Tonge & Taggart and the World Beneath Our Feet

Tonge & Taggart

When friends of ours decided to get married sometime in the mid 90s, they asked me to look after the layout and printing of the missalettes. Of course I was happy to oblige, and the booklet went through a few versions before everyone was happy. At one stage the groom asked me to make sure the priest was mentioned in the line-up. His name was father Tonge — “as in Tonge & Taggart, you know, from the manhole covers”.

I have to admit that I had never heard of Tonge & Taggart, not having spent much time reading manhole covers. Since that day however, I notice the name every time I look down while walking Dublin’s streets — strange how a sewage drain can remind you of a friend’s wedding.

Tonge & Taggart Limited was a Dublin foundry which has since been swallowed up by the Smurfit group. If you’re in Dublin, you don’t have to travel far to stumble across, or even over, an example of their ironmongery. Chances are there’s a Béal Tuile cover right outside your front door, adorned with the three castles of the Dublin crest and the historic company’s name, of course.

Invariably, these iron Flood Mouths are complemented nearby by a small, usually round cover which hides a mains water stop valve. The majority of these little covers are Irish speaking, but more recent versions appear square and English speaking. There is even a bilingual version for those who are unsure about the difference between uisce and water. It is unclear which company provides these water valve covers — and there are far more players than Tonge & Taggart.

Once you start looking under your feet while crossing streets and pavements, you come across names such as Dudley & Dowell, Cavanagh, Conway & Sons, William Lacy and so on. Some are kind enough to put the year of manufacture on their creations; Conway Foundries appear to have been busy in the 1960s. Cavanagh have been providing manhole covers and other castings for 200 years and are still very much in business.

And it’s not just sewage pipes and water drains that are covered by these iron lids. The city has a vast array of tunnelled utilities buried underneath its streets, and the number of hatches, covers and lids that provide access increases dramatically as you get closer to the city centre. Water, gas, electricity, telephone, cable TV — they all fight for space in what must be a veritable spaghetti soup of pipes, wires and cables. Bus shelters and traffic lights have their own hatches and business premises have cellars and basements with iron trapdoors and grilles to add to the streetscape.

Bomb-proof manhole cover
Bomb-proof manhole cover

When the Queen came to visit Dublin recently, followed closely by the US President, all these metal covers on the street surface became potential hiding places for bombs and assassins. As part of a massive security operation, gardaí roamed the streets armed with spanners, yellow spraypaint and filler guns. Every single manhole cover, lid, hatch and trapdoor was inspected, sealed and marked with the yellow paint, using the spanner as a stencil.

Dublin’s manhole covers provide an insight into the history not only of its foundries and ironworks, but also of the companies that used their products. As a result we can now witness the scattered chronology of P&T, Telecom Eireann, Eircom and even Esat Telecom throughout the city. Apart from being a purely functional piece of street furniture, some are actually quite attractive — such as the rare Uisce covers with intricate celtic lace patterns and the cryptic acronym WSC-R. An example can be found on Mellifont Avenue in Dun Laoghaire.

WSC-R Uisce Cover
Pretty Uisce cover in Dun Laoghaire

However fascinating these unassuming objects that we walk on every day may be, I don’t think I’m ready to join the Flickr Manhole Cover Pool as yet. Surprisingly, that group has more than 1,000 members and almost 13,000 pictures — and you thought trainspotting was weird.


Battle of Waterloo by William Holmes Sullivan

196 years ago today, one of the most famous battles in history was fought on a small plot of land south of Brussels, in what is now Belgium but had at that time just become part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, following the Congress of Vienna. On Sunday 18th June 1815, the French army under Napoleon launched the attack on the Anglo-Allied forces under Wellington. Joined later during the day by the Prussians led by Blücher, the Allies eventually defeated Napoleon’s forces after a bloody battle that raged for 12 hours and left 50,000 dead and wounded — one out of every four soldiers who took part. Napoleon did not surrender, as Abba would have it, but it did signal the end of his career — for once and for all.

