A weekend in Galway

It’s over fifty years ago since I was last in western Ireland and I didn’t make it to Galway then.

My original idea was to visit the nearby Gaeltacht, one of the areas where Irish is still widely spoken. But that has to be on a longer trip allowing scope for reflective meanders in sparsely populated countryside. Galway will suffice for now at the estuary of the swift flowing River Corrib on its short journey from Lough Corrib to Galway Bay. So swift flowing and tumultuous that (from the safety of my third floor hotel room) it looked as if it might breach its banks. But there are no flood warnings and the river channel seems well protected with alternative paths to capture the water masses. So maybe the locals are used to the river’s powerful surge (although I see that there is a central street called Flood St).

It’s supposed to be one of the most Irish cities in Ireland (it would require an essay to explain the meaning of that). It does have a different atmosphere to Dublin. Here, way beyond the pale, the footprint of the conquering English is different. There are no rows of Georgian terraces or evidence of rapid growth in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century before the famine.

According to architect Roddy Mannion’s “Galway, a sense of place”, rhe Normans built a castle here in the early thirteenth century and they were followed by what Mannion calls the Anglo-Normans, merchant Catholic families speaking first Norman French and then English, trading with the Gaelic speaking areas around the town but also with Spain, Portugal and elsewhere in the Mediterranean. Almost a city state where the grasp of metropolitan England was weak. According to Mannion, this all changed after Cromwell besieged and then occupied the city in 1652, Then the merchant families lost much of their power, including fresh waves of protestant settlers from mainland Britain. These merchant families were referred to as tribes but it is unclear whether this was this their own name or a derogatory name used by Cromwell.

Mannion presents this period as a golden age of Galway although the Irish speaking peasants in nearby villages would I suspect have a few less golden things to say about the “Old English”. Fortunately, Charlie Byrne’s bookshop is open this afternoon so that I can search for a book about the development of the local economy and try and work out how people made money (from other people…). It’s a great bookshop – according to the quote from the New York Times, “one of the City’s most unique experiences” (was the editor asleep when this slipped through?).

After Cromwell, the city doldrummed (to adapt a fine Middle English word) for long periods. While most of the buildings have been modestly replaced, the city centre has kept its winding mediaeval street structure, which was swept away in more economically dynamic seventeenth and eighteenth century towns by the revival of classical architecture.

You do see more Gaelic in evidence on shop signs here although this might partly be to titivate the tourists as well as pride in heritage. According to Roddy Mannion, Irish is almost extinct in the city itself and what remains is “tokenism and gestures such as the requirement to have new English-speaking housing estates and new roads in the city named in Irish only, which occupies the same mindset as compulsory Irish for exams and cupla focail (the short, obligatory and often rudimentary use of Irish on formal occasions) which does little to promote its suspect bilingual status”.

I greatly enjoyed trying to decipher the signs in Irish and have even bought a Christmas card in Gaelic with its message “Beannachtai na Nollag O Eirinn” (with an accent or two that I’m too lazy to reproduce). It took me a while to realise that “Noel” was hiding behind the Nollag (Christmas); “beannachtai” has a “benediction” feel to it or rather Blessings so the message is “Christmas Blessings from Ireland” or “Merry Christmas” in English. There is a plentiful supply of Irish language cards with Jesus in the manger or Maria, cards that you couldn’t send in secular Sweden without being suspected of unusual religious fervour (it’s safer there to stick to robins if gnomes are not available).

Not sure whom I will send this card to – maybe I’ll email my intended card recipients and explain that while the standard Christmas card service is free that I do operate a premium Irish language card service for fellow quirkophiles, which can be accessed by buying a raffle ticket…..

The leisure hours of a wordwright

Vaccinated, I decided to risk a visit to a charity shop at Boländerna, on my to visit list for a long time. I fantasise that the quality of donated books in this most academic of cities must be quite something but I was disappointed – I am evidently not the only book black hole here – they don’t easily escape my clutches. I did find a couple of treasures hidden among the froth: Barrons 501 Hebrew verbs and Lost Beauties of the English Language by Charles Mackay.

Realistically it will be a while before I can tackle Hebrew – I need to get to grips with Bengali, Ancient Greek, Latin, Old English, Welsh and Provencal first so there is a queue  and for health reasons only a limited quantity of languages are allowed to enter my brain at one time (Mephistopheles are you paying attention……?).  But I am not going to feel properly educated until I at least have an idea of how Hebrew works and in the meantime, it’s cheerful to catch a glimpse of my book of Hebrew verbs alongside my Yiddish dictionary (as competitors at least in Israel, they probably regard it as philistine that I’ve bundled them together like this).

I was quite excited about the Charles Mackay book which is a long list of fine archaic words. It’s a strange volume though, obviously a reproduction of a book from long ago but it contained no details of either author or the book’s history apart from the publishers name Bibliophile Books and that Mackay had an LL.D.

My interest quickened when I saw that Amazon knew about the book and wanted 53 US dollars for it, considerably more than the 25 kronor I parted with for my copy. Looking up Charles Mackay on the net revealed his dates as 1814 to 1889 and the original date of publication of my book as 1874. However, his list of works published included his authorship of the three volume Memoirs of Extremely Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds  as well as a number of works on disparate topics.

