I wonder at what point in history it was deemed necessary for all pupils to be taught that rhyme, "i before e except after c"?

Monday, 17 December 2012
  • Lesser Spotted Ulster

It was a handy little mnemonic for those of us who wanted to shine at spelling tests and for teachers who were reluctant to waste the red ink of their biros circling misspellings like "recieve".

But it was one of those rules that didn't apply all of the time, as in the exception "seize" which, thankfully, wasn't a word you ever had to use much except in spelling tests.

They must have made the rule, or at least the rhyme, after Sir Toby Caulfeild came into the world as you can see from the way his name was spelt. Nowadays you're just as likely to see it written "Caulfield" as in the name of the town Castlecaulfield.

The original family surname came from Oxfordshire and really had nothing to do with "fields" or even "feilds". One version gives it as "Calfehill" which, in terms of pronunciation at least, isn't a million miles away from the way most local people refer to their town - "Caufle" (Coffel).

When it comes to the spelling or pronunciation of place names I have always found it wise to consult local people and be guided by what they call it. That was the practice adopted by the great peripatetic scholar John O'Donovan back in the 1830s when he went about the country collecting, and very often correcting, townland names that were mostly corrupted anglicisations of ancient Irish names.

Almost the first thing he did on arriving at any place was to seek out the oldest inhabitant of the place and get that person to pronounce all the local placenames, this being the most trustworthy method of getting close to the original meaning of the name.

Were he to arrive in Castlecaulfield today and be told, by young and old alike, that the name of the place was "Caufle" that, oddly enough, would get him remarkably close to the name that Sir Toby brought here with him from Oxfordshire over 400 years ago.