Pardon My Irish – Frank McNally on Rats, Bats and French Bait

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I had the pleasure of reading somewhere recently about the discovery of a previously unknown mineral in natural form and now called Caseyite. It is a compound of aluminum and other things, found as mustard yellow crystals in an old uranium mine in Colorado and was named after a California chemistry professor, Bill Casey, who had made a lot of research on this material.

That’s what made me happy because Bill has been an occasional correspondent for this column over the years. Not geology, but another of his centers of interest: the study of Irish. It was purely voluntary on his part. Unlike most of us, he was learning Irish (only writing – he had no ambition to speak it) for fun.

And it was in that spirit that 20 years ago, during the time of the Gulf War, he emailed me asking why, in the first official language of this country, we were doing referring to people from one of our nearest neighboring countries by the same word which means “rat”.

The country in question is the one we are playing rugby against this weekend, to be exact. And that’s true. Dinneen’s dictionary states the matter bluntly. The word francach, he says, means “a rat; a French”.

As if to add insult, Dinneen goes on to use the “a rat prop” build. Fortunately, this is not a reference to any member of the French front line that Tadhg Furlong or Andrew Porter will face on Saturday. This “accessory”. is just short for “clean”, I think.

And in all fairness, Dinneen goes on to explain how francach is – much like Caseyite – the result of a compounding process. “A rat prop. is luch fhranncach,” the dictionary says, meaning a “French mouse.” Now abbreviated without diplomacy, the term is presumed to originate from the fact that, like much of our fauna, the rat did not originate in Ireland and its arrival has been attributed to ships from Normandy.

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Among my possessions, courtesy of the same Bill Casey, are two baseballs lightly stained with California grass. They were among the ones that used to come across a fence near where he worked, so he mailed me a pair as a keepsake. I don’t know if the man himself has already taken over. But I do know that one of his fictional namesakes is the most famous baseball player in American literature.

Written in 1888, the comic ballad “Casey at the Bat” describes a climactic moment in the life of an era called Mudville, when their slim hopes of victory fall on the title hero.

Its composer was a certain Ernest Thayer and it was first published in San Francisco.

But Thayer was a Harvard man from western Massachusetts. That and other things created a long-running rivalry there and in California for possible real-life Casey and Mudville protagonists, with a Mike “King” Kelly being one of the prime suspects.

Anyway, given the huge popularity it once enjoyed in music halls, the interesting thing about the poem is its cynicism. This sets up a heroic conclusion as, with bases loaded late in the ninth, Casey calmly passes the first two deliveries as misfits. He then has no choice but to swing hard at third. Thus the epic conclusion of the poem:

“Oh somewhere in this favored land/The sun shines brightly;/Somewhere the band is playing, and/Somewhere the hearts are light/And somewhere the men are laughing/And somewhere the children are shouting;/But there is no ain’t no joy in Mudville -/Mighty Casey retired.

For those of you who don’t speak American, I should explain that having “bases loaded in the lower ninth” means, more or less, being where Ireland was in Paris three years ago, just before Johnny Sexton attempted the long-distance fall. As for Casey having “crossed out”, that means that, unlike Sexton, he missed.

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There are no Rats, or even Prats (a famous French rugby name) playing in Paris on Saturday. But remember that Irish does not have a monopoly on non-diplomatic conditions, there will be at least one moron in French 23. The name derives from Chrétien, meaning Christian. However, via a once notorious medical condition caused by insufficient thyroid hormones, it has evolved into a term of abuse in English.

Cretinism, as the condition is no longer called, caused physical and mental underdevelopment, including the inability to speak. It was once widespread in the mountainous regions of France, apparently due to the lack of iodine in the water. There are competing theories on how the name is derived. The most compelling is that the afflicted were called “Christians” because, in their childlike simplicity, they lacked the capacity to sin.

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