Wednesday, September 02, 2009
‘Weugheughtleh.’ That’s either the sound of me revisiting the ten pints of Schlenkerla and the curry I had afterwards last night or, just maybe, the sound of me booking a taxi on the phone, which needless to say I do every time I wish to leave the house. I do not speak like this, let me rush to insist, but if there’s one thing I get weary of living in England it’s people not being able to follow my accent. And where my name is concerned, all the vowels and consonants are different in Yorkshire from their Hiberno-English equivalents (another example: the word ‘hurt’ in a Hull accent comes out as ‘eh-UH-eh’: you see what I’m up against here). So I resort to what linguists call accommodation theory. But only when giving my name on the phone. Let them lump it the rest of the time, say I.
This by way of a preamble to a strange cultural version of the same thing I found in an essay of John Millington Synge’s I wasn’t previously aware of, ‘An Autumn Night in the Hills’, available in Nicholas Grene’s edition of his Travelling Ireland: Essays 1898-1908, most handsomely produced by Lilliput Press. Parts of the landscape with a weakness for eating dogs are always a nuisance, but I was thrilled to learn that Lough Nahanagan in Co. Wicklow, whose name means ‘lake of the monsters’ in Irish, has just such a proclivity. As the young girl in Synge’s essay describes it: ‘There do be queer things them nights out on the mountains and in the lakes among them. I was reared beyond in the valley where the mines used to be, in the valley of the Lough Nahanagan, and it’s many a queer story I’ve heard of the spirit does be in that lake.’ She then tells the tale of a man whose dog jumps in the water for a swim and ‘before the word was out of his mouth the dog went down out of their sight, and the inside out of him came up on the top of the water.’
I assume Wicklow County Council will be opening a dog recycling facility there any day now. But listen to how Synge talks to the women: ‘I’m afraid it’s a lot of trouble I’m giving you (...) and you busy, with no men in the place.’ Come again? Does anyone believe, whatever about the young girl, that Synge himself talked like that? One of the great unspokens in much of his prose is what the country people must really think of him as an interloping Anglo-Irishman, as in the mysterious moment at the start of The Aran Islands when a man in Inishmore harbour claims to recognise him and Synge says nothing (the man is thinking of Synge’s uncle, who had been Church of Ireland rector on the islands, a post that seems to have chiefly involved discharging a shotgun at anyone who strayed into his fishing waters). And while Synge or some proxy for him doesn’t feature in his plays, we are always aware of the author as an eavesdropper figure, as described in his foreword to the Playboy, listening to this alien culture and its servant girls through a crack in the hotel floorboards. But when he starts talking as he does in ‘An Autumn Night in the Hills’ he oversteps the mark and gives the game away. It can’t helping seeming an ‘accommodation’ too far. No wonder the essay was omitted from in In Wicklow and West Kerry in 1912.
Another interesting aspect of the essays, we learn from Grene’s edition, is that while Synge describes himself as meeting his old beggars and wanderers in Aughavannagh, Glenmalure and other evocatively named corners of Co. Wicklow on his own, he was in fact frequently in company with his family. But that would give an entirely different complexion to the encounter, would it not: ‘Old Man of the Hills, sour-faced rent-grabbing old battleaxe, otherwise mother; mother, unwashed indigene yahoo, otherwise Old Man of the Hills’. No John Synge, solitary man of mystery it was, perforce.
Here’s a Wicklow poem of Synge’s to end, and one I never fail to recite to myself as I thrash around in the heather on Djouce, Lugduff or wherever. There’s no accommodating that, let me tell you:
Still south I went and west and south again,
Through Wicklow from the morning till the night,
And far from cities, and the sights of men,
Lived with the sunshine, and the moon’s delight.
I knew the stars, the flowers, and the birds,
The grey and wintry sides of many glens,
And did but half remember human words,
In converse with the mountains, moors, and fens.
And by way of a final footnote on whether or not anyone ‘talks like that’, I recently asked a man in Glendalough whether the red deer in the valley ever came into his back garden, to which he replied: ‘Sure amn’t I ate out of it by the bastes!’ But maybe he thought I was a visiting German or Norwegian Celticist and had decided to pull my leg.