Blarney

The Irish are stereotypically charming and garrulous, and we certainly met a number of people who fit that description. Of course, what they tell you is not necessarily true, but who cares?! As my fellow tour member Stephanie Marchant said, it’s a storytelling culture, just enjoy it.

• At the St. Columb’s Cathedral cemetery in Londonderry, our guide told us that poor people would be interred beneath the ground, but rich people got put into above-ground tombs. This provided a grander memorial, and allowed for an escape if someone was ever buried prematurely. The trouble is that if you really were dead, your corpse would start to rot, and passersby could smell it, and that’s where we get the expression “stinking rich.” (Actual reason: it’s merely an intensifier, like “drop-dead gorgeous.”)

• One of our tour members asked our guide at Dublin Castle what “KG” meant as a pair of postnominal letters. (A number of portraits of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century grandees were of people designated “KG”). Without missing a beat, she replied that it stood for “King’s General.” (It actually stands for “Knight of the Garter.”)

• She also said that in the nineteenth century, women’s makeup had a wax foundation, and if a woman thus made-up sat too close to a fire, her makeup might melt off, so a kind soul invented a screen to put in front of the fire to mitigate the intensity of the heat and to keep women’s makeup on, and that’s where we get the expression “to save face.” (Actual reason: “‘Lose face’ began life in English as a translation of the Chinese phrase ‘tiu lien’. That phrase may also be expressed in English as ‘to suffer public disgrace’, that is, to be unable to show one’s face in public.”)

• The Vikings introduced metal coinage to Ireland, which the Irish thought was a good idea. But they didn’t have any pockets to keep it in, so they stuck the coins with beeswax onto their armpit hair. (I highly doubt this ever happened.)

• When Queen Victoria died, the residents of Dublin were ordered to paint their doors black as a sign of mourning. But not everyone admired Queen Victoria, so they painted their doors different bright colors as a protest (many terraced houses did indeed have different colored doors). As a bonus, you can easily recognize which door is yours, on a mile-long terrace of houses, if you’re coming home in the dark after an evening of drinking in the pub. (Query: what were doors painted before the authorities allegedly ordered them painted black? I can see people wanting to distinguish their houses with their own color of door, but I cannot imagine any level of government ordering people to paint their doors a certain color, even in 1901.)

• Regimental colors on display in churches are often falling apart. They are deliberately allowed to rot like this, because “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” UPDATE: The First Floor Tarpley military correspondent writes: “I think that may be true as a practice, although the real reason would likely be to do with the fact that the colours were consecrated and also the fact that no money was devoted to their upkeep once laid up. I think many churches are now preserving originals and displaying replicas in their place.”

• Our driver through Killarney National Park claimed that the original horse racing steeplechase took place between St. Mary’s Church (the “steeple” in question) in the town of Killarney and a site in what is now the park, and back again. (According to Wikipedia, the first such race was indeed in Ireland, but it was between Buttevant and Doneraile in County Cork.)

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