Mar dhea, moryah — a sceptical Irish interjection

The Irish phrase mar dhea /mɑr’jæ/, /mɑrə’jæ/ “mor ya” is characteristic of Irish English speech. It’s a sceptical interjection used to cast doubt, dissent or derision (or all three) on whatever phrase or clause precedes it. Mar dhea literally means as were it, i.e., as if it were so.*

Sometimes mar dhea is translated as forsooth, but I’m not sure this is helpful. Better to consider it an ironic insertion similar to As if!, Yeah right!, or a sarcastic indeed or supposedly. Bernard Share, in Slanguage, describes it as an “expression of sardonic disbelief or dissent”, while P. W. Joyce says it’s:

a derisive expression of dissent to drive home the untruthfulness of some assertion or supposition or pretence, something like the English ‘forsooth’, but infinitely stronger [English As We Speak It In Ireland]

Mar dhea has been anglicised in many ways, for example moryah, mor-yah, maryahmara-ya, maryeah, mauryah, maureeyah, muryaa, moy-ah, and moya. It’s a testament to its popularity in Hiberno-English, the diversity of Irish pronunciation, and the difficulty of finding precise orthographic correspondence between the two tongues.

The best way to know a phrase is to see it in use. T. P. Dolan’s Dictionary of Hiberno-English offers these examples from Kathleen Griffin in Kerry: “She’s a great cook – maryah”; and “Friend, maryeah! Some friend he was!” The first of these implies that she believes, mistakenly, that she’s a great cook.

Boards.ie has further examples, some reinforcing preceding scare quotes, and there are literary examples below. Dolan classifies it as an ironic interjection, close to the OED‘s label of interjection “expressing deep scepticism”. The OED includes it under the headword moya, which is the spelling Joyce uses in Ulysses:

—Well, says John Wyse. Isn’t that what we’re told. Love your neighbour.
—That chap? says the citizen. Beggar my neighbour is his motto. Love, moya! He’s a nice pattern of a Romeo and Juliet.

and in “Ivy Day in the Committee Room”, in Dubliners:

And the men used to go in on Sunday morning before the houses were open to buy a waistcoat or a trousers — moya! But Tricky Dicky’s little old father always had a tricky little black bottle up in a corner. Do you mind now?**

Finnegans Wake contains moravar, which seems to blend mar bh’ea – an older version of mar dhea – with moreover. (Thanks to @bisted for the tip.) Flann O’Brien preferred to spell it muryaa:

This’ll make you laugh. He come up every now and again to the digs to see how I was muryaa . . . [The Hair of the Dogma]

But Jonas was a prophet, wasn’t he? – He was a prophet who disgraced himself. He disobeyed God’s orders because, muryaa, he knew better. That’s why he was heaved into the sea. [The Dalkey Archive]

The phrase can also stand alone in dialogue, as in Jennifer Johnston’s Shadows on our Skin:

‘Where were you yesterday anyway?’
‘I was sick.’
‘Mauryah.’
‘It’s true.’

One journalist said the expression “has the same strength as humbug multiplied say ten thousand times”. This may be a slight exaggeration, but conveying total scepticism of posturing and fakery is one of its main functions, and this again is to the fore in George Fitzmaurice’s The Moonlighter:

She had me once surely, the day she came over the strap, a corner of her bib in one eye, she weeping, moryah! and the other little eye dancing and lepping inside in her head.

I grew up hearing mar dhea in the mid-west, where it’s in no immediate danger of disappearing. On Twitter, several people from around Ireland told me they inherited or heard it from their parents or other relatives. I think it’s holding its own in colloquial Irish English, signalling anything from gentle doubt to biting sarcasm, but it’s probably used less by younger generations, for whom As if! and similar (TV?-)imported expressions serve a similar purpose.

40 shades of green, mar dhea, in Connemara, Galway

Síle Nic Chonaonaigh, based in the Irish-speaking Gaeltacht in Connemara, hears it at least as much in English as in Irish. It appears in the Irish Times in both Irish and English texts, variously spelled. Its obscurity to people unfamiliar with Irish or Irish English means it fits what Cathy called “keeping secrets” mode: “Sentence for public consumption, undercut by two words for own group.”

