New Names for Old

Donegal Democrat

‘Translations’, the Brian Friel play touring the Gaeltachts of Donegal and Scotland at the moment, tells the story of one culture disappearing as another imposes its names on the places a people live in.

Names that mean something, names that tell something of the history of a place, are replaced by meaningless strings of syllables, foreshadowing the day when the language of the people of Ballybeg, An Baile Beag, is itself only a series of gobbledygook sounds.

The play is set in pre-Famine Ireland, but renaming is an ongoing trend.

Last week, town and county councils throughout the land elected a Cathaoirleach for the coming year. Next year, they’ll do the same thing, and that’ll be the end of that.

The Local Government Act passed last year sets out a new scheme for local government in this country. From 2004, councils will be elected for fixed five-year terms, and the Cathaoirleach will be directly elected.

So what has that got to do with ‘Translations’? Well in some areas people will elect a Cathaoirleach for the councils, but in other places, the people will elect a Mayor.

That’s right, a Mayor. In two years time, you might be voting for the Mayor of Donegal. Seems someone was drafting the Local Government Act and decided Cathaoirleach wasn’t a catchy enough title, so they added a provision allowing the council to be chaired by a Mayor.

Several counties from Kildare to Kerry already have County Mayors. As far as I know Donegal County Council still has a Cathaoirleach, but Letterkenny town council has a Mayor.

I remember when Letterkenny decided to have a Mayor instead of Cathaoirleach. The change would make more sense to American investors, said one of the councillors speaking in support of the motion. The Yanks hadn’t a clue what a Cathaoirleach was. Maybe he had a point, but I doubt they know what a Taoiseach is either, and I don’t hear many calls to rename that office.

There’s something weirdly unhistorical about all this. Fair enough if towns want to have Mayors. That’s a traditional title in towns, with cities having Lord Mayors. But counties never had Mayors.

Before the County Councils were set up just over 100 years ago, a group called the Grand Jury ran each county. The chairman of the Grand Jury was the High Sheriff. And before that, before Ireland was shired by the English, the counties were, roughly speaking, the areas run by the local chieftains.

The civil servants who drafted the Local Government Act 2001 had a poor sense of history. If they agreed with the town councillor who thought Cathaoirleach was too obscure a title, then they could simply have translated it as Chairman. If they wanted a title that meant something, they could have used High Sheriff. If they were familiar with Irish history in the middle ages, they could have come up with Rí Tuatha, roughly the ‘King of the County’. Instead, we have county mayors.

What next, getting rid of Taoiseach and calling Bertie Ahern Prime Minister? Or even (Heaven forbid) the Éire Premier?

Don’t believe what you read…

Have you heard the one about the Cork pair arrested by the FBI for speaking Irish?

The story, picked up on the Irish Independent website last week, concerns a brother and sister from Cobh at a fireworks display in Springfield Illinois.

According to the Indo, Michael and Sharon O’Toole, “a Gaelic-speaking brother and sister were detained by anti-terrorist police for apparently speaking in ‘code’.”

“We were just commenting on the fireworks to each other when these guys in suits showed us their badges and swept us off. It was like something from a movie,” said Michael to reporters.

FBI anti-terrorist agents became suspicious of the pair when they noticed them alternately speaking in fluent English and a “code” language not recognised to be of Eastern or European origin. Agents had been given special training in linguistics in the weeks running up to the holiday.

The pair were released without charge, after Irish consulate officials confirmed their identities.

Relax, the story is a prank, started by a group of bored geeks on a website called P45rant.com. The Irish Independent later pulled the story amid red faces, but they needn’t feel too bad. Several American newspapers also fell for the gag.

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