This week a gun was put to my head (figuratively, thanks be to God) and I was press-ganged into giving a little talk to my five-year-old daughter’s class on the subject of Ireland. As I handed around bodhráns, musical spoons, goats’ horns, old coins and the like and did my best to impart to the children a vivid impression of the Isla Esmeralda, my daughter’s main and English teachers kept order in a most cheerful and pacific manner, bringing my own school days into sharp relief. It wasn’t that we were the victims of Song for the Raggy Boy-type corporal punishment or anything even approaching the mental or physical abuse that has come to be associated with Irish Catholic education, but the sweet, kind and gentle child-centred stewardship of Encarni and Marga was a far cry from the shut-up-and-sit-down regime I faced as a young boy.
We had the dubious distinction of having a teacher who used to make wrong-doers kneel down in front of a cupboard, place their heads inside and slide the door closed on them so that they would spend the rest of the lesson quietly contemplating their ill deeds from the said armoire’s dark, woody and resonant insides. That same teacher was also fond of halting the lesson to address one or another of us with strained exasperation in his voice as “child of grace, made of butter”. The bizarre but colourful phrase was common in the Ennis of my youth as a teacherly or parental expression of mild disapproval at a child’s conduct. Two-pronged in its sarcasm, it simultaneously brings into question the state of sinfulness of the child’s soul (grace) and his/her constitution (buttery — weak, malleable, yellow). Additionally, for maximum effect, butter must be pronounced buther. I often find myself jokingly throwing a “child of grace, made of buther” in my daughters’ direction, but hopefully without either a trace of my old teacher’s menace in my voice or half an eye on any nearby cupboard!
There was another butter-centred expression in use in our household when I was young: “Isn’t it great to have the buther”. The cant has its origins in the 1950s, when my father emigrated to Canada to join the Royal Canadian Air-Force. In his squadron was another Irishman — an O’Mahony from Kerry, who was, if my father’s stories of his Air Force days are to be believed, something of a wit, a rake and a rogue. Quite often during mealtimes in the crowded mess hall, O’Mahony would shout up the table to my father, “Isn’t it great to have the buther, Cronin!” and gleefully point at his brimming plate of food, swimming in butter. The puzzled Canadians after asking what he meant would be regaled by tales of extreme poverty and near famine in the Ireland of O’Mahony and my father’s childhoods. In short, the two Irishmen were so poor that butter was a luxury item in their homes. While these accounts were no doubt exaggerated and the deprivation beefed up for the benefit of the well-fed and better-off Canadians, they would have had a strong element of truth to them. (Indeed, my father referred to his up-bringing in the 1930s and 40s as “the famine” and his family home as “the cave” and the family photos we have from that time show bare-footed, skinny kids in tattered clothes.) So touched were my father’s fellow air men that they would soon be offering he and O’Mahony their own rations of butter — the obtaining of which would have been the latter’s motivation (apart from sheer devilment) for putting on the poor mouth in he first place!
While O’Mahony may have looked like butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth as he spun yarns of hard times back in the old country, plenty did in the airbases of Quebec and Alberta. In Spain, to where the next generation of Cronins has emigrated, butter doesn’t melt in one’s mouth; instead, one has the look of never having broken a plate (tener cara de no haber roto nunca un plato). As in: Fulanito has the look (literally — face) of never having broken a plate, even though when your back is turned he’s the wildest little boy in the class. It’s understandable that there aren’t butter-centred expressions in Spanish. Spain isn’t really a country for butter. Although there is some butter production in the dairying regions around Asturias and Galicia in the north, Spain is first and foremost an olive-oil and pig-lard country. Olive oil is dribbled onto bread — sometimes with tomato and salt and called “pan tumaca“. Lard is spread and sugar sprinkled on top. It is even something of a quest to find good butter in the shops here. A monthly outing to a shop I found that carries Kerrygold Irish butter sees me eagerly grabbing a couple of pounds of the stuff and turning to whoever’s listening to say: “Isn’t it great to have the buther!”