Natalie told me about mockaya, a related “term of disparagement for bad fakery”. It may be a portmanteau of mar dhea and mock, and her examples (“A mockaya Irish pub”; “Sure that house isn’t old, tis all only mockaya“) show it to be more syntactically embedded than mar dhea, which tends to appear postpositionally and often separated by punctuation.

I was overdue a post on Hiberno-English, but what prompted this one specifically was a line I read recently in Maura Treacy’s “An Old Story”, from her collection Sixpence in her Shoe, published by Poolbeg Press in 1977. I used it as the last line in a bookmash a couple of months ago.

The full passage is worth quoting:

“You’re the one to talk about strangers! Every bucko from hell to Bethlehem slouching up to the door in the dark winter nights. Or whistling behind the hedge for you to come out. And your ladyship, of course . . . hah!” The old woman lifted her hands, held them fatalistically in the air, then brought them back to rest again. “Hah!” she repeated, as if her daughter’s behaviour might have been predicted from the beginning of time. “Out with her on the minute, no questions asked, go a bit of the road with everyone. And then as soon as the bright evenings were in and they saw the shape you were taking, away with them over the hills. Off to re-join the regiment, moryah. And it’s farewell to thee, my bonny wee lass.”

.

[more posts on Irish English]

* Some sources include mar bh’ea(dh) (from mar bhadh eadh), mar dh’eadh or mar-sheadh; these appear to be older forms.

** mind here means remember; it’s an old sense of the word.

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27 Responses to Mar dhea, moryah — a sceptical Irish interjection

  1. The idea that “forsooth” can be used to express doubt is new to me. Which reinforces your belief that it is not a helpful translation. I can see how it would work, though: the same way irony in general works, with the sudden use of archaic language as a hint.

    Reading your examples, I found myself translating the phrase into a sarcastic “Oh, yeah!”, which seems to preserve something of the pronunciation as well. In fact, if I read it in a book and gathered the meaning from context but didn’t know it was Irish, I might well assume “Mauryah” was a contraction of “Mmm. Oh yeah.”

  2. Fair enough. I think it slides handily enough into ‘as if’ or ‘my eye.’ Canadians have a way of saying ‘no doubt’ that says a lot. And don’t forget the sound of the mar dhea: the dhea comes out as a sly-enough sneer, or ‘ a dig.’

  3. Stan says:

    Adrian: I was puzzled by forsooth too until I checked the OED and saw the iron. and derog. labels. To most people, I suspect the word is just a jocular archaism for “in truth”. Your “Mmm. Oh yeah.” is a novel folk etymology.

    St Clair: “My eye” is a fair synonym. I have no doubt – straight up! – that Canadians have a very expressive way of saying “No doubt”. So much hinges on tone and gesture and the whole pragmatic caboodle.

  4. thepoormouth says:

    A new expression for me. My parents don’t speak gaelic (not since their schoole ended in the 40s! although my father’s recitation of the Lord’s prayer in Gaelic got him out of a stupid spot during WW2!) and my knowledge doesn’t extend much more than essentials such as Fir and Mna (which avoids a lot of embarrasment when caught short!).

  5. alexmccrae1546 says:

    St. Clair Shennanigan,

    As a bona fide, Toronto-born-and raised Canuck, admittedly a thirty-year-plus transplanted expat living in Southern California, I can’t really recall a widespread use of the phrase, ” no doubt” (no-doot* HA!) by my fellow countrymen. Maybe it’s the company I kept?

    Further, “no doubt” hardly has the implied sarcasm, skepticism, or notion of improbability that say the Irish-anglicized moryah, or maryeah connote.

    For me ‘no doubt” has more of an affinity w/ that cliched Canadian tagged-on-at-sentence’s-end interjection, “eh”, which is kind of a covert request by the speaker to the ‘spoken-to’, to basically agree to, or confirm what they had just said….. eh?

