“William the Bastard,” said the narrator of the programme on the history of knights, “who was to become William the Conqueror.”
“Sir, did he say what I think he said?” asked a student.
“He did.” I replied. “He used it in the sense of it meaning someone whose parents weren’t married.”
“But sir, that would apply to lots of people now! Some of us here.”
“We don’t use such words now. Every child should be treated with dignity.”
It is not so long since such words were in frequent use, most often among those who should have used them least often.
In 1855, J.P. Billing, the curate of Huish Episcopi, was a man whose Pharisaism was comparable with that of the worst of the clergy to be found in the pages of the novels of Thomas Hardy.
On a blank page opposite the record of the burial of my great-great-great-great grandmother Ann Crossman, Mr Billing had chosen to write his own comment about my forebear:
“Ann Crossman (78) This old woman whose name before marriage was Culliford had several illegitimate children, the wife of William Case (i.e.Elizabeth) being the only one born in wedlock.”
There was no requirement for Billing to have written any comment whatsoever, nor was it any business of his that her children were born before she was married. Ann had always supported her own family, never requiring any support from the parish, least of all from people like the curate.
Whatever the attitude of the church, within communities there was an acceptance, a Christianity that far surpassed anything to be found within ecclesiastical circles. There was a belief in human dignity that J.P. Billing did not possess.
Pearse Hutchinson’s poem She Fell Asleep in the Sun is an expression of the perception of ordinary people:
‘She fell asleep in the sun’.
That’s what they used to say
in South Fermanagh
of a girl who gave birth
A woman from Kerry told me
what she’d always heard growing up was
leanbh ó ngréin;
a child from the sun.
And when a friend of mine from Tiernahilla
admired in North Tipperary
a little lad running around a farmyard
the boy’s granda smiled:
‘garsúinin beag mhistake’.
A lyrical ancient kindliness
that could with Christ accord.
Can it outlive technolatry?
Not to mention that long, leadránach,
twelve-letter name not
worthy to be called a name,
that murderous obscenity-to call
any child ever born
that excuse for a name
could quench the sun forever.