His collection of archaic words in “Lost Beauties” was fine but the etymological details are often sparse.

I thought he was possibly an intellectual shipwreck (this is really a case of the pot calling the kettle black,,,,). I decided to give him the benefit of doubt and make a list of some of his words that obviously had Anglo-Saxon/Scandinavian origins and then check to see whether I could find these words in my big Webster. And lo and behold most of them were there appropriately clad in etymological detail.

I have been fascinated by words of Scandinavian origin which are English dialect words and have perhaps always been local or else dropped out of the national tongue at some point. I have fantasies about trying to make a long list of dialectical equivalents of Swedish words (for example, “garth” in Northern English (gård) and “grice” in Shetland dialect (gris) and see whether I could construct communications understandable on both sides of the North Sea.. I have dictionaries of the Orkney, Shetland and Yorkshire dialects which should be useful for this project but I think it has to wait until I isolate for a year or so in the next pandemic

I now also have Charles Mackay’s assistance in this project. Here are a few examples of my additions (perhaps not so enlightening for those that don’t understand Swedish):

brant (steep)

fleck (spot, Mackay)

mirk (dark)

moldwarp (mole)

neve (fist)

queme, quem (pleasant)

skelly (squinting)

skink (pour out) (waiter, Mackay)

spae-wife (female fortune teller)

speer (follow a track)

sweer (hard, difficult) (Mackay) reluctant (Webster)

swike (deceive, Mackay)

thig (beg)

thigster  (beggar, Mackay)

tholeable (endurable)

thorp (village)

thrall (slave)

toom (emptied)

toten (peep, Mackay)

wad (wager or bet)

wale (choice)

wanhap (mischance)

There were other words in Mackay which I liked but where I didn’t see an obvious Scandinavian connection:

noonscape (escape from work at noon)

snool (to dispirit by constant chiding)

spoffle (to make oneself very busy over a matter of little consequence)

tanglesome (quarrelsome)

thoughty (pensive)

ugsome (ugly)


wanhope (the waning and disappearance of hope)

These words I shall give an airing to from time to time and try to rescue them from Wordhalla.

I probably won’t go as far as painting them on the side of commuter trains but I’ll do whatever I can that is compatible with my dignity as a double blipping 70 + silver top.

The City of London. The History by David Kynaston

I’ve just finished David Kynaston’s fluently written “City of London. The History”.  It was an exciting read for me dealing with a period I know well but from the perspective of the City of London, It’s based on broad reading; at times I thought the big picture got buried under individuals and details of events. For natural reasons (the focus on the City); the industrial sector tended to be mentioned en passant. To really understand the history and development of British capitalism, I would need to read a book that integrated the industrial and the financial sectors at a higher level of analysis. But there was still a great deal to think about on the topics that interest me.

One such topic is how the financial sector represented by the Stock Exchange articulated and promoted its interests in relation to the UK state (among other things, how coherent these interests were). The pattern that emerges from Kynaston’s book is that the City of London was more effective/cohesive when dealing with relatively short-term threats such as imposition of taxes considered unfavourable and externally imposed tighter regulation but very much weaker at developing long-term strategy for the City/financial sector as a whole. And while there was widespread support for a strategic goal such as the eventual return to the gold standard some time after the First World War, this was based on incorrect assumptions about the ability of the UK economy to cope and unrealistic hopes about how this would restore the pre-First World War predominance of sterling (and thereby the City). The City did revive spectacularly some time after the Second World War but on a different basis to its previous standing. Important for the revival was the Eurodollar market based, among other things, on avoiding the tighter regulation of Wall St and the desire to keep dollars outside the US. A shaky long-term basis as easing of regulations on Wall St could weaken the City of London’s advantages.

In its internal organisation, the City was conservative until the Big Bang under Margaret Thatcher’s government enabled stockbroking and jobbing to take place in the same organisation and restrictions on the international movement of capital were largely removed. Again, while the Big Bang worked more or less as planned at the level of organisational detail, the UK finance sector did not have a strategic vision of its weaknesses or attempt to assess the realism of possible remedies. US capital moved in in earnest and took over almost all of the old merchant banks that still existed (less, for example, Barings!) with a few owned by major European banks. The small UK firms active on the Stock Exchange were no match for the deep pools of capital available to the US banks and finance companies (Here I’m straying beyond Kynaston’s book but his book did confirm much of the picture I have from other reading)..

Unlike the situation in Germany, the British joint stock (high street) banks have been much less involved in financing industry; they had the size (capital) but not the expertise and their attempt to move into the Stock Market was largely unsuccessful. The City of London still exists but, while a number of former UK owners of merchant banks became very rich and many Brits work there, a substantial proportion of the key decisions are made in board rooms in the US.

