Thursday 8 March 2012

Lost for names in time and place

‘I never saw a richer country, or, to speak my mind, a finer people; the worst of them is the bitter and envenomed dislike which they have to each other. Their factions have been so long envenomed, and they have such narrow ground to do their battle in, that they are like people fighting with daggers in a hogshead.’Sir Walter Scott, 1825

Tourist board gets it ass-about-face on the locaton of the Clogher Valley Show
 Ireland, it has been noted, has far too much history and simply not enough geography. Yet what ‘narrow ground’ we inhabit, we envelop in multiple names that confound and confuse visitors, while we inhabitants misname, rename, relocate and forget. 
So long before this age of dwindling assets, we had trouble keeping track of our real estate. And much of it stems from simple carelessness.
Take, for example, the case this week involving the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB), which hardly has a limitless domain to promote by any stretch of the imagination. It placed an ad in the Belfast newspaper, The Irish News, proclaiming, among other events, the attractions of the Clogher Valley Show scheduled for August in the village of Augher. 
In the process, it moved the venue from County Tyrone to County Fermanagh, a not infrequent mistake for Belfast-based bodies when it comes to that proud locality. Fivemiletown on the western fringe of the Valley, and also officially in Tyrone, is invariably assigned to Fermanagh, although the Tyrone-Fermanagh county line does actually run through the button roundabout at the junction of Main Street and Clabby Road.
Wendy Austin
Wendy Austin, host of Talkback on BBC Radio Ulster, took up the NITB’s Clogher Valley faux pas. While wagging the finger at the NITB, she then admonished a couple of Fermanagh people for not knowing where the village of Plumbridge was. Sure didn’t they go through it on their way to Belfast? Wendy was obviously unaware that going through Plumbridge – in the very heart of the Sperrin Mountains of north Tyrone – would entail a detour of more than 100-km from the Fermanagh to Belfast A4 route. That of course would take them perilously near the city of Derry/Londonderry and even closer to the village of Dunamanagh/Donemana.
Let's shake on Derry/Londonderry
 Yet place-names remain at the very core of our identity on an island where the smallest unit of officially named geography is the townland, a space ranging from a couple of hectares to broad expanses of moorland.
We have long sparred across and inside our two jurisdictions of multiple names. Dublin governments and their subjects have been affronted down the years by the use of ‘Éire’ to designate their state in English, even if it is the proper title in the first official language. 
In a similar vein, those who have even shrugged off the Republic of Ireland designation and now style their 26 counties as ‘Ireland’ in all official communications, as well as in the name of their soccer team, regard the use of the ‘Free State’ by northern nationalists as a knuckle-dragging insult.
Rockall – another disputed territory.
In their enthusiasm for a truncated Ireland, it often seems as if they have managed to create an extra 420 kilometres of coastline and floated the six other counties of Ireland off to somewhere near Rockall, another piece of real estate that has caused bother in the past.

Yet it is hardly better on the northern side of the boundary line, where great passion can be invoked by what people call the place. Unionists once proclaimed their jurisdiction as Ulster, persisting in the delusion that they had honoured the Solemn League and Covenant of 1912 by simply obliterating the counties of Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan. More recently, they have reverted to the official designation of Northern Ireland. The use of the alternative ‘North of Ireland’ is now pounced upon as a pejorative insult used disparagingly by nationalists and republicans who were previously denounced for using 'the Six Counties' in all references. Yet for many decades, the ‘North of Ireland’ was used as frequently as ‘Northern Ireland’ by unionist spokesmen, although both names fell far behind ‘Ulster’.
Supporting 'Our Wee Country' aka 'Norn Iron'
(Indeed, common international usage in place-names would suggest that the occasionally heard Americanism ‘North Ireland’ is more appropriate for a defined separate jurisdiction, as opposed to an internal region with less defined boundaries, as in North Korea, South Africa, North Dakota and southern California etc.)
So while Republic of Ireland soccer fans proclaim their allegiance to ‘Ireland’, their fellow football enthusiasts supporting the team of the original Irish Football Association get over this legalism by embracing the diminutive virtues of ‘Our Wee Country’ and chant the reminder that they are ‘not Brazil’ but 'Norn Iron'. Thankfully, fans of all other sports in international competition do not experience this problem.
But our confusion over what to call places is not confined to our own ‘wee island’. While many Irish people bristle and fume at the use of the accepted geographic descriptor ‘British Isles’, they have taken to increasing use of ‘the UK’ to describe the biggest neighbouring island in our ‘north-west Atlantic archipelago’ – the island that we once called ‘Britain’ or even named by its constituent parts of England, Scotland and Wales, before Maggie Thatcher undertook to put the 'Great' back into it.
The UK acronym stands of course for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, yet that meaning is only conveyed publicly in statements – mostly from unionists – wishing parity of esteem with ‘the rest of the UK’. On this island, southern business commentators and others will often refer to situations applying in ‘the UK and Northern Ireland’ as if they are separate places.
The UK designation grows more precarious in the 21st century, of course, given the Scottish propensity for scrapping the original union forged in 1707 and into which our island was drawn almost a century later, with revision after another century to accommodate the creeping formalities of Irish partition.
Yet our name-calling persists in defying politics, geography, law and even history. The Frontier Post has dealt in a previous blog with those who extend the longevity of partition back into the 19th century. One prime example of this nonsense was from the historian Ruth Dudley-Edwards.
Barbary pirates raided Baltimore
She is not alone we found this week. On Sunday, the usually excellent evening slot on RTÉ Radio 1, The History Show, featured a fascinating segment on the ‘Sack of Baltimore’ on the Cork coast in 1631 by pirates from the Barbary Coast of Africa. The History Show host Myles Dungan observed that such raids for slaves were not confined to Ireland. They also occurred at that time (1600s), he told us, on the southern coast of ‘the UK’!

1 comment:

  1. A couple of years ago my mother in law, from Hilltown or Clonduff in Co. Down, dotingly referred to my son as "the best boy in the 6 counties." I immediately corrected her, saying he was "the best in the 9 counties and less of your 6 counties nonsense!"

    Rebuke aside, he's definitely not "the best boy in Northern Ireland."