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, maryah, mara-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?**
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.’
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.
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 @cathyby 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.