nod to Father Ted, a tea-dispensing Mrs Doyle makes a brief guest appearance. Also present at the Christmas Day festivities are the Misses Brown, Hetty and Belinda, and Maria Godley. The presents have been conventionally laid our under the Christmas tree, except for Maria Godley’s: she is to get a kitten, a replacement for her missing pet. Pussikins, we are led to believe, has been the victim of a man dressed as Santa, who steals cats and hides them in his sack before selling them for their skins. Duinnín gets on the case. It has been snowing outside, and there are footprints to be examined. The solution, as in all good detective stories, is surprising and elegant, and sets the tone for the rest of the book.
All this is presented in an stylish prose behind which flicker ghosts of other texts. Among the more explicit references is that to the 8th century Irish poem Pangur Bán, with which Duinnín would doubtless have been familiar:
I and Pangur Bán my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at;
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.
(translation by Robin Flower)
The word féirín itself reminds us of that great sean-nós song of unrequited love, An Droighneán Donn (Is fuair me féirín lá aonaigh’s margaidh ó bhuachaill deas), which also refers to snow (sneachta séite is é a shíor-chur ar Shliabh Uí Fhloinn). Snow and the Christmas setting remind us of Joyce’s The Dead, a story of disappointed love which touches on the role of the Irish language in a modern Ireland. And behind the Irish word for kitten, piscín, lurk other verbal possibilities, containing as it does the word pis, a variant of pit, ‘vulva’, or in plainer English ‘pussy’. Pis is also ‘pea’, presumably from the shape of the pod, or vice versa. A variant, peas, is ‘purse’. Piseog is ‘witchcraft, sorcery’, anglicized as pishogue, or pishrogue, a superstition or ‘old wives’ tale’, appropriate to the hysterical speculations of the ladies in the story - itself a kind of pishogue, perhaps, or, as Laurence Sterne might have it, a cock-and-bull story.
The pis or pit word turns up again in ‘Duinnín i Ráth Maonais’. The lexicographer is in the parlour of his informant Miss Charlotte Lehane’s house in Ráth Maoinis, wheedling words from her. Miss Lehane is the kind of lady who likes to pretend that her Irish is really only second-hand. ‘Mummy and Daddy didn’t speak Irish, but the servant girl did,’ she says in English. They are discussing the word piteog, ‘an effeminate person’. As it happens, a perfect specimen of a piteog is passing by the window: John Pinkerton, the verger in the local church. ‘Pinkerton’, as we know, is an English word for ‘detective’, from the American Allan Pinkerton, who in 1850 founded the National Detective Agency. The Pinkertons were often hired by businessmen to break strikes in the labour disputes of the 19th century. In the 1870s one of their number, James McParland, was hired by the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Company to investigate the role of the unions in the company’s mines. Using the pseudonym James McKenna, he infiltrated the Molly Maguires, leading to the downfall of that organisation. The incident was used by Arthur Conan Doyle as the basis for his Sherlock Holmes novel, The Valley of Fear, in which the Molly Maguires are the villains of the piece. An Irish writer might differ . . .
I quote these lexicographical episodes to show that beneath Biddy Jenkinson’s delightful and sometimes very funny play with genre lies an often serious and subversive purpose. ‘Biddy Jenkinson’, like ‘Flann Ó Brien’, is a pseudonym, and one of her concerns is how words and names can be codes or disguises:
the Mollies were so called because, in their previous incarnation as members of secret agrarian societies in Ireland, they would dress up as women to terrorise landlords and their agents. A Molly was a kind of piteog. Every word has its consequences, or, as Biddy’s fictional Duinnín has it, ‘Chuirfeadh sé ionadh ort. . . chomh deacair is atá sé an gníomh a scaradh óna thuairisc.’
In her letter to the Irish University Review, Biddy Jenkinson quotes from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, whose protagonist, we recall, is a man who becomes a woman. Was not writing poetry a secret transaction, a voice answering a voice?’ says Orlando. Biddy Jenkinson’s words answer to the words. Her latest book of poems, Oíche Bhealtaine, is deeply concerned with the language on all sorts of levels, Duinnín, again, is a necessary presence, as she plunders his word-hoard: ‘Aréir chuartaíos ionspioráid / san fhoclóir. / Leagas Duinnín ar an mbord / is d’osclaios é / féachaint an spreagadh / focal dán.’ (‘Foghal’). One poem is a one-word poem. The word is dán, usually meaning ‘poem’; here, it bears Duinnín’s alternative gloss as its title: ‘A Rope Tied Round a Cow’s Horns to Prevent Her Going Overboard (in Shipping)’. That could be a comment on the difficulty of poetry, on the slipperiness of language, or how a word can always mean something else from our received understanding of it: language as a series of alternatives. In Irish mythology, Bealtaine or May Day is one of the two great festivals when the Otherworld is close at hand (the other is Samhain, Halloween), Oíche Bhealtaine is an exploration of all kinds of otherworlds, a word-search conducted by a rigorous and sardonic intelligence. The poems range in technique from haiku to short lyrics to classical Early Irish metrics to long, episodic narratives based on storytelling.
Her emotional range is similarly impressive, veering through wit and sarcasm and love to passionate engagement with the notion of poetry and what it might be capable of. There are dark, harrowing poems, among them the most convincing 9/11 poem I have read, ‘Súil (chiorraithe) ón bfichiú urlár’. She approaches her subjects with an unflinching eye. ‘A poet’s love,’ she says in the letter quoted above, ‘is vigorous and unsentimental. Love the little lamb, love also the parasites, the flukes, the staggers, the foot rot, the castrating shears, the butcher’s knife’. Deeply rooted to the past history and literature of the language, her poems are fully capable of registering the stresses and anxieties of the present moment, the kinds of subterfuge we must adopt to tell the truth: ‘Ná tog orm é go n--insi bréag duit. / Trín mbréag amháin a sheolaim fírinní.’
That Biddy Jenkinson chooses not to be translated into English in this country is a necessary admonishment to those who pay lip-service to the Irish language. Reading her has been an education and a joy for me, whose Irish is not all that it might be; and for anyone who aspires to a command of the language, she is essential reading. On the evidence of these two books Biddy Jenkinson is one of our greatest writers in any language.
Ciaran Carson’s latest books include his translation of:
The Thin (Penguin) and the poetry collection For All We Know (Gallery Press). Fortnight Magazine (Bealtaine 2oo8)