Tales of the City: It's a long way to Tiobraid Arann

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In The Old Devils, Kingsley Amis takes a passing swipe at the folly of foisting archaic Celtic languages upon the modern world.

In The Old Devils, Kingsley Amis takes a passing swipe at the folly of foisting archaic Celtic languages upon the modern world. One of his characters stands outside a Welsh railway station, gazing with dislike at a taxi rank where the word "Taxi" is helpfully glossed by the Welsh word "Tacsi" - just in case a passing Welsh-speaker should be unclear about the automobile's function. A similar exasperation furrows my brow on hearing of the Irish government's decision to abandon the use, on legal documents and Ordnance Survey maps, of English place names in 2,300 towns and villages.

I'm quite aware, thank you, of the post-colonial sensitivities raised by the issue of language; I know all about the abominations that followed the Act of Union in 1800, when the British forbade the use of Gaelic in Irish schools and children wore a tally stick around their necks, which would be notched (incriminatingly) every time they said an Irish word aloud. But let us not be too hasty, too determinedly authentic or too politically correct about this. Giving Irish towns and villages Irish names in the future will not return the republic to a golden age of Celtic purity, nor represent a shaking-off of the English yoke.

Irish history is full of curious mongrel usages. Towns have been given their names by Normans and Vikings as much as by the smug British. Why is Dublin pronounced Dublin rather than Ballyclee (its Gaelic name is Baile atha Cliath)? Because the Norsemen named it Dubh Linn. Likewise, Wexford started life as Weis Fjord - there's nothing Irish about the name at all. Nor is there about the Dublin suburbs of Celbridge and Lucan, which were founded after English became the first language. Giving such places Irish names today would be an act of pure fake-archaic, as authentically Irish as the "traditional cream ale" they invented 10 years ago and christened Caffrey's.

The most telling objection, however, is an aesthetic one. The Irish language is a gorgeous instrument for speaking or singing in, full of seagull cries and flinty beauty but, visually, it's a total bugger. It intrudes vowels and consonants into words in a perversely random fashion that, at times, hacks off even Irish citizens themselves. Few of my many Irish cousins and friends have greeted with delight the Irish government's experiments, over the years, in Gaelicising names.

When the charmingly named Charleyville in County Cork was renamed "Rath Luirc", it was not considered a happy or euphonious move. Bob Geldof's band, the Boomtown Rats, who hail from the port of "Dunleary", had a song that ridiculed the fact that this pleasing Irish name turned up on signposts as "Dun Laoghaire". Me, I'm shocked that the swinging jollity of the name "Tipperary" will, from this week on, be represented on maps as "Tiobraid-Arann". It's still a long, long way to Tiobraid Arran, but suddenly one's heart doesn't seem to lie there quite the way it used to.

This way lies madness. Soon, only Gaelicised names of people will be allowed on government documents. The presenter Terry Wogan will appear in the Irish radio listings as Teoraoignceadh Weaoghainnhhn. And this column will find itself signed by my lost-in-the-Celtic-mists alter ego, Sean Beathneach...

Mac'n'fries is a rapper's delight

I'm sure you stifled a superior giggle at the news that the McDonald's chain is offering the rapper fraternity a product-placement deal. For every namecheck on the radio that the Big Mac gets in future outpourings from the disgruntled brotherhood, the burger franchise promises to pay the princely sum of $5. How pathetic of the global meat processors to try to harness a slice of street action by signing up the likes of Nas and Eminem to celebrate their pathetic buns. (And McDonald's insists on having lyrics approval. So nobody can get away with: "From the very first whiff to the very last bite / You can always tell a Big Mac cause it tastes like shite").

But just as I was pooh-poohing the idea that any hip-hopper would dream of being so uncool as to agree, I learnt that it happens all the time. According to Advertising Age, the ferociously hip Snoop Doggy Dogg and Jay-Z, along with their bijoux-hung confrères, have been at it for years, salting the complaints about guns, drugs, bitches, hoes and the parlous state of the neighbourhood with frankly admiring asides about Dom Perignon champagne, Gucci loafers and Porsche Boxsters.

Yes, but have the manufacturers actually handed over hard cash for the privilege of getting a mention? The implications are awful. Can it be that rappers have always been available as advertising platforms? Let me just check those Jay-Z lyrics: "I'm keeping it realer than any other mother/ And I bought some heat and some bullets from my brother. / Treat yo'bitch to a show, then later / Why not take her to the Star of India for a tasty and inexpensive dinner - only five minutes' walk from this thee-ayter?"

Growing pains

Last weekend I did something I've never done before: bought a rose. Not the one-perfect-rose-for-my-beloved kind of rose but a thing in a pot with three thorny stalks, no greenery and no flowers. It's called a rambling rector, and, since I'm writing a book about a bolted clergyman, it seemed a nice idea to have it rambling all over my shed. I had a brisk lesson from the Garden Centre and planted it with a flourish. Three days later, I've become agitated with impatience, waiting for it to start tendrilling its way over my roof. But it hasn't done anything. Since there's no mains socket to plug it into, I can't tell if it's working. The only sign of life is the stab wound I suffered from a thorn on the first day, which has turned septic. So the thing must be active. But what if it turns out to be a nasty piece of work, like a feral dog that turns on its owner? It's alarming. How do gardeners stand the suspense?

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