Tuesday, June 06, 2006

RTE: Supporting Old Wives' Tales

I can't believe what I've just heard on the RTE live stream, the 6 p.m. news. Tragically, five people drowned in accidents in Ireland over the bank holiday weekend. The bank holiday weekend. But what did the newsreader (Eileen Dunne) say? That this was the worst Whit weekend for drownings in Ireland in recent years.

When I was little, my mother would never let us go swimming on Whit weekend, the weekend of Whit or Pentecost Sunday, because the superstition was that water should be avoided on this weekend. I never asked about the reason behind the superstition, but today, hearing that the national broadcaster thinks it enough of an authority to cite it in a report on the evening news, I looked it up online. Here's what the Irish Culture and Customs page says:

Water was completely avoided, for it was thought that the danger of drowning was very great. People didn't bathe or go swimming; the fishing and sailing boats were left idle; and it was considered very foolish to even walk along the edge of the sea, river or lake. The reason for this was based on an old superstition that all of those who had perished in that water rose up on Whit Sunday to try and persuade or force the living to join them.

Well, that's very interesting. And a bit spooky, if you're into that kind of thing. But it is NOT fact, and it is NOT something which should be referred to on the news. Whit weekend isn't even a term that most people use anymore. As far as most people are concerned, the past weekend in Ireland was the June Bank Holiday weekend. Why not just describe it as such? Why the reference to Whitsuntide, in an item on drowning? If five people had died in fires or in road accidents (and of course, too many people did this weekend, but that's not the point) would the newsreader have made the same reference? Hardly.

I don't know, maybe this is part of RTE's new policy of accessibility. Just think of all those old ones who were thinking of switching permanently over to Newstalk until they heard Eileen's nod towards the Ancient Ways, and now they're sticking with RTE for the rest of their days. Or all those disgruntled arts and music lovers who were disgusted by the loss of Myles and John...but wait! Superstition! That's "arts", right? That's creative, and alternative, and sort of, um, bohemian, right? Get all the hippies back on board? Good thinking, Ana Leddy. I can just imagine what the nine o'clock news bulletin will kick off with: "A bird has been seen in the house of a man in the Co. Longford area. A death in the house is expected within the next twelve hours, the Garda Press Office said. Funeral arrangements to be announced later. In other news, Gardai are not seeking anyone else in connection with the shooting of a young woman in the Tallaght area. Gardai stated that the young woman was last seen walking under a ladder, and the death is accordingly being treated as a suicide. The man apprehended at the crime scene pointing a shotgun at the woman's face has been released without charge."

By the way, RTE, if you're really going to follow this Whitsuntide business through to its logical (...) end, you should have a look at the other superstitions associated with the date. Apparently, any animal or human born on this date will die a violent death or cause the death of another, Deirdre-of-the-Sorrows style. But Irish Customs and Cultlore (whatever) goes on:

However, there was a simple way to avoid this fate and that was to have the infant creature kill something. Most often, a live insect was put into a baby's hand and the little fingers squeezed on it until the insect was dead. Having caused a death, the child was freed from the spell. A baby animal was made to perform the same ritual so that it too, would be saved from the ill-fortune of being born on this day. Counter charms such as this one were very common in old Ireland and were often used to protect against an evil influence.

Come on, RTE! Where's your coverage of all the newborn babies squeezing wasps and bluebottles to death? Forget all this Margaret Hassan coverage; that poor woman is already dead, after all. It's all about changing the future now. You're just not on the ball.

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