    In my view, “no doubt” implies that there’s no ambiguity there, and one should accept what was just stated, outright. Kind of a little self-confirming add-on implying that what was just said was unequivocally factual, or true.

    Stan, thanks so much for your thorough explication of “mar dhea”, and the Irish-to-English, “moryah”, and its many variables, spelling-wise. A total new revelation to me.

    Clearly I should be reading a lot more Irish literature, eh?

    *of course we Canucks are constantly kidded about how we say “out and about”, i.e., (oot ‘n a-boot).

    Even the late, great U.S. network TV news anchor, Canadian-born-and bred, Peter Jennings, would, on occasion, pronounce certain words w/ that unmistakable Canadian flair. You could take Peter Jennings out of the CBC**, but you couldn’t take the CBC out of Peter Jennings…. eh?

    **CBC–The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (government/ public TV)

  6. Major Alfonso says:

    I lived with a Canadian for a period and I think he employed ‘no doubt’ in the ironic sense of raising an eyebrow. “You’re going to the pub? You’ll only stay for one, no doubt.” Canadians can appear to speak in a slightly monotonous way but the gradations/modulations of tone are really fine and can be very very acid. They can work it to hilarious effect. But the subtlety of it would catch me out all the time and I wouldn’t realise he wasn’t being sincere and was in fact laughing at me. Muise ach bhí sé ró-cliste uilig mar dhea.

  7. Stan says:

    Jams: I’d say Fir and Mná signs without accompanying symbols have caught a lot of people out over the years! Especially given the latter’s resemblance to Men.

    Alex: You’re very welcome. It’s a fine and handy phrase if you ever felt the need to adopt it. Course, you’d have to explain it then unless your listener knew the code.

    Major Alfonso: I love the subtleties all languages and dialects deploy, but it can take a great deal of exposure for non-native speakers to be able to tune in properly.

  8. wisewebwoman says:

    I was delighted to see it was added to the Scrabble Dictionary as “moryah”. I do use it along with plamas and rameis. It is a delicate line these words draw and the attempted translations are cumbersome and not quite accurate.
    XO
    WWW

  9. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Those aficionados of high-caliber ensemble sketch comedy who get a kick out of Saturday Night Live, or its Canadian cousin, the consistently hilarious SCTV, may fondly recall the moronic musings of those two beer-guzzling, Canuck back-bacon-boosting, back-woodsy ‘hosers’, Bob and Doug, the McKenzie Bros., and their fictional TV show, “The Great White North”?

    Like any true caricatured performance, or satiric parody, Canadian spoofers Dave Thomas (Doug), and Rick Moranis (Bob) cleverly captured the often stereotyped rugged individualistic, hockey-and beer obsessed subculture of a certain off-the-beaten-path segment of the Canadian populace—– none too bright, a few-pucks short of a hat-trick, but very proud of their Canadian sports heros, popular entertainers, and their national heritage.

    Kind of the ‘Dumb and Dumber’ of the ‘Great White North’, eh?

    The on-air McKenzie Bros. punctuated almost one-of-every-three sentences they uttered w/ the patented Canadian interjection “eh”.

    Interestingly, when I first saw the mid-’90s-released film, “Fargo” w/ that distinctive, almost charming North Dakotan/ Minnesotan cadence and bouncy manner of speech*, the Bros. McKenzie immediately came to mind. In watching the ‘dramedy’ unfold, I remember thinking how seamlessly that doofus sibling duo of Doug and Bob could have fit right in w/ the signature North Dakota/ “Fargo” conversational mode. You betcha! (So what’s Sarah Palin’s excuse? HA!)

    I believe this up-and-down, sing-songy, lilting rhythmic speech pattern is partially rooted in the predominance of early Scandinavian immigration to the region, particularly Swedish and Norse newcomers. By sheer linguistic osmosis, the distinctive Swedish/ Nordic lilt seems to have gradually crept into the region’s American mother tongue, English….. and the rest is history.

