“All Ireland went into the making of this book,” the Sunday Tribune wrote of English As We Speak It In Ireland by Patrick Weston Joyce (1827-1914). An exaggeration, certainly, but a forgivable one when describing this wonderful, idiosyncratic collection of Irish-English sayings, proverbs, expressions, folklore, vocabulary and barely categorisable linguistic oddities. There are chapters on grammar, old customs, swearing, and proverbs; there is one devoted to exaggeration and redundancy; there is even a chapter exploring the expressions pertaining to the devil. As the title page declares: “The life of a people is pictured in their speech”.
This blog post is not a review of P. W. Joyce’s book, just a hearty endorsement. Such has been my pleasure as I read it over the last few days that I want to recommend it warmly to anyone listening – that is, reading – who has an interest in Ireland’s folk history or in the endlessly witty and strange innovations the English language underwent under the influence of the Irish tongue. Growing up in the rural west, I was exposed to all manner of colourful turns of phrase and modes of speech. Some I inherited and use to this day; others I lost along the way. Joyce’s book has reacquainted me with a few and introduced me to many others, as fresh today as they might have been a century or two ago.
Irish-English has a great many words and phrases used to describe a person’s lack of intelligence, decency, or industry; one of my favourites is: “There’s a great deal of sense outside your head.” Upon the approach of a conceited person – a pusthaghaun (m) or pusthoge (f) – you could say, with cheerful sarcasm, that here comes “half the town”, a translation of the Irish leath an bhaile /læh ən ‘wɒljə/ or /ljæh ən ‘wɒljə/. A useless fellow is “fit to mind mice at a cross-roads”. Contrary to Freud, a Munster saying insists that “a slip of the tongue is no fault of the mind”. Upon hearing of danger or tragedy, a person might exclaim: “The Lord between us and all harm!” A spaug (Irish: spág) is a big clumsy foot. I’ve heard these last two a lot.
You could say, of a very familiar person, that you’d know their shadow on a furze bush. If someone falls well short of an aim or target, they “didn’t come within the bray of an ass of it”. A version I’m more familiar with, especially in a sporting context, is that they didn’t come “within an ass’s roar” of something. Apparently the phrase harks back to ancient times, when sounds such as bells and animal noises were used as approximate measures of distance. The donkey also appears in a popular expression used of a garrulous person: they would “talk the jawbone off an ass” (or “the hind legs off a donkey”); English As We Speak It In Ireland cites an equivalent saying: that they would “talk the teeth off a saw”.
Despite the strong historical influence of Catholicism, there is among the island’s people both a widespread predilection for cursing and a frank regard for those who do it well. I don’t necessarily mean peppering one’s speech with profanities and vulgarities; some of the most memorable oaths and imprecations are as harmless as a hiccup, e.g. “By the hole in my coat”, or “By all the goats in Gorey…” One suspects, though, that more pungent obscenities were unleashed to warrant the following remarks:
He’d swear a hole in an iron pot.
She’d curse the bladder out of a goat.
He could quench a candle at the other side of the kitchen with a curse.
The latter part of Joyce’s book – pages 209 to 352 – comprises an alphabetical list of vocabulary and usage peculiar to Irish-English. Here we encounter a plethora of terms, from the familiar: galore, poitín, leprechaun, shamrock, smithereens; to the particular: shraums: “the matter that collects about the eyes of people who have tender eyes”; from the useful: gopen, gowpen: “the full of the two hands used together”, the same as lyre (Irish: ladhar) and maum (mám); to the improbable: Dullaghan: “a hideous kind of hobgoblin generally met with in churchyards, who can take off and put on his head at will”. This entity is elaborated upon in the penultimate paragraph here.
There is also playground slang: to give someone the gleeks is “to press the forefingers into the butt of the ears so as to cause pain”; elsewhere we are treated to the full charm of a farm: eervar, from Irish iarmhar, meaning hindmost, which Joyce explains anecdotally:
the last pig in the litter. This bonnive [banbh /’bɒnəv/] being usually very small and hard to keep alive is often given to one of the children for a pet; and it is reared in great comfort in a warm bed by the kitchen fire, and fed on milk. I once, when a child, had an eervar of my own which was the joy of my life.
It’s all a far cry from “Dort-speak”.
Several of Joyce’s books are hosted on Library Ireland. English As We Speak It In Ireland, first published in 1910, is available on the Chapters of Dublin History website and on the Internet Archive. The 1988 edition by Wolfhound Press (now Merlin Publishing and Wolfhound Press) includes a fine introduction by Terence Patrick Dolan, who describes the “unique linguistic and historical value” of Joyce’s book. Professor Dolan compiled and edited the marvellous A Dictionary of Hiberno-English, and can be heard on Newstalk radio. He is one of the directors of the Hiberno-English Archive, a website which is full of treasure and to which there is a permanent link in the sidebar of this blog (under “Language links”).
I almost forgot to explain the title. Blather and blarney have passed into common parlance. I’ll say no more about them, but if they are unfamiliar, you know where to look. As for blindfolding the devil, here is P. W. Joyce on that very matter:
When a person does an evil deed under cover of some untruthful but plausible justification, or utters a wicked saying under a disguise: that’s ‘blindfolding the devil in the dark.’ The devil is as cute in the dark as in the light: and blindfolding him is useless and foolish: he is only laughing at you.
This is good to know.