Saturday 6 August 2011

38 - 'Diggin' wi' the left fut?'

12th of July bonfire, Belfast
July 12, 2011

Well, I've been taming the jungle a bit recently.  I've been negotiating for the use of a wee bit of land – only 0.4 of an acre – across the road from the stone cottage we hope to be living in very soon.  Negotiations are lookin' pretty good at the moment, and I have the owners permission to do some clearing of the site, which is really overgrown with reeds about eight foot high, and nettles, brambles and ivy.  

I cleared about half of it a week ago and allowed the reeds to dry, then set it on fire.  This week I've built an even bigger bonfire, which I've been adding to ever since.  When it dries out enough I'll have another blaze.  I was working on the site the other night and thinking, "Here I am building a bonfire, and its just about bonfire season."

In Northern Ireland we have this Protestant tradition that dates back to 1690, when the (Protestant) Dutch Prince, William III, defeated King James II of Scotland, who also happened to be Catholic.  This battle took place on the 12th July 1690 and so every year we have what is known as the Twelfth of July celebration, or simply "The Twelfth".  I've seen it described online as Orangeman's Day, but nobody in this part of the world would know what ye wer' talkin about if you called it that.  On the night before - the "Eleventh Night" - each Protestant area will light a large bonfire, often with an effigy of the traitor, Lundy, on top, and sing, dance and drink beer around it.

It sounds like a great folk tradition, and some people try to sell it as a kind of tourist attraction to visitors.  But, unfortunately, it's a very one-sided, triumphalist tradition and, as it often ends up with riots and petrol bombs and policemen and firemen injured, it tends to backfire on the attraction front!  

There was a time many years ago when most Protestants would have put up their Union Flag for the month of July but, since the Troubles gave flags and marches such a bad name, most Protestants now – especially the middle-class – tend to give the whole thing a miss and get away off for their holidays before the event.

Anyway, as I drove home last night I passed about eight of these bonfires  – the last one being just across the road from my house.  It was blazing merrily and, with the reflection in people's windows, it looked like the whole place was on fire.  Thankfully, it all passed off peacefully in our area – though not in some other parts!

As I'd been working down at the site in Listooder, I also needed to dig a trench through some very soggy ground – so as to allow a drain to be released into the river and the ground to dry out.  I don't know if it was a Lurgan spade I was using, or not – but it was a long one.  You see, we've a saying here that someone "had a face on him like a Lurgan spade" - meaning a long face.  He wasn't happy!  Or sometimes we might say, "She'd a gub on her like a busted boot!"  

Anyway, the soggy ground became more and more like I was diggin' turf – which you do with a special long, one-sided spade called a 'slan'.  In the past the slan was made differently in different areas of the country.  West of the River Bann, which would be predominantly Roman Catholic, they used a left -handed – or footed! – slan.  East of the Bann, in counties Antrim and Down, which are mainly Protestant, they "dug wi' the right fut".  So, the expression developed that if someone "digs with the left foot", it meant they were Catholic, or Nationalist – and vice versa.  In our football mad age this has since got corrupted into "kicks wi' the left fut" - or "right fut" – but the original expression came from how we used to dig turf in the past.

So, there was I diggin' this trench, an' a' noticed I was tendin' to dig wi' my left foot – which seemed just a wee bit odd to me, as there I'd just been building my very own bonfire!  

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