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Tuesday 3 October 2023 Dublin: 14°C
Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland
The Irish For A Bloomsday Breakfast with extra Subh Milis on Father’s Day 2019
In some ways, it is serendipitous that these two events should happen on the same Sunday, writes Darach Ó Séaghdha.

This is the latest dispatch from our columnist Darach Ó Séaghdha, author of the award-winning and bestselling Motherfoclóir. Every Sunday morning, Darach will be regaling (re-Gaeling?) us with insights on what the Irish language says about Ireland, our society, our past and our present. Enjoy.

IN 2019, THE moveable feast of Father’s Day clashes (or coincides, depending on your point of view) with the literary carnival of Bloomsday – the word carnival appropriately coming from the Latin for “farewell to meat”, as hundreds of people are reminded why they don’t normally include kidneys in their grilled breakfast.

It’s hard to know exactly how many fathers will be neglected by their kids in favour of various Joycean escapades from Sandycove to Eccles Street, but I suspect that even a very low number would be far too high.

In some ways, it is serendipitous that these two events should happen on the same Sunday, given the long shadow cast by father characters in the Irish literary canon.

There are meanies like Bobby’s awful father in The Spinning Heart, the Bull McCabe in The Field and Benny in The Butcher Boy.

There are absentees like Gerry in Dancing at Lughnasa (he happens to be a Welshman, but still) and the Hiker Lacey in Year of the Hiker. And there’s full-blown filicide in Purgatory by WB Yeats and by Cuchulainn himself (who didn’t realise it was his son but wouldn’t have made that mistake if he’d been a better Dad).

You could probably write a handbook for new Dads based on Irish literature, and while many of the lessons would seem very obvious (pace yourself with the sauce, calm down a bit, it’s okay to show emotion at non-sporting occasions sometimes) they clearly bear repeating and underlining.

Although many people complain about the texts chosen for the Irish curriculum in school, one of the best-loved accounts of fatherhood in our literary heritage comes from the Gaeilge – the poem Subh Milis (sweet jam).

It’s a poem my wife and I make reference to at least once a week as our three-year-old redecorates the house in a manner that we’re clearly too basic to appreciate.

Subh Milis was written by Séamus Ó Néill and included in his 1949 collection Dánta do Pháistí (poems for children).

Ó Néill was an accomplished journalist, dramatist, writer and teacher who would have considered his poetry output as peripheral to his novels, which dealt with marital breakdown against a backdrop of civic breakdown – Ó Néill’s own parents separated when he was young and he was uprooted several times during his childhood in the 1910s and 1920s.

However, he could have done much worse than to be remembered for this lovely poem.

Bhí subh milis

Ar bhaschrann an dorais

There was sticky, sweet jam on the handle/knocker of the door.

There are other words in Irish for handles and knockers, but baschrann is a compound of bos (hand/palm) and crann (tree, but in this instance wood), implying the laying of a hand.

 Ach mhúch mé an corraí

Ionam d’éirigh,

But I quenched or suppressed the anger rising inside me. The verb múch used here would be the same one used to refer to the extinguishing of candles or lamps, such as at a child’s bedtime.

Corraí is a great word that doesn’t fit exactly into English; it means excitement and is linked to corr, which can mean odd, pointy or angular. The parent here feels a swell of annoyances that are unreasonable, just as the jam-handed child is not capable of reason.

Mar smaoinigh mé ar an lá

A bheas an baschrann glan,

Because I think of the day when the handle will be clean. Nice little rhyme of baschrann and glan here.

Agus an láimh bheag

Ar iarraidh.

 … and the little hand missing.

 “Ar iarraidh” can mean missing from its right place, but also gone to try or to seek something – like a young person who is off to make their own way in life.   

 Lá na nAithreacha faoi mhaise daoibh.

Darach’s new book Craic Baby is the follow-up to his acclaimed Motherfoclóir and is out now under the Head of Zeus imprint.

He runs @theirishfor Twitter account and the @motherfocloir podcast.

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