    This strong Scandinavia linguistic inflection may have even drifted over the 49th Parallel, into the prairie provinces of Canada, although many Swedes emigrated to the Canadian heartland, as well, back in the late 19th/ early 20th centuries.

    * On Wikipedia I discovered that the voice coach on “Fargo” knew this manner of north/ mid-western speech as “Minnesota nice”.

  10. Stan says:

    WWW: I agree, a direct translation doesn’t exist. Delighted to hear moryah has entered the Scrabble dictionary, even though I don’t play anymore.

    Alex: The McKenzie Bros. are unknown to me, but I’m a big fan of Fargo and its dialect. It’s curious how some accents are so much more sing-song than others, even within a small geographical area.

  11. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Stan,

    It would behoove you to Google the McKenzie Bros., and check out some of their zany skits on YouTube, from back in the day. One has to bear in mind that these lovable back-woods doofuses have been essentially out of the collective pop culture consciousness for well over twenty years now, yet their brand of faux folksy humor seems to have stood the test of time. (At least for yours truly.)

    Interestingly, I find several of the spoken languages of Southeast Asia to be intrinsically very lyrical; some might say sing-song-like. I’m speaking specifically here of Thai, Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian.

    Having lived for over three decades here in Southern California, when one is out and about, particularly in L.A. and Orange Counties, one can often encounter native speakers of all these tongues. Yet I’m only able to partially discern spoken-Thai, perhaps because I had dated a Thai lady for sometime back in the mid-’80s., and was often exposed to conversation between and amongst her Thai friends and relatives.

    One can detect a distinctive popping, almost clicking modulation in the Southeast-Asian speech pattern, but hardly to the degree of say the Bushmen of South Africa, who have incorporated the click sound as the dominate aural component of their language.
    (I recall that gem of a film, “The Gods Must Be Crazy”.)

    Curiously, one would think that farsi, or Persian, would sound somewhat similar to Arabic, since the aesthetically beautifully written farsi script looks very much like the rhythmic, Arabic cursive form.

    Yet farsi is not viewed as a Middle Eastern/ semitic language, but moreover, has been classified as an Indo-European rooted tongue. Arabic has, over the centuries, co-opted some Persian vocabulary, however.

    Actually, spoken-Hebrew, another semitic language, to the untrained ear sounds much like spoken Arabic. Both rely on a kind of guttural, throaty vocal inflection for many of their words and phrases, and their basic speech rhythms are quite similar.

    World languages, accents and dialects never cease to fascinate…. and, at times, confound.

    Just think, there are over 350 distinct languages spoken on the island of Papua New Guinea, alone. (That would include the western half of the grand isle, Iran Jaya, which is part of Indonesia, and home to the intriguing wood-carving culture of the Asmats. But I digress.)

    Pidgen (and eaten) spoken here. HA!

  12. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Oops!

    Once again, trying to be the smarty-pants Smart Alec, I goofed on my parting attempt at jocularity in the closing line of my previous post.

    It should have read, “Pidgin spoken (and eaten) here. HA!” Oh well.

    Seems that brackets (in any shape, or form) and me, just don’t get along. Period.

    Oh, I initially spelled “pidgin” wrong, too. (UGH!)

  13. Stan says:

    Alex, you might enjoy this article in Discover magazine on click consonants and why they sound so different in English and African languages.
    Meanwhile, I’ll give the McKenzie Brothers a whirl.

  14. Michael Vnuk says:

    Thepoormouth wrote: ‘my father’s recitation of the Lord’s prayer in Gaelic got him out of a stupid spot during WW2!’ Can you elaborate, please? I’m dying to know!

  15. Stan says:

    Michael, I’ll step in for Jams and direct you to his blog, The Poor Mouth, where he recounted the tale.

  16. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Stan,

    First off, thanks for the link to the Discover magazine piece on the sound of click consonants in English relative to the South African click-based tongues, such as Xhosa (Nelson Mandela’s native language), and Khoisan (the Bushmen of the Kalahari click-infused dialect).

