Michael Moynihan: What’s in a name? Everything, if it tells people where you’re from

Working out the precise dimensions of every separate part of Cork is the kind of task that has an overwhelming appeal
Michael Moynihan: What’s in a name? Everything, if it tells people where you’re from

Examiner Aerial Picture, 27-10-2004

The incident happened many years ago, which is why I feel comfortable recounting it here and now.

There was a house fire in a certain part of Cork city and thankfully nobody was hurt, but the house itself was gutted, and the family living in the house lost everything they’d accumulated through all their years making it into a home.

After the smoke cleared - literally - a fireman was taking details from the head of the house about who the occupants were and so forth, and he finished off his notes with the full address of the house, including a reference to the suburb where it was located.

“Wait a minute,” said the householder, glancing over the fireman’s shoulder at the notebook. “We don’t live in (a southside neighbourhood). We live in (an adjacent southside neighbourhood).” “Really?” said the fireman, puzzled. “I always thought this stretch of the road was—“ “No, no,” continued the householder. “See the phone box over there? That’s the boundary. Everything on this side is (adjacent southside neighbourhood), and everything on the far side is (a south-side neighbourhood).” 

In later years the fireman, a person known well to your columnist, would stress the supporting details of this little scene.

The house smouldering in the background, the four walls blackened and smoke wisping out of the windows. The rest of the family huddled nearby in shock, understandably, after their close escape. The lights of the ambulances and fire engines throwing an unholy colour across the proceedings.

“And here was this man, having lost everything, correcting me on where he lived. Because that was his number one priority in spite of it all.” Granted, it’s a story that loses something when you don’t use the exact locations, but I have my reasons for the careful editing.

The main reason is simple self-protection: if I were to give the names of those suburbs, I’d be inundated with a variety of corrections — first about the location of this Checkpoint Charlie/boundary marker (“It wasn’t a phone box, it was the second telegraph pole from the corner”), followed quickly by arguments from strong adherents to/opponents of the geographical points espoused by the burnt-out homeowner.

Those arguments might fixate on him being right or wrong because the ancient Brehon-determined divisions ran through that section of the city and were marked by human sacrifices (where the phone box fits into those arguments isn’t clear). 

Distinct and different neighbourhoods

One of the above possibilities would likely morph into something else entirely — a lengthy and increasingly dull correspondence about the precise parameters of not just the two suburbs in question, but every distinct and different neighbourhood in the city.

Increasingly dull to those with no poetry in their soul, that is. For your columnist working out the precise dimensions of every separate part of Cork is the kind of task that has an overwhelming appeal. It’s a source of never-ending fascination to me.

Where does Blackpool start and where does it end? What are the exact borders of Douglas, north, south, east and west? Is Bishopstown reducible to a known, discrete territory? Mayfield: a notional zone or grounded in reality?

Clearly I’m not alone in my obsessions. Take this, the result of a random flick through one of the foundation texts in this house - Val Dorgan’s biography of Christy Ring.

The biography of Christy Ring gave a flavour of the arguement.
The biography of Christy Ring gave a flavour of the arguement.

My quick glance threw up this classic: “Ring introduced me as a Blackpool man to an Irish-American, Johnny Fenton, in New York. Fenton, who knew my family, corrected Ring and said I came from Gerald Griffin Street.” 

As a starting point this is difficult to beat when it comes to teasing out boundaries and borders. Books and documentaries can be written and produced about debatable lands and exotic locales, but 

I am very much in the market for a lengthy thesis on the exact reasoning behind the exclusion of Gerald Griffin St from Blackpool.

Other cities enjoy that kind of self-examination as well. A few years ago I stumbled across an interesting dissection of localised identity in London, and how that was being affected by noise pollution, of all things.

The traditional definition of a cockney is anyone born within earshot of the bells at the church of St Mary-Le-Bow, but ambient noise means the sound from those bells carries across a far smaller area than a century or two ago. Hence there are now far fewer true cockneys than there were a hundred years ago, when London was quieter.

They’re even more interested in the subject a couple of hours up the road. Kudos here to a terrific piece by Claudia Dalby in the Dublin Inquirer recently which interrogated notions of neighbourhood in the capital, including this contribution from and about historian and guide Arran Henderson: ‘He lives in Portobello, he says. Well, maybe.

“An area that myself and my wife and I think most of our neighbours sort of blithely call Portobello,” says Henderson. “But actually, strictly speaking, it may not be Portobello at all.” ‘Strictly speaking, Portobello doesn’t actually stretch across the South Circular Road, he says. But the area has been creeping northwards.’ The Dublin Inquirer has gone one step further by providing its readers with maps and asked them to draw their neighbourhoods, but I’m not sure whether I can get fully behind this move, as it seems unnecessarily prescriptive.

(Fancy talk for someone who said Gerald Griffin Street isn’t in Blackpool - ed.) What’s attractive about defining a neighbourhood is simple - the neighbourhood you can define best is your own, and the reason that appeals to you is the most obvious one you can imagine: identity.

Tribal connections

Being recognised as a member of a tribe is significant for all sorts of reasons, not least for the element of differentiation it delivers in the wider family. You’re from Cork but you’re also from Blackrock. Or Togher. Or Farranree. Or Sunday’s Well.

When you meet your fellow Corkonian on foreign soil that extra geographical detail helps everyone to orient themselves immediately. And much as I’d like to be liberal and progressive about expanding or contracting my neighbourhood boundaries, I can’t quite bring myself to be  that liberal. If you know, you know.

The reason why was explained with perfect clarity by Denis Long almost 50 years ago.

In his description of one of Cork’s neighbourhoods Long wrote: “Cousins even to the tenth degree, there is a tight bond of friendship and loyalty among its people, and a compassion and a neighbourliness that is their distinctive badge.

“Though the stranger is welcomed and shown every hospitality, he should exercise care with criticism for, in all probability, he would be belittling a brother or a favourite son. So when any club was formed to promote any sporting activity, the basis of that club was a fanatical loyalty, such as would be felt in a tightly-knit family.” Anyone who reads these columns on a regular basis will no doubt guess which particular neighbourhood Long is describing, but it would fit many areas in Cork perfectly. Including those on either side of that southside phone box.

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