When the creators of The Simpsons picked Springfield as the ubiquitous American town, they might as well have picked Waterloo. If this name does not appear as a town in every state of the union, then it will at least show up as a street, square or building not only in the US, but in virtually every country of the English speaking world. One wonders if this would have been the case if the battle were to have received one of its more appropriate names — the Battle of Mont Saint Jean or the Battle of Braine L’Alleud, for example. History being written by the victors, it appears that Waterloo is easier to pronounce for English speakers, and so was favoured over those awkward French tongue twisters.

I grew up surrounded by the meticulously hand-painted Airfix armies of my older brother. He taught me all there is to know about the history of the Napoleonic wars and about the art of wargaming. We were joined in our enthusiasm by my cousin and my best friend René, and in an era before computer games, we spent entire school holidays amassing miniature armies and re-enacting historic battles in our attic in Rotterdam — my brother invariably emerging as the winner, but that’s another blogpost. Waterloo featured on a regular basis, needless to say — my brother even built a model of the battlefield.

Our fascination with Waterloo extended beyond playing wargames — it also involved trips to the Army Museum in Leiden and the model soldiers shop “La Grande Armée” in The Hague, among other things. When my mother bought her first car in the early 70s, her first real trip took our family and my cousin — at this stage an honorary member of our family — to Waterloo.

La Haye Sainte in 1979

The battlefield at Waterloo is remarkably well preserved. The buildings that featured so prominently during the battle still stand today, such as the farm house of La Haye Sainte, which looks the same as it did in 1815, and is still privately occupied. La Belle Alliance, the inn where Napoleon set up his headquarters, is now a night club, thereby maintaining its allegiance to the hospitality industry. Monuments, statues and plaques commemorating various commanders and regiments are dotted around the landscape and its buildings. Disproportionately large is the monument that marks the spot where the young Prince of Orange was wounded at some stage during the battle — much of the surrounding lanscape was dug up to provide the material for a huge mound topped by a stone-faced lion. Most of the souvenir shops are concentrated near this monstrosity and in the town of Waterloo itself.

Our tent on the battlefield

To behold such a historic site in real life made a huge impression on me. So much so, that I felt obliged to return for another pilgrimage, this time accompanied by René and taking the train to arrive on the eve of the battle’s anniversary, in 1979. In keeping with the spirit of the occasion, we pitched our tent on the field of an incomprehensible but accommodating farmer — smack in the middle of the area where Marshal Ney’s desperate cavalry charge of some 5,000 horsemen would have thundered past all those years ago.

As our understanding of the events surrounding the Battle of Waterloo increased along with our age, so too did the realisation that the history books were maybe a bit unfair in their depiction of the Dutch-Belgian contribution. Of course the universally accepted version of events is supplied by the English, who have been less than complimentary about the soldiers on whose national turf the fighting took place. Reports about the troops fleeing en masse at the start of the battle usually fail to mention that Wellington had positioned them at the front of the sloping terrain, facing the French artillery who mercilessly pounded their ranks. English troops were placed on the slope facing away from the French and thereby spared the role of cannon fodder — at least initially.

Dutch author N. Vels Heijn makes a valiant effort at placing the Netherlands’ army in a better light in his 1974 book Waterloo — Glorie Zonder Helden (Glory without Heroes), re-evaluating events leading up to Waterloo, such as the fighting at Quatre Bras where Dutch troops held the French at bay. It’s a case of too little, 160 years too late and the British version of events prevails.

The 18th of June still triggers childhood memories of Humbrol paints, Airfix soldiers and our stuffy attic. René and I were BFF avant la lettre, and we promised each other that no matter how far we drifted apart, we would meet again on the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo at the monument of the French Old Guard near La Belle Alliance. Only four years to go — I’ll be there.

The Fast Lane

Upon my arrival in Dublin in 1986, one of the first things I bought was a bicycle. Being from Holland, I could not imagine how else you’re supposed to make your way around the city. Sadly, cyclists were and still are very much a minority group in this country.

Of course cycling in Dublin is quite a different experience than it is in Amsterdam, not least because of this minority issue. Cycle lanes were not introduced until the mid 90s and usually consist of nothing more than a strip on the side of the road where the tarmac is painted red. Irish cyclists wear those funny helmets that you would rarely see in Holland. And the bikes themselves are different too, of course — I quickly discovered that you really do need gears in a city that’s not conveniently flat like Amsterdam, where the highest points are the bridges across the canals and the bike of choice is a “High Nellie”.