    The author, Julie Sedvy’s, observations on the Mandarin Chinese word “ma”, w/ its multiple meanings roooted in subtle pronunciation tonal variations was very enlightening. (Couldn’t escape this expat Canuck, that Ms. Sedvy is an adjunct prof. at the University of Calgary. Interestingly, the original “Calgary” is located in Scotland. But I digress…. as usual.)

    Apparently the Innuit have over 100 different words to describe snow. (Digression number two. HA!)

    Stan, this past Tuesday I caught a fun and informative interview on our local National Public Radio (NPR) station here in L.A., w/ humorist/ scribe, Cole Gamble, in which he discussed a recent article he had posted on the online satire blog, cracked.com.

    The piece was titled, ” 9 Foreign Words the English Language Needs”.

    Stan, if you would kindly indulge me here, I’ll just toss out a handful of the most intriguing foreign words that Mr. Gamble offered up, and I figured might tickle the fancy of your blog faithful.

    The Finnish word “pilkunnssija” was not only a bit of a tongue-twister, but should have some relevance to those who are interested in, or curious about language usage, and such. It’s defined as ” a person who believes it is their destiny to stamp out all spelling and punctuation mistakes at the cost of popularity, self-esteem, and mental well-being”. Sounds like the diehard prescriptivist peever to me.

    Now “pochemucha”, a Russian word, stands for “a person who asks too many questions”. Hmm…. don’t we all have someone in our lives who fits that annoying profile to a “T”?

    “Kaelling”, from the Danish, is defined as “an ugly, miserable woman who yells obscenities at her kids”. (Not a particularly pleasant visual, there.)

    The Georgian word, “shemomedjamo” defined, should be relatable to many of us weight conscious folk. It means, “to eat past the point of satiation, just because the food taste (so) good”. (I’ve heard Georgian cusine is quite appetizing.)

    “Kummerspeck”, a German word, translates as “excess weight gained from emotional over-eating”. I reckon a little less “shemomedjamo” could have avoided the infortunate “kummerspeck”. Just sayin’.

    Well, hopefully some food for thought.

  17. Stan says:

    Alex: The “X words for snow” claim is a old canard, regularly trotted out by journalists and just as regularly criticised at Language Log. As for pochemucha, I think we could do with more of them! I prefer when people have questions than answers.

  18. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Stan,

    Hmm…. respectfully, it sure beats an old ptarmigan*. (Groan… hate to have to resort to ‘fowl’ humor.)

    But seriously, thanks for the Language Log link, and the collection of related articles. Clearly I’ve been out of the Eskimo-multi-variations-of-describing-snow loop, for a while now.

    *Apparently “canard” didn’t quite work for Inuit linguists.

  19. Dawn in NL says:

    After reading your definition, my Scottish translation would be “aye Boab” or personal “deed aye”.

  20. Stan says:

    Interesting. Thanks, Dawn.

  21. I actually thought that mar dhea literally meant “as they say” Then again my Irish has atrophied so much that I could not argue about it.

  22. Stan says:

    I don’t think so, Niall, but I’ll update the post if I learn otherwise.

  23. Ultan says:

    Hi Stan,
    I just googled “mar dhea” and your post came up no. 2 in the hitlist. I’m very proud to say I know you. Fair play.
    Ultan

  24. […] The Irish phrase mar dhea, which I’ve described before as a sceptical interjection, also appears in Bonner’s book: […]

  25. Joe Scallan says:

    I think mar dhea can best be understood as scare quotes, or even air quotes, around the preceding words.

    E.g. “He was too sick to go to school, mar dhea.” Means: “He was “too sick” to go to school.”

    In verbal speech the “quotes” can be done with finger gestures.

    • Stan says:

      That’s another way to look at it. And sometimes a combination of mar dhea and scare quotes is used, with one reinforcing the other.

      The air quotes gesture is widely disliked and therefore often used with an irony quite distinct from the irony it already signals.

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