The row between Gary Lineker and the BBC reminded me of an email I received some weeks ago from writer and Achill resident Kevin Toolis. Its subjects included “one of Ireland’s great linguistic exports”: the word “boycott”.
As Kevin marvelled: “How many personal surnames make it into the English language as verbs? And can be conjugated in German, as I once saw in Hamburg? The word is extant in most of the world’s languages. Remarkable.”
Indeed. Among the headlines inspired by the Lineker story, as if to prove his point, was this one – drawn to my attention by another reader – from Italian newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport: “Caos alla BBC: boicottaggio di giocatori e allenatori alla tv dopo la suspensione di Lineker” (“Chaos at the BBC: players and coaches boycott TV after Lineker suspension”).
The funny thing, as Toolis had pointed out, is that the tactic now universally known as boycotting could just as easily have been “nangling”.
This is because, almost half a century before Capt Boycott was ostracised into linguistic immortality by the natives of Mayo, something very similar was done to a clergyman called Edward Nangle, and in the same county.
His crime was leading an evangelical mission to Achill, in response to which the Catholic Archbishop John McHale instituted a campaign of “special dealing”, as the euphemism called it.
Locals were urged to shun all trade with Nangle’s colony, while those who supplied it or sent children to the mission schools were denounced from the pulpit. There was physical intimidation too.
Running out of food eventually, the evangelist had to send for relief to Westport, 35 miles and a full day’s sail away.
But the colony lived on, and the man behind it somehow avoided the peculiar immortalisation that befell Boycott.
Toolis suggests that “to Nangle” may not have had the same ring to it. But I don’t know.
Perhaps because of the enduring success of a certain 1990s soft drinks commercial, the phrase “You know when you’ve been Nangled” sounds catchy to me. It could well have summed up the situation in which the BBC found itself last week.
In any case, the Achill colony buildings are all still there, two centuries later.
And the fascinating story of the Nangle Mission, which also included its own newspaper, is now the subject of a walking tour, led by Toolis. More details are at thecolonytour.com.
In the same weekend that saw the celebrity of fictional Achill resident Jenny the Donkey reach its zenith, British newspapers reported the death of a veteran Fleet Street journalist who once helped make another donkey internationally famous, at least for a week.
The man’s name was Tom Petrie, who was news editor of The Sun during its 1980s and 1990s heyday. Saving cute animals and denigrating mainland European humans were part of the newspaper’s stock in trade then.
Hence one of the typical campaigns under Petrie’s watch, in 1987, involving a mercy dash to Spain to rescue a donkey, “El Negro” (or “Blackie”, as he was renamed) from a terrible death in a fiesta.
To commemorate some historic event, the donkey would supposedly be ridden to fatal exhaustion by the fattest man in the village. So the newspaper attempted to buy the animal’s life and thought it had succeeded.
But the Sun had been double-crossed by the dastardly continentals and – worse – scooped by a red-top rival. Having joined the donkey trace, the Star also bought the animal and was able to produce it, en route to a sanctuary in England. Back in Spain, the fiesta organisers denied furiously that the donkey was every doomed. But in the meantime, the circulation of both red-tops thrived.
Such is the glory that was Fleet Street.
We all know that Julius Caesar was not sufficiently wary of the Ides of March, as the 15th of the month was known in ancient Rome.
But I’ve been reading Plutarch and other historians lately (the way you do), and for all the ill omens that preceded the infamous assassination, I’m struck by the role political graffiti may have played.
We’re told that a few weeks beforehand, a statue of the great Roman hero Junius Brutus was embellished with messages including “If only Brutus were alive!” and “O that we had a Brutus now!”.
These were clearly aimed at the hero’s living namesake, appealing to him to act against Caesar’s monarchist ambitions.
And they may have been written, not by the usual mindless graffiti artists, but by calculating agents provocateurs.
The graffiti would have been quickly erased. But Brutus had seen it and, Plutarch suggests, may have been persuaded by the argument.
So never mind the Ides of March.
The real moral of story for despotic leaders is: beware the march of ideas.