Blather and blarney and blindfolding the devil

“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”.

Stan Carey - P. W. JoyceThis 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 (archived) Chapters of Dublin History website and on the Internet Archive. The 1988 edition by 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 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”).

Gustave Dore Paradise Lost SatanI 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.

[Image sources: 1, 2, 3]

23 Responses to Blather and blarney and blindfolding the devil

  1. grandad says:

    I used to have a neighbour [sadly passed on] who had a fantastic selection of these sayings and idioms which he used in the normal course of his speech. They always fascinated me, so thanks for mentioning the book. Are you aware that the entire book is on-line?

  2. Stan says:

    Grandad: Yes, I linked to it towards the end of the post, but thanks anyway. The country is full of these sorts of expressions, especially I think among older generations. Some families seem to have a dialect all to themselves. I’m sure you have a fair stock of sayings yourself: there could be a book’s worth in your beard alone!

  3. Lucy says:

    In my post-stampede befuddled state, I read that one as “within an arse’s roar”. I think that could also be used as a unit of measurement.

  4. Sean Jeating says:

    Thanks a lot, Stan, for putting so much into my head what had been outside.
    Ha, what a post! The peace of the night.

  5. Tim says:

    It’s interesting just how many Scottish and Irish sayings we adopted into New Zealand English. The upcoming generation wouldn’t know nuts from bolts when it comes to slang phrases and somewhat archaic sayings; but to the educated among us, it’s wonderful to explore such myriad sayings from every English-speaking culture, and to sprinkle our speech with clever — and sometimes somewhat anecdotal — metaphors and the like.

  6. Stan says:

    Lucy: It could, and maybe should. To measure what, though, is another matter. I hope the neighbourhood has settled down since the stampede,* and that no grudges result, be they human, bovine, feline, or other.

    * Curious readers can learn more about this event here.

    Sean: You’re very welcome! Thank you for putting on record what is now inside your head. The peace of the following morning to you and all at Seanhenge.

    Tim: Yes, these sorts of sayings are a delight both to hear and to investigate. I wonder what Scottish and Irish sayings entered NZ English. New slang arises constantly here, but much of it is destined to fade relatively quickly. Expressions that stand the test of time do so for good reason!

  7. Claudia says:

    Those are colourful expressions that, as a foreigner, I would encounter one at a time. Sometimes, I would be able to have a vague idea of what it meant in the context of what I was reading. Regular dictionaries are not much help. I often called my son who finally gave me Jonathon Green’s ‘slang’. It’s still very incomplete. It will be great to go to Mr.Joyce’s complilation online, not only when needed but also for pleasure. Thanks.

    Gustave Doré is a delight as an illustrator. So glad you mentioned him.

  8. Claudia says:

    Of course, it’s compilation.

  9. Stan says:

    Claudia: You’re right: regular dictionaries are unlikely to be of much help when it comes to slang, Irish or otherwise, or they may offer only a threadbare interpretation lacking the context and connotations that enrich a given expression. As well as Mr. Joyce’s online book(s), I also strongly re-recommend the Hiberno-English Archive, which has the added advantages of being contemporary and searchable. These resources are, as you more or less put it, both practical and pleasurable.

    Doré’s work is magnificent. I hesitated before including the illustration, out of concern that it would cheapen it, before deciding that its creator wouldn’t mind, and that it would be better if I included something grand than something tacky. There is more than enough of the latter to be found.

  10. wisewebwoman says:

    I came here by way of Sean Jeating and am a lover of linguistic trails and byways. I did a post way back on the Dictionary of Newfoundland English which is a delight unto itself as it gathered up those wonderful idioms and made of them its own in many cases.

    Thanks for this! I will add you to my RSS feed.

  11. Claudia says:

    WWW – Thank you! I was just wondering if we had anything in Canada for the way certain regions have enriched the English language.

    In French Canada, we have theMultidictionnaire of Marie Eva de Villers. She offers our flavourful innovations, and the book is a great tribute to our rich and unique culture.

    C’est la norme de référence en matière du bon usage du français au Canada français. Le Petit Robert and Le Petit Larousse totally ignore our cultural reality.

  12. Stan says:

    wisewebwoman: You are very welcome! Thank you for your visit and comment, and for directing me to your post on The Dictionary of Newfoundland English. It looks like a real linguistic gem, and happily there is an online version. Thank you also for subscribing to Sentence first. A brief browse through your blog quickly persuaded me to do likewise.

    Claudia: Quelle coïncidence agréable!

