The mystery of the big, fat chernadrine haunted my middle childhood. I knew it was a large and heavy beast, characterised by immense sloth and lack of drive. I knew it was a dreadful insult.
“Get up ou’ that and don’t be sitting there like a big, fat chernadrine!” roared Ben Sr., when he needed help to move his bullocks. Sighing, we peeled ourselves reluctantly from the massive, diesel-coaxed fire in the vast fireplace of the ruined farmhouse in the townland of Mulladry, and headed off into the persistent, sullen drizzle.
“Look at thon wee cyarn on the news, sitting there like a big, fat chernadrine; he wouldn’t work to warm himself!” grumbled my father, as yet another Northern Ireland Office minister was sent out to justify cuts in the Education or Health budget.
I was consumed with curiosity and outraged by my ignorance. It was beneath my dignity to ask for explanation. I was precocious and proud. I knew an ocelot from an otter, a hawk from a handsaw. I could spell palaeontologist and use “recidivist” in a sentence without blinking. I could not bear to hear this mysterious animal’s name taken in vain all round me, without some idea of its appearance, its habitat and habits.
Instead of simply asking Ben, I borrowed his “C” volume of The World Book Encyclopaedia, “to research a project on Saint Catherine of Siena”. No luck. Amazingly, even the boffins at Encyclopaedia Britannica, which I consulted at the library, were silent upon the subject of the elusive chernadrine.
Many other terms have disappeared from common parlance since those times, some were quaint even then. My father’s friend, old Sam Gillespie, drafted in (too late) to teach me some element of style in my horse-riding, told me once that his father “had wrought all his life in a factory.” It was the only time I heard the obsolete past tense spoken.
The language was rich and fanciful, making today’s dialogue seem weak and effete. Each county, each town, each townland, had its own distinctive patterns and rhythms. I learned both town and country, remembering to shift between each as required; at school one did not want a reputation as a “munchie”, in the country one hoped not to be regarded as a snob.
A simple exchange with my father on the farm might proceed thus:
“Hand me over thon grape.” (4-pronged fork)
“Where is it?”
“Yonder it’s yonder.” (It is close at hand)
“There are two, which one do you want?”
“Thon! The other’s a bloody pitchfork! Jesus, what did I do to be cursed with such a shower of latchikos?”
“Daddy, I’m cold…”
“I’m unaisy about ye!” (Your comfort is a matter of utter indifference to me)
“Daddy, Patrick has just fallen into the sheugh (drain), I think he’s drowning, and he’s definitely soaked.”
“That’ll harden him!”
Naughty children attracted a range of colourful, abusive epithets such as “wee blirt” or “bad wee skitter”. Foolish ones were “wee stumers” (pronounced to sound like stupid) or “simps”. An overtired child, spoiling everyone else’s day with their whingeing was a “pishmire”. Only in recent years I discovered that a pishmire is a fierce, black ant, troops of which rush out from the tough grass atop sand dunes to spoil festive picnics, making the insult nearly as bad as I had thought it. A petulant or spoiled child was, invariably, a “wee nyark”.
Language was less habitually profane then, making it richer and earthier, drawing on a depth of socially acceptable, but deeply hurtful, vocabulary. As taboos have fallen, and as one no longer hesitates to shout “stupid fuckin’ wanker” into one’s mobile phone in a bus crowded with nuns and primary school children, the language of insult has dwindled and weakened. When I was a child, any particularly boastful or self-aggrandising tale was immediately countered with, “Aye right, and your bum’s beef, I suppose?” A naïve person was supposed to have “just floated down the Bann in a bubble” insulated from the harsh realities of life. If your plans were ambitious or outlandish, you needed to have a tither of wit, or to catch yerself on. A friend, newly returned from an extravagant shopping spree, might be grudgingly greeted “My hand on your new coat!” a rather ghoulish expression which translates roughly as “Leave it to me in your will!”
