John Arnold: Missing mushrooms, stolen blackberries and lost words...

Where have all the mushrooms gone? John Arnold reflects on this mystery, the richness of the Irish language and how so much of it has too been lost
John Arnold: Missing mushrooms, stolen blackberries and lost words...

A MYSTERY: Where have all the wild mushrooms gone? John Arnold hasn’t seen any this year on his farm. Picture: Stock

WE didn’t see one single mushroom this year and I can’t understand it.

Normally, towards the end of August and right into September, our Boiler House field would be, not as the song says ‘white with daisies’ but white with mushrooms.

Conditions were just perfect this year at the end of last month. The soil wasn’t too cold and we had grand soft, misty mornings with no hint of frost.

It’s not just the Boiler House field in front of the haggard that would produce mushrooms. No, we often got them in the orchard and Double Tubular Gate fields as well.

Years back, people said to me that ‘twas only in ‘old’ fields you’d get them — in other words fields that hadn’t been ploughed with ages. It was also believed that fields where nitrogen was spread would be bereft of the tasty morsels. Well, both of those agricultural myths were debunked a long time ago.

It can’t be anything to do with the Covid virus but it’s a fungal mystery to me. Not just me ’cause a few others I’ve spoken to have experienced the same ‘famine’.

I do love mushrooms and I’d ate them morning, noon and night, but the ordinary wild ‘field’ ones are undoubtedly the most flavoursome. The Irish word for a mushroom is lovely sounding, an beacán.

People will say ‘tis little is bothering you if the absence of mushrooms is your biggest problem, and God knows that’s true. Looking back now since the month of March, things have been so strange. Living and working on a farm has sheltered us a little because we’re used to being home alone, but it’s still been very unusual.

Clare winning captain Anthony Daly described the atmosphere at the Clare County Hurling Final last Sunday as ‘eerie’. In truth the summer has been that way all told. The only saving grace we had was the glorious weather, especially in the early months of covid.

Very few miles (I hate them kilometre things!) were clocked up on the car with an absence of hurling and football games to attend. On the plus side, I got savage work done on my ‘Filing’ project. It was in May I tackled close on one hundred boxes of ‘stuff’ accumulated over half a century. I’m not yet finished — its conclusion is pencilled in for long November evenings and nights.

I’d say I have close on 60% of the match programmes, newspapers, letters, pamphlets, maps, cuttings, books, photographs, tapes, etc, now catalogued and Indexed. It wasn’t an easy task but the joys of coming across things I never knew I had and finding items I was certain I had lost was just mighty.

Another ‘plus’ of the quiet summer and early autumn was the chance I had to make inroads into books I’d bought and got in recent years and that remained unread. Normally dark winter evenings would be my only book-reading time but then this year was different. “Words We Don’t Use (much anymore)” was written by the late Diarmaid Ó Muirithe, who was mad about words, especially those grand Irish words that have been lost down the corridors of time. I started reading that book years ago but never got to finish it til now.

Then earlier this year Manchán Magan brought out a weird and wonderful publication, ‘Thirty-Two Words for Field” ! I heard him interviewed on the wireless one day concerning his book. Yes he has listed 32 different Irish words for the English word ‘field’. Near us is a very famous field, the ‘Old’ Bartlemy Horse Fair Field where the Fair was held in the 1700’s and maybe into the early 1800’s. The family that own the farm and the field, and the neighbours too, always called it ‘ the fohure’, well that’s the way it’s pronounced. Sure enough it’s a big field and faiche is indeed one of the myriad words for field, generally a flat one. So a big field would be faiche mhór and one could easily understand how that phrase could be ‘Englishified’ over the centuries into Fohure.

Getting back to the mushrooms and the Irish for them, beacán, the dictionary also gives another possible translation musiruin, well isn’t that a woeful word altogether? I can kinda half understand that when Irish was widely spoken across the country we had neither cars nor televisions so there’s some excuse for an carr agus an Telefís.

We have paircaleasa — the field of the lios and the Civil Parish around here is Gortroe - the Red Field. Tuar is the name given to a field for the cattle at night so Tooreen, Monatooreen, Toreendohenybeg all signify a place where in ancient times the cattle could be kept- probably near the dwelling abode for both safety and shelter. Reading the two books brought home to me the saibhreas and richness of the Irish language and the pity that so much of it has been lost.

My auntie Jo or Johannah was born in 1911. As a young girl she often spent holidays at her mother’s birthplace in Ballard in the neighbouring parish of Castlelyons. Decades later she recalled that when any ‘sensitive’ or ‘unsuitable’ subject was being discussed - not suitable for the delicate ears of youngsters, the ‘elders’ always spoke in hushed Irish. Some of the speakers could have been born in the 1840’s or 50’s when Irish was the native tongue in the area.

The compiler of Dineen’s Dictionary, Jesuit priest, an t-Athair Pàdraig O Duinín was always very careful and even circuitous in defining Gaelic words of a moralistic or sexual nature. According to Magan his definition of the word meaning a woman of ‘ill-repute’ drùth, carried a line from an Ancient Legal tract; ‘a foolish girl…though not wholly incapable of being useful’! . That reminds me of a saying our teacher Miss Una Hennessy NT had ‘There’s some good in the worst of us and some bad in the best of us’!

Bishop John O Brien who lived in this parish for years in the townland of Ballinterry produced in 1768 what is regarded as the first ever Irish/English Dictionary. O Brien defined drùth as ‘a harlot or unchaste person’. The coming physical together of male and female was called feis (does festival come from this word?). The good Bishop, of Rockmills near Kildorrery, defined feis as ‘carnal communication’ or ‘an entertainment’!

The legacy of the Irish language is still with us in a major way - shanty town, a beart of hay, an oinseach of a woman, a lùdramain of a person, a bachaill of sticks or kindling. We still call silly auld talk ràmeis and a silly person a gligín.

Brian Friel’s masterpiece ‘Translations’ contains many different themes but the main one is the way British Govt employees ‘butchered’ the old Gaelic townland names and Anglicised them. In the process much of the true, ancient meanings were lost forever. Here in our area Baile na Gall Ardaigh became Hightown and Curraghphilibode still remains a mystery. A simple translation could be Currach Philibod or Philpott’s Bog - but there never was Philpott family recorded in this area!

Tom Scanlan, farmer, pilot, inventor and mystic always maintained it should be Currach Filé Boand - the Flat or Marshy Place of the Cow Godess Boand, truly there’s magic and a power of history in our old placenames.

Years ago Jim Willis of Gleanna an Phúca in Dungourney told me the Pooka or evil Fairy goes around at his time of year and spoils all the remaining blackberries rendering them unfit for human consumption. I picked a share of blackberries yesterday - maybe I just got their before the Pooka! Wouldn’t it be grand altogether now if I got even one feed of little button beacáns!

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