The left hand of the dolmen

Donegal Democrat

So there we are in naíonán bheaga, small chubby hands holding pencils that feel unfamiliar, learning to make letters. Along comes the teacher, takes the pencil out of my left hand, places it in my right. I was five, what did I know? I went along with it. I didn’t want to make a big deal of it.

My father, in an earlier age, got the head battered off him for writing with the Devil’s Hand, I was just corrected on it. It wasn’t a big deal. A few years later, my brother, who really was left-handed, couldn’t master a pen in his right at all and was left to his own devices to write with his left.

Like I said, it wasn’t a big deal. To this day I’m reasonably ambidextrous, I do some things better with my left side – kicking, throwing a stone, digging- and others with my right – playing pool, dialling a phone number, writing.

Thing is, I was taught a mnemonic around the same time I was learning which hand I ‘should’ write with. “You write with your right, you left is left over.” But since, unlike the majority, I wasn’t quite sure which hand to write with, the mnemonic never quite stuck.

It’s not quite that I can’t tell my left from my right, its that I have to stop and think for a second about it. I suspect most people I know grew up with simply get a quick image before their eyes of the pen in their hand, and they know their left from their right. I have to take a roundabout route.

Every morning, as I left for school, I knew I was supposed to walk on the right hand side of the road. Now I didn’t know which side of the road was the right side, but I sure as heck knew which side I was supposed to walk on.

Working back from that then, I can see myself standing on the side of the road, looking east past the barracks, the south to my right, the north to my left, the west behind me. That mental image secures me in the world, and I know the south is to my right, I can tell left from right.

In Irish of course, this meant I had no problem. If I face east with the south to my right and the west behind me, then the ‘taobh dheas’ can mean the ‘right side’ or the ‘south side’. Just as handily, ‘taobh thiar de’ is ‘to the west’ or ‘at the back’.

For years, I never really thought about this, and just assumed it was a coincidence that helped me remember, just like ‘right’ and ‘write’ were similar sounding in English. Then one fine Summer’s day, I was back from America on holidays in my home, and showing an American guest around the various standing stones and dolmens in Glencolmcille.

The guidebook mentioned that every dolmen in Ireland opens to the east, facing the rising sun. Thinking about it, I realised it made sense. To a modern man, the north is the ‘top’ of the world, because that’s how we draw our maps, but to the ancients, the front of the world was in the east, where the sun came from.

It’s a cliché I know, but I got a chill down my spine realising that old world-view wasn’t just fossilized in the standing stones pointing east, it was still alive in the Irish language.

Next week, I have to take a driving test. The American license I brought back with me when I moved back home expires soon, and it isn’t recognised by the Government here. I still have troubles with directions in English, and I got to thinking about left and right again because I’ve been taking a few lessons getting ready for the test.

Anyway, I don’t want to get all deep and mystic hippy about it or anything, but every now and then I have to doublethink myself when I see a road sign or someone gives me directions, and I remember those old boys in Glen burying their dead under 40 ton gravestones facing the front of the world.