'A Cavanman walks into a bar...'
This week's Cavanman's Diary
The late Niall Toibin, who first perpetrated the great, prevailing injustice against Cavan people that is the Cavanman joke, has a lot to answer for. The Cork actor and comedian launched the stereotype and it stuck. Toibin’s repertoire quickly entered the national canon; you probably know them all by now, the Cavanman eating his dinner from a drawer, the one about how copper wire was invented (two Cavanmen fighting over a penny)…
“I saw a Cavan man stripping wallpaper one day,” Toibin once said. “I see you’re decorating, says I. No, says he, we’re moving!”
In my experience, though, nobody enjoys Cavanman jokes more than Cavanmen (and women). And it’s not confined to Cavan, of course. The English often depict their Scottish brethren as being stingy and the Belgians have the same jokes about the supposedly tight-fisted Dutch (“How do all Dutch recipes begin? Borrow six eggs, 200g of flour, half a litre of milk…”).
Cavan people are hilarious but there is a wide gulf between the ‘stage Cavanman’ depicted by comedians like Dave McSavage – broaden the vowels, throw in a reference to tractors or cow dung and you’re halfway there – and the genuine Cavan countryman as captured by the likes of Michael Harding (above) and Shane Connaughton.
I take objection to the former not because it pokes fun at my home place but because it’s just not well-observed; it’s blunt and lazy, it picks the low-hanging fruit when the bounty is much riper if only they’d look a little closer.
The truth is, a smart observer would know that the humour is in the everyday in Cavan, in the words we use and how we use them. And, contrary to the depiction, it’s very subtle. Cavan folk are the masters of the droll one-liner.
Nowhere is this more apparent than at a football match, where there is free rein to throw out sardonic commentary and the real masters can be seen at work, their timing and delivery impeccable. And the best lines are delivered like a firework, the drier the better to ensure maximum take-off.
I was at a game in Kilnaleck a couple of years ago. It was full of mistakes and as the play became more error-ridden, the crowd’s groans became louder.
After one particularly farcical passage of play, during which two players tried and failed to pick the ball up on their toe and the third man ended up dropping it over the line, a player got frustrated and shoved his opponent.
Yer man pushed back and suddenly, the scene was charged. The crowd, indifferent only to give out before, were now engaged in the melee which seemed certain to follow.
Just as the flashpoint was about to ignite, though – fists were cocked back, curses emitted, men were ready to “creel other” - it simmered out in an instant.
At which point, some ‘keo-boy’ (a great border word) in the stand could take it no more. “Ah for Jaysus’ sake,” he cried, “yiz are no good at that either.”
At a match under floodlights – prime conditions, the darkness adding a layer of anonymity which seems to prime these verbal hand grenades for detonation, in Mullahoran recently, a row developed and it appeared as if the subs from one team were about to invade the pitch and get involved.
“Have you a barrier, Packie?” shouted one wit from the crowd in the direction of the linesman.
“Ah, it’s an electric fence he’d want,” replied another.
A few pithy words and suddenly the riled-up footballers were reduced to a braying herd of cattle, ready to stampede. Satire in its most basic and powerful and riotously funny form.
Sometimes, I think it is possible that Cavan people – and not just Cavan but Monaghan and Fermanagh, too - fluent in the local dialect could hold an entire conversation, which would be impenetrable to the outsider. Someone should set up this social experiment, provided the conditions are right: two gasuns talking of a hasky morning, not foundered but not ojus warm either. If it was done right, it could be a livin’ dread, or even a fret…
Speaking of gasuns, I remember a scene in the study hall at St Pat’s, too.
It’s after lunch, a couple of hundred teenage lads are packed in behind old-style, deep wooden desks, shirts stuck to our backs from an hour’s soccer.
A teacher sits on a raised level, sort of like the way a prison warden with a rifle across his knees occupies a watchtower in the movies.
After a while, all becomes calm. Some are surreptitiously munching on the last of the sandwiches, some are talking, a few are trying to get their homework done. All the while, though, the antennae is twitching; we’re ready to pounce at the slightest hint of diversion.
And then it arrives. Someone, a student who had obviously been in a fight, or fell, or just decided to roll about on the ground for some reason, walks in late, shirt filthy, knees of the trousers destroyed with muck.
“Ah here,” comes a voice, in sort of a stage whisper, low enough not to be a shout but loud enough to make sure everyone in the vicinity could hear it. “Would ya look at yon clatty hooer…”
The emphasis was on the active verb – look – and “hooer" was, naturally, drawn out to two syllables.
I thought of all this a few days ago when I was “beyant” at the back of the house and someone sent me a link to a very funny article by Harding about the Hiberno-English spoken round these parts.
In it, he described a conversation he witnessed between two elderly men in a restaurant in a west Cavan village. It went like this (all text Harding’s):
“Deal a man putting in the cabbages now,” one fellow declared.
“Aye. There y’are. That’s it. What?”
(Meaning: That’s true. You have spoken well. Such is the nature of reality. Is there anything else we can say?)
Then the conversation turned towards the weather.
“The snipe would need wellingtons.”
And then in a subtle gem of anthropological music, the initial motif was repeated.
“Deal a man putting in the cabbages now.”
Linking the weather and the cultivation of cabbages implied profound concern about climate change. And so on it went until the waitress arrived.
“Gimmie the chicken.”
“Do you want the stuffing?”
“Gravy on the carrots?”
“And garlic pototoes?”
He wanted everything that was going.
“Give me a good lock,” he shouted.
It was great stuff and so accurate. In an interview with this newspaper some years ago, Tom MacIntyre lamented: “The magnificently rich mixture of English and Irish that was available in my childhood - that’s gone."
I don’t think it’s gone, myself – but it does seem to be going. As the grip of globalisation becomes tighter, the lingo of rural Ireland seems to be taking flight.
Catch it while you can. Ya hooer ya.