Today’s tame “I’m dosed with the cold” was the vividly onomatopoeic “I was up all night, blaugherin’ and hoggerin’.”
We didn’t vomit, or barf, we boked, or we had the bokes.
To describe childish antics, my father called on a voluminous vocabulary: ligging about, acting the lig, acting the maggot, jacking about (like a jackass), behaving like a latchiko (your guess is as good as mine). We were threatened into good behaviour with “a clip round the lug”, or “a toe up the hole”. All these terms are dying, as everyone now strives to sound like New Yorkers or Essex natives. I have been known to let fly with a string of Portadown’s finest insults, but their impact in Kildare is neutered by lack of context.
As a young teenager I had turned my back on this rich vernacular. I wanted nothing more than to sound like an extra from Beverley Hills 90210, or a remnant of the Carnaby Street Swinging Sixties. One afternoon I helped clear out the semi-derelict farmhouse at Mulladry. To our great excitement, Benedict Jr. was marrying, and taking formal charge of the farm.
Occasionally in years past, my father had hoisted us children on his shoulders, allowing us to creep, at significant personal risk, up the staircase, destroyed by fire decades ago. We would pick our way carefully across splintering, rotten, fire-damaged boards and joists, roaming the bedrooms, untouched since the death of old Barney, many years before. Holy pictures glared down at us, as we poked at the ancient, crumbling bed-hangings and pulled long strips of curling distemper from the walls. Gaudy statues of the Virgin Mary and the Child of Prague stood still on dressing tables. Chamber-pots nestled snugly under the beds, their contents in recent decades being rodent, rather than human, productions.
Now, all was change. The staircase must be replaced, the bedrooms gutted and prepared to receive the new bride. The old derelict kitchen ran the full length of one gable and opened directly onto the farmyard. It held mouldering curtained bookcases and bottles sticky with noxious veterinary draughts from years past. Here, we bottle-fed orphan lambs beside the enormous hearth, and sheltered from the rain. The dirty, old kitchen was to remain untouched, available for these vital functions, but locked and sealed from the renovated dwelling on the far side of the stairwell.
The “parlour” and the “scullery” must be emptied and somehow converted to a modern living room and kitchen. Grunting, Ben Sr. rolled a huge, oak dash-churn from the scullery into the old kitchen. “What will I do with this?” he pondered. “I see town-people planting flowers in them. I say, I say John, would it be worth money?”
My father invited me to plunge the massive dash up and down a few times through the tightfitting hole in the lid. My teenage arms ached and trembled after a half-dozen strokes.
“Oh, you wouldn’t be so generous spreading your butter if you were churning it the old way” they laughed, “Instead of buying it from Golden Cow!”
They reminisced about the bright yellow butter of their childhood, the sharp, tangy buttermilk, about the smuggling of butter across fields and ditches in the days of wartime rationing.
“Oh, cleaning the churn was a bitter task too, crawling practically inside the old drum, scrubbing with a hard brush, sluicing with boiling water carried from the kitchen to the dairy. Then wedging it in the hearth, steaming beside the fire, and the awful, choking smell of the big, wet churn a-dryin’. ”
Sad news from home and a helter-skelter journey from Kildare brought me back to the old farm this week for the burial of my cousin Monica Jackaman. Aunt to my god-father, and sister of the redoubtable Ben Sr. in the story above, she died in her tenth decade in the modern bungalow which has replaced the beautiful and eminently unsuitable old farmhouse at Mulladry.
Walking round the yard, so altered and yet so full of ghosts and happy memories prompted me to post “The mystery of the big fat chernadrine” today. It is an extract from my unpublished memoir “Union Jacks and Rosary Beads; growing up Catholic in Portadown.” I know the story would have brought a smile to Monica’s lips, and to my late father, in whose memory the book was written.
Ar dheis De go raibh a h-anamacha dilis. (May their sweet souls rest at God’s right hand.)