However, the biggest difference between Ireland and Holland are the motorists. It did not take me long to discover that, as far as Irish motorists are concerned, cyclists simply do not exist. If a car is turning left or right, he will just cut across the path of any cyclists that may be around — this is especially true when turning left and the car cuts across bicycles travelling straight on on the same road. It appears that Irish motorists are blissfully unaware that the bicycle actually has the right of way in this case.

Rush Hour Ireland
Alas, not anymore

My bike was stolen sometime in ’88, and I bought my first car when I moved to Dun Laoghaire. Some of my friends fondly remember the light blue Renault 5, registration 103PIK — it served us well for a few years. This was in an era in Ireland when the closest thing resembling a motorway was a couple of stretches of dual carriageway on the N11 and the Naas road. “Ireland — where motoring is still a pleasure” and “Rush hour in Ireland” was printed on postcards with pictures involving Morris Minors and cattle or flocks of sheep.

A lot has changed since then. We now have more than 1,000 kilometers of motorway, and it is finally possible to drive from Dublin to Galway without getting stuck for half an hour on the Main Street in Moate. This journey used to take over four hours and now only takes around two. It has to be said though, that in those pre-motorway days there was never a problem finding a place to stop for a coffee, something to eat, a toilet break or petrol. That too has all changed — they somehow forgot to build a few service stations alongside the motorways. Or maybe it’s because some local politicians objected when the businesses of their constituents came under threat now that their towns were bypassed. In any case, it seems that service stations have now started to appear on some motorways so that we may eventually catch up with the rest of Europe, instead of having to look for Digan’s Garage in Tullaghnageeragh somewhere off the M6.

Driving on motorways and other dual carriageways is still a relatively new experience for Irish motorists, it seems. There appears to be no general consensus on which of the two available lanes constitutes the fast lane. Maybe the choice of lane is influenced more by the fact that the driver may wish to turn left or right at any time in the near or distant future, than by the speed they are travelling at. This lane dilemma has become even more interesting now that some stretches of motorway have three lanes, such as the M50 which circles Dublin. In this case, the preferred lane for motorists who like driving slower than the speed limit, is the middle lane. In both scenarios, the result is that overtaking on the incorrect side is commonplace on these types of roads.

The lack of driver education must surely lie at the root of this behaviour. How does one learn how to drive on a motorway if there’s none around? There’s an entire generation of Irish drivers on the road today who obtained their driving licenses long before the first motorway was built — or the first roundabout, judging by the current ad campaign on Irish television, attempting to teach viewers how to approach, indicate and exit these things. About time, since indicators are no indication — pardon the pun — as to the direction a car on an Irish roundabout might take.

That brings me to the most baffling of all motoring related things I have ever come across — the Provisional License. Now, I know that this idea was copied from the U.K., but that’s no excuse. How on earth can the people who run this country think that it’s a good idea to let someone do a simple theory test, hand over some money and let them drive off into the sunset? And do they really think that everyone bides by those rules of having a fully qualified driver sitting beside them and not driving on motorways? Thankfully there’s a good incentive for drivers to get their full licence, since without it the cost of their car insurance is astronomical. Before they pass their test however, they can happily drive around with their L-sticker as the only qualification. Even more bizarre, they can go to the test centre to do their driving test, fail — and drive off again. Not to mention the amnesty of the 1970s in which around 45,000 drivers got their license with no test whatsoever.

Irish roads are certainly safer now than they were 20 years ago, and the new drink-driving laws appear to be having a positive effect. If only they would get rid of the provisional license and make every motorist take proper driving lessons instead of circling around the local parking lot a few times – but hey, I’m sure people are glad I don’t make the rules.

Language of the Upperlands

For many years, the small seaside town of Greystones was home to the Dutch literary and artistic genius Marten Toonder. His contribution to the Dutch language has been considerable and it is unfortunate that the English speaking world will never appreciate him fully, even if his cartoons appeared in Irish newspapers too — only in English, of course. Observant readers (to use one of Toonder’s phrases) will have noticed that I am Dutch also, and I still consider Dutch to be my first language.

It is probably a bit bizarre to write about the Dutch language in English, but I am trying to share some of its weird and wonderful traits with readers whose upbringing has forced them into the straitjacket of such a common language as English.

