What makes us tick — and thick

From mammies to moving statues, spuds to Tayto sandwiches, two new books reveal what it means to be Irish, says Jonathan deBurca Butler

What makes us tick — and thick

WHAT makes us Irish? Is it the spud, the local pub or the way that Sally O’Brien, from the 1980’s Harp advertisement, ‘might look at you’ with her big hair and glossy lipstick?

A new book by Colin Murphy and Donal O’Dea, More Stuff Irish People Love, sheds light on the things that make us tick and thick.

Religion is to the fore. The cover of More Stuff Irish People Love shows a lenticular screen of a moving statue of the Virgin Mary, raising her arms as if she has won the Tour de France, then holding down her hands as if to greet you through the pearly gates, and, finally, in a prayerful pose.

By the time BBC’s Newsnight visited the moving statue in Ballinspittle, a “quarter of a million people had visited the site”. “Ballinspittle was just the first stop on a nationwide tour of Ireland that the Blessed Virgin had embarked upon, clashing with several boy bands who had the same idea,” say the authors.

Cleaning up the curse word seems to be a particularly Irish quirk. Ergo ‘fuck’ becomes the far more polite ‘feck’ and ‘shit’ becomes the more palatable ‘shite’.

Linguistics is dealt with extensively in More Stuff Irish People Love. Nugget number forty, for example, explains that the root of the saying ‘stop the lights’ has its origins in an RTÉ game show called Quicksilver. Presented by Bunny Carr and running for over a decade from the mid-1960s, the game featured a row of numbers that stayed illuminated for the length of time a contestant took to answer a question.

The book continues: “If you were struggling to answer a particularly tricky question such as ‘How many sides has a square?’ or ‘How do you spell your name, Mary?’ you could stall the lights by yelling ‘stop the lights’.”

Interesting ‘shtuff’ (another peculiarity is emphasising a country accent on certain words for no apparent reason).

The theme of oral machinations continues when we get ‘shtuck into’ our (strange) relationship with food.

Of course, the spud is discussed, as is our love of red lemonade — both as a refreshing drink that rots your teeth and as a cure-all for whatever ails you.

Jam sambos are another staple of the Irish diet, as are Tayto ‘sangwiches’, ice-cream in fizzy orange, and Marietta biscuits stuck together with butter.

I have to admit that I have never heard of the tradition of sending a piece of wedding cake to guests who couldn’t attend the ceremony, and the idea of warm fig rolls in custard doesn’t have me legging it over to the shop. The authors have a point when they write about packing the ‘makings’ of a fry to take on holiday.

The most insightful gem is the observation that “a fleeting reference to Ireland … in a Hollywood movie or Australian soap stirs a bit of pride in us. We almost treat it as though we’d unexpectedly heard our name on the radio — Hey!”

Colm O’Regan also confronts television in his latest book, Isn’t it Well for Ye? The Book of Irish Mammies. Bringing us back to the days of two-channel Ireland, O’Regan reconstructs one of the many pitfalls of Friday night viewing in a single-telly household.

“Without fail, Frank Carson [on The Late Late] was replaced by a rapidly undressing foreign lady [on RTE 2] giving a rapidly undressing foreign man explicit instructions in subtitles as to what they both should do next.

“When the adolescent realised that the thing he hoped was going to happen was happening far too early — i.e. while his mother was still in the room — his mind would scream: ‘Put your top back on, Magdalena, now is not the time’!”

Oh, the memories.

But long before adolescence, the Irish child had a myriad of colds, flus, temperatures, coughs, rashes, ruptures and rare ailments to get through.

We were the sickest children on the planet if the Irish Mammy is to be believed.

In Ireland, we do not have hypochondriacs; we have hypochondriacs on our behalf.

O’Regan tells us that “[Irish] children can’t be trusted to look after themselves properly … so Irish Mammy needs to keep them under surveillance. Ireland’s location makes this a constant job — and science is not on Mammy’s side. In practical terms, Ireland is sitting in an awful draft.”

The Irish mammy’s battle with weather is, of course, endless but also nearly mythological (or perhaps that should be meteorological).

She has a phrase for every climatic change. How many times have we heard ‘close the door and keep the heat in’. And while ‘it’s that wetting rain’ may sound bizarre to an outsider, the sons and daughters of Ireland know exactly what the Irish mammy means.

And as this book capably illustrates, she means well. Whatever it is that makes the Irish Irish, the mammy is never far away.

More Stuff Irish People Love is published by O’Brien Press.

Isn’t It Well For Ye, The Book of Irish Mammies is published by Transworld Ireland.

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