Language may fail us but we can all understand a big stick

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Our Celtic forebears fixed the first day of spring as 2 February. I was discussing this with Caomhin MacGiolla Leith, who lectures in medieval Irish at University College, Dublin, while brushing snow off myself. 'Well,' said Caomhin, 'we couldn't get everything right.'

We were around the corner from Leinster House, where our parliamentarians are ensconsed. Taking their inspiration from President Robinson (who makes them very nervous) they have set up a language laboratory on the premises to learn Irish. Notionally the first official language of the country, it is spoken usefully by about 5 per cent of the population.

One comes across it in little pockets in the south and west but rarely, if at all, in Leinster House, where what is known as the Copla Focail suffices. This is the ritual intrusion of a few snatches of the ancient, guttural, mellifluous language into speech. All present then congratulate themselves on having understood the proceedings, even if they have not.

Some knowledge of the language can come in useful. Most of mine evaporated on board an emigrant ship in 1956, but bits of it come floating back to me. I understood perfectly well when once I overheard an elderly farmer in Co Clare tell his neighbours what precisely he wanted done to me if I laid another finger on his red- headed daughter. Perhaps I could sneak into the Dail for a refresher course myself.

THE FELLOW who assaulted me a couple of weeks ago may have been telling the truth when he said he only did it out of random drunken rage, no offence intended, and without any thought of larceny. It was on this occasion that my pocket was dipped by three children. I bumped into one of them again this week, in about the same place. This thug was about 12, carrying a plastic bucket for the purpose of soliciting alms and a wooden stave with which to reinforce his appeals.

'We got you for 100 quid last time,' snarled the little fiend, laying into me with the stave. 'Next time, we'll get you for good.' The cops and I caught up with him outside Doheny and Nesbitt, where he was exercising his charms on emerging customers. Five minutes later he was snivelling for his mother and his sister, apparently also working the neighbourhood.

It is known as the Bermuda Triangle, bounded by Nesbitts, the Shelbourne Hotel, and the Unicorn restaurant, where politicians and publicists gather for luncheon on Saturdays. It would be a great hardship to have to give up my promenades between these places. Perhaps the answer is to carry a large stick. But they would probably try to steal it.

AT THE Unicorn, we had been discussing the highly serious question of the powers reserved to the President under the constitution. Basically, there is none, though the head of state, like the British head of state, might theoretically decline a prime minister's request for a dissolution of the legislature. Otherwise, she holds tea parties at the presidential palace and opens fetes. The remuneration is not spectacular. For these reasons, the presidency usually attracts deadbeats and has-beens. But now we have Mary Robinson, a constitutional lawyer, who wants to expand the power and influence of her office.

The doctrine of the separation of powers, which is enshrined in democratic constitutions, recognises that power, even advisory power, must be taken from one agency of government in order for it to be given to another. I point out that as all effective legislative and executive power in this country resides in Dail Eireann, it can only be taken from there if it is to be granted to the President. As several persons present are members of that institution, the point may eventually sink in. It is pleasant to live in a country where it is possible, merely by walking into a restaurant, to advise those who rule over us that these questions were finally settled long ago, at Philadelphia, in 1783.

I HAVE been enjoying a spate of scabrous conversations with women lately. My daughter came over from London and brought a female friend to dinner. As there were no tedious males present to bore them with sports or constitutions (I do not count), they were able to concentrate on more interesting stuff, mostly the general worthlessness of men.

The following evening I had dinner with three loopers who told me, first, what four animals a woman needs ('Mink on the back, Jaguar in the garage, tiger in bed, and a jackass to pay for it all') and, second, the advice best whispered to a widow at her husband's funeral in order to get her to produce genuine tears ('He isn't dead at all; they made a mistake'). Why do I like women so much?

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