  13. A fascinating article. I suppose a move towards jhomogenisation of dialects is inevitable, if unwelcome. I hope that in Cork one will hear “C’mere biy” in teh English Market rather than the Dort Speak equivalent. As for England, despite being an Essex boy I am glad to say that I do not speak a word of Estuary English!

    A fascinating blog you have here Stan

  14. Stan says:

    Thank you, Jams! A certain amount of homogenisation is inevitable, but some old ways of speaking will always be retained, or will inspire descendant forms. Cork dialects are strong and vibrant, and if even a small portion of their new slang is memorable enough to take hold in the vernacular, I’m confident it will be colourful enough to warrant its survival! My brother lives in Cork, and I have been meaning to quiz him on some of the expressions he has heard or picked up.

  15. This is a very rich post as measured by the number of different discussions it has the potential to seed, and presumably the book is even more so.

    Here are a couple of things that struck me:

    – “A crossroads.” A moment of pondering why this phrase sounds so quaint lead me to realise that it’s because I’m not used to “crossroads” being treated as a standard singular noun. I can stand at the crossroads, or at a set of crossroads, but not at a crossroads.

    – “Gleeks.” This is obviously nothing to do with the game Gleek described at but I couldn’t help trying to imagine ways in which one might connect them (e.g. gleeks as a penalty for losing at Gleek).

  16. Stan says:

    Dragon: Yes, much of Joyce’s book begs to be read aloud and threaded into conversation!

    When I read it I noticed a few expressions I used quite often without realising how colloquial they might sound to someone immersed in, say, U.S. English or Australian English. (This was in my mind again yesterday when I noticed another Irish blogger criticised for grammatical incorrectness, when all she had done was use a peculiarly Irish-English turn of phrase.) I thought the singular or plural nature of crossroads might fall into this category, but a Google search for “a crossroads” reveals its widespread and standard status. The OED describes it as “(usu.) in pl. treated as sing.“. Maybe it’s elliptical for “set of crossroads”.

    I wonder if anyone has ever combined the different gleekses in practice, as you imagine! The meaning Joyce attributes to it comes from Limerick, but I don’t know how that arose. Probably not from the card game, possibly from its other meaning of joke or trick, or from Irish, and definitely not from its recent adoption by fans of the television show “Glee”.

  17. Stan – I followed the link regarding the “peculiarly Irish-English turn of phrase” in your comment above. For an international audience I’d definitely advise a writer to be cautious of using it, not because it’s “ungrammatical” but because it’s likely to be misinterpreted.

    I gather that “I’m after X-ing” is equivalent to “I have X-ed” (your comment mentioning the perfect was the biggest clue here). But a non-Irish speaker will, I predict, almost invariably guess that it means “I hope to X” or “I’m trying to X” (compare with “going after” as in “pursuing”). It’s easy to imagine scenarios in which that ambiguity would be particularly unfortunate.

    At a crossroads” definitely has an archaic flavour to me, like the sort of thing one might expect to find in nineteenth century poetry. The top Google results are almost invariably metaphorical usages; one might be able to learn more if one could restrict the search to mentions of literal crossroads only.

  18. Stan says:

    Dragon: Yes, that’s the standard English equivalent of the Irish-English “after” construction. It often connotes something recently done; this recency can be emphasised like so: “I’m just after doing it” (“I have just done it”); or “I’m only after talking to her” (“I have (only) just talked to her”). The potential for ambiguity is undeniable — and also unfortunate, since I like the expression!

    “A crossroads” doesn’t seem archaic to me, but your point made me curious about its usage. It would certainly be interesting to compare its figurative and literal usages. It’s worth noting in the meantime that both Merriam-Webster and the American Heritage Dictionary offer examples of “a […] crossroads” with the literal meaning.

  19. […] English As We Speak It In Ireland, P. W. Joyce quotes an unknown Irish songwriter musing on the emptiness of wealth: There was ould […]

  20. […] but I’d like an Irish source for it. There’s no mention of either usage in P. W. Joyce’s English As We Speak It In Ireland (1910), Loreto Todd’s Green English (2000), or T. P. Dolan’s Dictionary of […]

  21. […] is such a frequent feature of traditional Irish English that P.W. Joyce, in English As We Speak It In Ireland, dedicated an entire chapter to ‘the devil and his […]

  22. Reminds me of a drive in the West Country. I stopped, of a Sunday morning, in a small town in Kerry, went into the newsagent’s and asked for a copy of the Times.

    Ah, says the old woman, would you like yesterday’s or today’s? Well, I’d like today’s, ma’am.

    Ah, she says, then you must come back tomorrow.

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