Identity, the crowned heads of Europe, all the king’s horses.

Broken dish, blossom 013

I heard on the television, that the people of Cornwall, the Duchy of Cornwall, to be exact, have been granted recognition of their distinct ethnic identity——-on a par with the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish. Who granted that?  Where was it before it was granted? I’m sure they are very grateful. However, the Cornish people were there before the Romans arrived in Britain and long before the English. I didn’t know that the Irish, Welsh and Scots had been granted a distinct ethnic identity. This could catch on. It’s no wonder that the Scots are talking about independence and Irish Travellers are agitating for distinct ethnic identity. Russian speaking Ukrainians are at this moment, attempting to move a huge chunk of the country across the border into the Russian federation. It’s all about identity: language, dress, music, dance, race, religion, food, customs, land, neighbours, drink, size, ancient alliances, legends, history, poetry, ancient grievances, etc. etc…… I make that seventeen points. Woodrow Wilson relied on a mere fourteen points when he re-drew the map of Europe at Versailles. Having thrown several cats among all the pigeons, he buggered off into ‘Splendid Isolation’. You recall the instruction on the fireworks- ‘light the touch paper and retire.’

We were never allowed to celebrate Guy Fawkes Day. It didn’t happen in Ireland. It came around every year in The Beano and the Dandy. It seemed a lost opportunity to make a few bob. ‘Penny for the Guy, sir.’  It seemed like a lot of fun. Guy Fawkes was a good, Catholic incendiary, in the days when Catholics themselves were often ignited for their beliefs. It would have been treason to celebrate the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot. We used Hallowe’en and May Eve as excuses for bonfires, with the traditional burning of old beds and motor tyres. We roasted potatoes in the ashes and spat out the evil-tasting results. It’s tradition. It goes back to the ancient Celts, who introduced motor tyres into Ireland thousands of years ago. The evidence for this survives in place names containing the Irish word Ath , meaning a Ford: Athy, Athenry, Athboy, Athlone, Ath Cliath (Dublin itself, the centre of the ancient Celtic motor trade. I drove a few archaeological treasures  myself, over the years.) It’s part of what we are. In Northern Ireland it is traditional to march, make noise and insult your neighbours to celebrate the victory of a Dutch king over an English king, aided and abetted by a French king, all fought out on Irish soil. All traditions are deserving of Parity of Esteem. In the emerging new South Africa, the Rainbow Nation, the Zulus were granted the right to keep their cultural weapons.  Just try taking them away. I saw that film too.

That carving dish belonged to my grandmother and possibly to her grandmother too. It is not a heavy handed metaphor for the fracturing of Europe and the deposition of the crowned heads. It was on top of a dresser in the dining room. Our children dislodged it during a chase and nearly ‘crowned’  themselves, as my mother would have said. I put the bits in a bag, with a view to reassembling  them. They are still in the bag. There was another, bigger dish at home, as I recall. It had a pattern of little trenches and a hollow to catch the blood. (Not a metaphor for World War I.)  You were allowed to ask for the ‘bloody gravy’ at dinner time, without a reprimand for bad language. ‘ May I have some of the bloody gravy, please?’  You did get a funny look. You couldn’t extend this to the bloody spuds, the bloody cabbage or the bloody salt. The Sunday roast. It’s tradition. My father prided himself on his mint sauce;  none of that bloody commercial stuff.

Empires fragment into countries, provinces, counties, parishes and townlands, baronies, even duchies, towns, villages, neighbourhoods and streets, all with their sense of their own identity. Young lads develop a sense of their own territory. The Rush Road lads were the toughest. The Cabra lads and the Balbriggan Road lads were hardy too. The Town lads were a mixed bag. I belonged to the Dublin Road lads.  I don’t recall any serious trouble with any of them except for a few taunts and  inconclusive chases and a stand-off over a lark’s nest in the Ballast Pit. There were rules governing the taking of birds’ eggs. We arrived too late. The eggs had hatched. The chicks opened their mouths like little purses, pleading for grub and grubs. There were accusations of excessive plundering and bad form.  It was a case for The League of Nations or whatever they were calling it at the time. There was no danger of violence, because we had Ronnie Duff.  As President Higgins keeps saying, the people live in the shelter of one another.  All the old enemies are now friends. We lived in the shelter of Ronnie Duff. He seemed like an amiable giant. He could handle plough horses and drive carts. He did a man’s work at the threshing while we caffled around in the chaff. He often carried my younger brother on his shoulders when we went on expeditions, taking great care to put him down gently, for fear of stinging his feet. He scored  nine hundred runs at cricket on the beach. We wouldn’t let him declare, although he wanted to. Fortunately the tide came in and stopped play, or we would be there still. On wet days we could read the fascinating books in his house : the Daily Mail History of the Great War. There were maps and photographs. There was a General Birdwood.

My father told a story about General Birdwood. Some Australian soldiers lounging by the roadside, neglected to get up and salute the general. ‘Don’t you know who this is? ‘ expostulated a staff officer. ‘This is General Birdwood.’  A laconic Australian asked the clinching question: ‘Well why doesn’t he stick a feather in his arse, like any other bird would?’ Insouciance was part of the Australian identity. Insouciance was all bloody fine for the Australians, but out of order at Sunday dinner.

Ronnie’s family were Protestant.  Nevertheless he was our hero. The only serious discrimination I recall was when his sister, Anne, called for my sister, Anne, after tea. We were usually in the middle of the Rosary, down on our benders, praying away as fast as we could for the conversion of Russia and the release of Cardinal Mindzenty. (It worked.) Anne was allowed to sit in an armchair and read The Beano. If she chuckled at all, it was not at our culture. The Beano made the whole world kin.

We all have a romantic notion of Cornwall; pirates and smugglers; squires and mounted dragoons; slow moving excise men; houses on high cliffs with the wild Atlantic below; heroines and Gypsies on bleak moorlands. More than anyone else, even King Arthur, Robert Newton has given us Cornwall. He will have to appear on the currency, ahar! There will be no need for diligent scholars, giving night classes, to revive the ancient language. The whole world knows how to speak Cornish. Here he be in Treasure Island. Look it up on YouTube.  Bring aft the grog and relax for a moment with Long   John Silver himself.


By the way, I now live on the Rush Road, so watch it.