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17 March 2012

St. Patrick and the snakes, plus something equally true from Flann O'Brien

Last night I won a bottle of Brogan’s Irish Cream Liqueur (for “imaginative use of green”) at a wonderful party at the Irish Embassy to celebrate St Patrick’s Day.
     Since time is tight, due to the Parade in the Old Arbat starting soon—it was a late start this morning, you understand—I thought I would celebrate the occasion by recollecting two aspects of Ireland that I have loved (and written about previously in Passport magazine), one indoors and one out of doors.
     Taking the latter first, I remember with undimmed joy the experience of going, twenty years ago, to see Lester Piggott riding at the Ballinrobe races. Having sailed from Scotland round to Westport, County Mayo, my wife (whose mother came from there) and I hitch-hiked out into the lush countryside. We found a course laid out on the ordinary turf, amongst hay-bales and oak trees, over a couple of fields that normally had cattle in them. Nonetheless there was a small grandstand, plus a forest of bookies’ pitches and a long, well-patronised bar.
     The afternoon sun slanted in from the west and the greatest flat jockey of all time galloped round this little course (he came 6th) for no reward but the simple joy of sport amongst people to whom that was enough for an afternoon’s entertainment, which is why he did this every year. He was one of my wife’s heroes, and he seemed to be similarly regarded by the locals, partly, I am sure, because he had only recently finished serving a jail sentence for VAT fraud—another type of sport.
     If sport is the proper concern of summer, so books are the proper concern of winter. Personally, I can’t be doing with James Joyce, who's too clever for my taste. For me, the literary hero of Ireland is Flann O’Brien, who wrote novels in both Gaelic and English, in many of which he poked fun at the official cultivation of “national Gaelic” culture. During the 1950s he wrote a column in the Irish Times—they are now collected in book form—which was quite unlike anything found in post-Cromwellian Britain.
     I think Russians will be surprised to read of his definition of the Gaelic word, Cur. As a verb, he says it means “the act of putting, sending, sowing, raining, discussing, burying, vomiting, hammering into the ground, throwing through the air, rejecting, shooting, selling, or addressing.”
      As a noun, it is “the crown on cast-iron buttons which have been made bright by contact with cliff faces, the stench of congealing badgers’ suet, the luminance of glue-lice, the noise made in a house by an unauthorised person, a heron's boil, a leprechaun’s denture, the act of inflating hare’s offal with a bicycle pump, a leak in a spirit level, the whine of a sewage farm windmill, a corncrake’s clapper, the scum on the eye of a senile ram, a fairy godmother’s father, the art of predicting past events, a wooden coat, a custard-mincer, a blue-bottle farm, a gravy flask, a timber-mine, a Fair day at Donnybrook with nothing barred.”
     Got it? Och, no bother. I suggest you make imaginative use of another glass of Brogan’s Cream and head up to the Parade! Here's to a Fair day on the Arbat, with nothing barred!

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