The Dutch refer to their language as Nederlands, Dutch being the anglicised version of the ancient Diets, which has the same origins as Duits or Deutsch, referring to German. And yes, German is a completely different language, although English speakers may be forgiven for getting confused between Deutsch and Dutch.

The first thing one notices when looking at the written Dutch language is the length of some of the words. Dutch uses compound nouns, so where English uses two words for “swimming pool”, the Dutch version becomes zwembad instead of zwem bad. Speaking of bad, this is a bad example, since zwembad is of course nice and short. Try “Government Study Grant” instead, which becomes Rijksstudietoelage, and in theory the application form for one of these grants could be compounded into a Rijksstudietoelageaanvraagformulier.

Double vowels and diphtongs are also prominent, as can be seen in the previous example. One of my favourite vowel-rich words is eendeëieren — duck’s eggs. The umlaut here has the function of a hyphen, to indicate a break between the two e’s. Unfortunately this is no longer the correct spelling and should now be “eendeneieren”, but since this new spelling was introduced after I left the country, I declare myself exempt from this rule. En zoo is het. Still spelled correctly is an even better example, the Dutch word for “seed onions” being zaaiuien. With six vowels in a row, that’s hard to beat.

Many of our diphtongs are unknown to and unpronouncable by English speakers, such as the “ui” in my own surname. Funny enough, ui and ei are Dutch words in their own right, meaning “onion” and “egg” respectively. Alongside ooi and aai there appears to be a number of Dutch words that are completely void of consonants. The unusual combination of I and J in words such as lijst and prijs is in fact an incarnation of the letter Y, which itself is rarely used — thereby making it a more valuable letter in Dutch Scrabble than in the English version. And you thought Scrabble was language-agnostic.

We consider languages such as Russian to display an impossible sequence of consonants in many of their words, but few can beat the Dutch for “cry of fear” — angstschreeuw. Eight consonants followed by three vowels, that’s beautiful. A different beauty can be seen in the word for “supplied” which holds the record of four double characters in a row — bevoorraadde.

Dutch infinitives usually end with -n or -en, as in staan (“to stand”) or lopen (“to walk”). A perfectly acceptable, gramatically correct Dutch sentence can have multiple infinitives, like this one which contains six infinitives in a row: Ik zou jou daar wel eens hebben willen zien staan blijven kijken — “I would have liked to have seen you stand there and watch”.

Opperlandse Taal en Letterkunde, written by Hugo Brandt Corstius in 1981, contains a wealth of linguistic gymnastics to please any Dutch speaker.

Every word in every language has its own history, and I’m glad to say that some Dutch words have left their mark on the English language. Of course Dutch itself has been swamped with English words and expressions over the last few decennia, and we have to go back a couple of centuries to trace any Dutch in today’s English. Most Dutch words that survive in modern English stem from an era when the Netherlands were a powerful trendsetting nation, during the country’s Golden Age, the 17th century. The list is much longer than you would think, and includes such quintessential everyday terms as skipper, yacht, coleslaw, rucksack, geek, cookie and of course Santa Claus.

It's a Decoy
It's a Decoy!

My favourite however, is decoy, from the Dutch eendekooi – literally “duck cage”, a device once used to catch water fowl — an eend being, you’ve guessed it, a duck. The observant reader will have noticed that my favourite Dutch words appear to involve ducks, but I digress. Unaware of the Dutch love of compound words, some smart ass must have decided that the first part of this word was the indefinite article een (“a”) and the rest must therefore be a noun — dekooi. Thus the misspelled een dekooi became “a decoy”.

Admittedly Dutch is not an easy language to master. Pronunciation of the famous guttural G may take a while to get used to, but in my experience the most difficult sound for an English speaker to reproduce is the combination ZW like in the word zwart (“black”). Even after almost a lifetime of training, practicing, being gezellig and blending into Dutch society, the most hardened Dutch language students will still give away their linguistic origins when attempting to pronounce anything beginning with those two consonants. Even so, I think everyone should learn Dutch, if only to appreciate this limerick by John O’Mill:

A terrible infant called Peter
Sprinkled his bed with a geeter.
His father got woost,
Took hold of a knoost,
And gave him a pack on his meeter.