3 April 2011

Worrying the Erse peat...

To worry (v.) Word History: Worrying may shorten one's life, but not as quickly as it once did. The ancestor of our word, Old English wyrgan, meant "to strangle." Its Middle English descendant, worien, kept this sense and developed the new sense "to grasp by the throat with the teeth and lacerate" or "to kill or injure by biting and shaking." This is the way wolves or dogs might attack sheep, for example. In the 16th century worry began to be used in the sense "to harass, as by rough treatment or attack," or "to assault verbally," and in the 17th century the word took on the sense "to bother, distress, or persecute." It was a small step from this sense to the main modern senses "to cause to feel anxious or distressed" and "to feel troubled or uneasy," first recorded in the 19th century.

Well-informed sources advise me that the University of Edinburgh is giving serious consideration to ornamenting its School of Celtic and Scottish Studies by founding a Calumniator Chair in Peat Worrying. This development will be examined with skepticism in various quarters. Not least, it will serve to revivify the great Oxter-Flaughter debate of 1885, which saw an outbreak of physical controversy between academic staff from Edinburgh and Trinity College. Eyes were blackened, noses broken - all over whether the ancient tradition of peat worrying originated in Ireland or Scotland. The Scots doctors contended that the practice evolved among the peat hags of the Kingdom of Dalriada, the Irish scholars insisting that the art's origins go back much further than that, deep into the sticky bogs of Éire. In their imperious way, the Irish contended that the ancient skill "is a testimony to the genius of the Plain People of Ireland" rather than Scotland's most obscure form of glutinous, fen-based diversion. Neither historical thesis is strengthened by the absence of any concrete evidence about peat worrying, dating from before 2009. 

As a pre-eminent representative of the Scottish peat-worrying community, I was sent forth across the Irish Sea this weekend pre-emptively to foil the new generation of jealous Irish scholars, keen to revitalise such ancient and acrimonious contentions. Thanks to a tip off from Trinity man and Spectator blogger Alex Massie, I was alerted to the first ever Mylesday, which was held last Friday afternoon in Dublin's Palace Bar, in centennial celebration of the redoubtable Myles na gCopaleen. Massie has penned this merited tribute to the hilarity of man's work, which warm words I'd entirely associate myself with. Unfortunately, my peaty cultural duties didn't permit me to remain throughout the afternoon, but amid the well-watered, packed crowd, I cackled along as local enthusiasts recited some of Myles' most amusing pieces from his Cruiskeen Lawn column in the Irish Times, including Book-handling and the appalling, wry punning of his Keats and Chapman. Thus fortified, I returned to the academic brawl, rhetorical rutter sharpened, sleet-defying bunnet in place. The upshot of which being that I'll be sceptically sampling the Irish peatbogs until the middle of next week, when cybernatty commentary on the Holyrood election will continue in earnest.


  1. A great day it was, when on a visit to Ireland in 1979 I bought a copy of the Dalkey Archive, thinking it some form of tourist guide.

  2. Ewan,

    Oh happy error! Actually, I've never read The Dalkey Archive myself. For anyone mystified about what I was referring to in this blog, looking for an introduction to Myles, the eminently affordable Best of Myles is a grand place to start.

  3. Wow, this can be lovely. Imagine every one of the reading through and also composing you could do... Cold in the winter months though.
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