Tackling forbidden topics over a pint
I was sitting in Mailey's on Tuesday morning taking the cure and waiting for the Boxing Day News Quiz to begin later the same night, when the talk turned to the need for radical reform of our educational system.
"It's all up when Methody boys can't fashion a literate sentence," declared Saoirse Mac Piarais. "You'd be as well attending Kilkeel High."
"Better," chipped in Seamus an tOglach.
Looking back over the year, the company had been recalling a feature in a Dublin newspaper in which a letter from Ian Paisley Junior to clergyman and retired terrorist Kenny McClinton (aka Dr CK McClinton, BA [Hons], MA, PhD, DLitt, Pastor of the Ulster/American Christian Fellowship Mission) had been quoted.
"Look whose under pressure tonight - the traitors in Sinn Féin, traitors to republicanism! Rejoice, our enemy is turning against themselves," the Methody Old Boy had remarked.
"It's the parents I feel sorry for," observed Saoirse, glugging down gulps of the standard Bogside pick-me-up, absinthe and angostura bitters.
"Imagine their embarrassment - not to mention the dismay of Methody's English department!"
The junior Paisley, all had noticed, had used the determiner or relative pronoun 'whose' where he should have written the pronoun-verb contraction 'who's'.
"The sentence is rendered utterly meaningless," sighed barman Tadhgh Mac an tSaggairt. "But don't blame the lad. Blame those who defend the elite grammar schools, despite all the evidence that they are turning out another generation of semi-literate gobdaws."
"And as for, 'our enemy is turning against themselves,'" Magdalene Ni hEara spoke up. "Oh dear. He could have written 'our enemies are ... '. Or 'our enemy is turning against itself'. Singular noun, singular verb, plural noun, plural verb. Sure, isn't it all set out in English for Infants: The First Steps.
"But I suppose an outfit which has deluded itself into believing it is a cut above Kilkeel High might think itself also above the basic rules of the English language. You have to wonder why they call them 'grammar schools'."
You do indeed, concurred one and all.
A letter from Kilkeel High Old Boy Jeffrey Donaldson to the same Rev Kenny had been published in the Dublin newspaper, alongside Ian Junior's, allowing for direct comparison.
"A harsh examiner might deduct half a mark from Jeffrey for the missing comma in 'Is this what you fought for Kenny?', mused Tadhgh. "But I would still give him nine out of 10; whereas, even at a stretch, you couldn't offer Big Ian's lad more than two and a half. Kilkeel High Secondary nine, Methodist College Grammar two and a half, is about the height of it."
"Mind you," former Jesuit and push-penny whiz Oisin an tOllaimh interrupted. "I'd rather be no good at grammar than illiterate about religion.
"Better to be jeered at in Kilkeel than roast in hell's fire," he suggested, mysteriously.
Oisin summoned all to his table, upon which he had spread out page 18 of the December 21 edition of the Irish News, displaying a story about a Komodo dragon lizard at Chester Zoo which had laid a clutch of eggs despite never having had sex. 'Immaculate conception at Chester Zoo' read the shocking headline.
"You wouldn't mind it in the News Letter," conceded Oisin, to approving murmurs. "But the Irish News! Dear God ... "
"Whoever wrote that doesn't understand the difference between the Immaculate Conception, promulgated by Pius IX in the Bull, Ineffabilis, in 1854, declaring that the Virgin Mary had been conceived free from Original Sin, and the Virgin Birth, first defined at the Synod of Milan in 390AD, under the presidency of St Ambrose," interjected Big Jamsie.
"Natus ex Maria virgine," added Dommo McDaid, agreeably.
And thus it was that we whiled away the lazy afternoon debating whether it would be preferable to suffer the slings and arrows of being the junior Paisley's English teacher, or take arms against doctrinal accuracy as a sub-editor on the Irish News (we don't dodge the difficult questions in Mailey's) until the News Quiz started.
It goes without saying, as they say, there being a clatter of cognoscenti crouched at every table, that the quiz was a close-run affair, going to a tie-break on the question: Name two things which the following noblepersons have in common - Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract, Lord Randall of St Budeaux, Viscount Montgomery of El Alamein, Lord Adonis, Lord Bach, Lord Bhattacharyy and Melvyn Bragg."
Modesty prevents identification of the canny squad which triumphed by answering: one, none of them has ever had anything whatsoever to do with Northern Ireland; and, two, they all turned up at Westminster on December 11 to troop through the lobbies to impose water charges on the people of Northern Ireland.
"Did you know," asked Ouija Wade as we wound our way home, tired but happy, "that of the 158 Lords, Baronesses, Grand Viziers and High Panjandrums who voted to force us to pay water-charges, only one had a dicky-bird to contribute to the debate preceding the vote, and that was NIO Minister Lord Rooker, who will have had his speech written for him - and he confessed during the debate that he had never set foot in Northern Ireland until May 2005?"
I did, I answered truthfully.
"Another thing," said Ouija. "You know the way you say you always deliberately leave a couple of grammatical errors in your column to test the readers? Is that a lie, so you can claim it was deliberate when the readers notice one of your mistakes?"
It is not, I lied.