Kynaston’s book made me reflect on the history of capitalism in the UK. Even though the landowners were supplanted in the nineteenth century by the rising industrial bourgeoisie, aristocratic values lived on in the pre-Second World War Stock Exchange with its relaxed working hours, club-like atmosphere and substantial restriction to the upper echelons of society with its sense of intrinsic worth unrelated to its actual track record. It worked as long as the Stock Exchange was able to operate in a protected environment but crumbled once those conditions no longer applied.

There was much else of interest – the concealment of statistics prior to 1964 so that the situation of the UK economy was much direr than the incoming Wilson Labour government had been led to believe (and reflections about the lack of realism of the social-democratic project even in its highly diluted form). And not just of interest but also of horror at some of the descriptions of casual and not so casual anti-semitism mixed with aristocratic snobbery that flourished in the Stock Exchange environment.

Kynaston’s book is worthy of a second read, a plod read rather than a Wagnerian gallop. I shall try to take notes, which I’m not good at despite having lurked around books for an awful long time. But I shall struggle – the proverb that “old dogs can’t learn new tricks” is ageist (chronochauvinist).

Jerome’s biography and missed opportunities to make heresy work for me

It was a pleasant surprise that Uppsala university library, Carolina Rediviva got hold of “Jerome His Life, Writings and Controversies” by J.N.D. Kelly, London (1975) so quickly so that I could read it while my mind was on the patron saint of translators

I have a much better grasp of Jerome’s life now. The location of his birthplace (Stridon on the border of the then Dalmatia and Pannonia) has not been determined exactly but was then in the Roman sphere of influence in perhaps what is now Bosnia. His education took place in Rome and he was later in Antioch and Constantinople and finally in Bethlehem for many years.

I knew before that he had a reputation for being cantankerous but had a very vague notion of what he was cantankerous about. He certainly grasped the nettle when he undertook to produce a translation of the Old Testament, going back to the Hebrew source to produce a new or at least extensively revised Latin translation, the Vulgate as he thought that there were many problems and distortions with the existing Latin translation from the Greek.

His project met resistance as many wished to defend the long-used traditional text originating from the Septuagint produced by 72 translators who were supposed to have produced identical versions (to the best of my knowledge and belief, this experiment has not been successfully replicated).

This was a very tumultuous period for the Christian church after Constantine had made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. From having been an oppressed clandestine group with many local variations, it was now able to set up institutions and to define what was regarded as orthodox and what was heretical.

Jerome was deeply involved in this process and many of his writings address different positions in the Christian church. His approach was often vituperative, frenetically ad hominem, even against people whom he had long been friends with such as Rufinus; he made many enemies. He was a very profilic writer and Kelly has great admiration for him but points out that Jerome often made mistakes under pressure of time and that considerable portions of his commentaries were recycled from other thinkers (for example, Origen) without the source being stated.

Christianity strikes me as resting on fragile foundations with the Virgin Birth, the resurrection and the divinity of Jesus creating particular problems, giving rise to endless disputes when trying to produce a coherent and credible narrative.  But the period after Constantine was even stranger with feuds developing on, for example, whether the Devil could be rehabilitated and whether the soul had always existed independently of the body. Not to mention the development of ideas among the Gnostics, who, as I understand it, rejected the material world as being the product not of a creator God but of an inferior demiurge.

I have understood that Jerome was cantankerous but that that did not just concern translation but broader issues of Christianity. It is fascinating that so much of his writing has been preserved so that we can read 1,700 years later about his attitude to translation, literal translation v paraphrase and the additional problems posed by the source text being regarded as revelation (my customers don’t generally go quite this far).

I understand now why Jerome was so popular in the period 1400-1500. He was not only a superb Latin stylist (according to Kelly, my credentials as a judge of Latin style are flaky) but he also had a grasp of the Latin classics, Virgil, Cicero, etc. This struck a chord with renaissance thinkers eager to relate to the classical world but still operating in a Christian environment where the influence of the church was great.

These Renaissance thinkers created their own Jerome myth – the historically incorrect cardinal’s clothing but also the very many paintings of Jerome as a hermit in the desert. In fact, his period of isolation in the Syrian desert was fairly short and truncated by ill health. And later, although he lived in relative poverty in Palestine, he was hardly cut off from the rest of humanity, being accompanied by the wealthy Roman convert Paula and others. The pictures of Jerome in his study are those that most accurately reflect his life, as his works of translation and commentary on the Bible were perhaps the most typical activities of his life (I also much prefer these pictures to the others).

The book was also interesting for the connections between Greek philosophy, Neo-platonism and Christianity. It increases my desire to re-read some basic text about the history of philosophy.

On a personal level, I wish that I had had some of this knowledge when my parents drove me away unwillingly to confirmation classes with the local priest (I realised that I couldn’t incorporate Christianity into my view of life at a relatively early age). What a nuisance I could have made of myself with discussions about the nature of the Trinity, the filioque controversy and all the rest of it. I could have surfed out of confirmation classes on a wave of heresy. Instead, I sat through these sessions in mute resistance and eventually let myself be trundled away to the local church for the bishop to lay his hands upon my head. In response to the bishop’s words that we would remember the day for the rest of our lives, I made great efforts to forget the day, so great that I still remember which month it was.

To do my parents justice, they at least admitted later that they thought it had been a mistake.